Backyard enthusiasts need to be aware of the potential bird flu threat to flocks. (Les Zaitz/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

A highly infectious and deadly strain of bird flu has been detected in a bald eagle in British Columbia, posing a potential threat to hundreds and perhaps thousands of backyard flocks across Oregon as well as large commercial operations with millions of birds.

The strain is the same one that caused an outbreak in late 2014 and early 2015, forcing the destruction of millions of birds.

The virus poses little risk to humans. Infections in people are rare and are associated with close, prolonged and unprotected contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces.

But chickens, in particular, are highly susceptible to infection.

“It’s worrisome for backyard flocks,” said Kurt Williams, director of the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Oregon State University. “There’s no doubt about it.”

It also poses a risk to commercial operations.

“It’s a virus and wild birds have a way of getting into commercial operations as well,” Williams said.

In Oregon, the poultry industry is worth $15.8 million, according to the state Agriculture Department. It is anchored by five commercial operations, with four focused on eggs and one that sells broiler chickens. About 40 farms work with those producers. 

An epidemic of bird flu in those flocks would be devastating. To contain it, producers destroy their flocks.

“They don’t mess around with control of this pathogen,” Williams said.

Chickens that become infected can develop respiratory problems or diarrhea, but Williams said that hobbyists – and commercial producers – are most likely to find a bunch of dead birds before noticing any symptoms.

The discovery of the eagle comes at a time of soaring food prices prompted by supply chain issues, skyrocketing fuel prices and the war in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are major producers of wheat and corn. It also coincides with a bird flu outbreak in the eastern half of the United States. 

Since February, the virus has forced the culling of nearly seven million birds in Wisconsin, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, Kentucky and Indiana. 

The virus has also been found in wild birds in Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee, according to the University of Minnesota. New infections have been announced every week.

The virus is believed to be spread by migrating birds.

“Lots of migratory birds that use summer and breeding ranges in the northern hemisphere are migrating from places farther south into their northern range to follow food availability and to reach their breeding grounds,” said Dana Sanchez, extension wildlife specialist at Oregon State University. “If they pick up a pathogen, then they get up the next day and continue their journey.”

The main concern is wild ducks and geese interacting with domestic fowl, Sanchez said.

The last big outbreak in the United States was in late 2014 and early 2015. The first detection was in December 2014 in a backyard flock in Winston, south of Roseburg. Within a few months, the virus had spread across the country, leading to the death or destruction nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys nationwide. They accounted for 12% of the country’s egg laying chickens and 8% of turkeys raised for meat. 

The outbreak caused poultry and egg prices to soar while dozens of countries banned imports of U.S. poultry.

In recent weeks, China, Korea and Mexico, one of biggest export markets for the U.S., have restricted imports of poultry from certain states. 

On Wednesday, the state Agriculture Department issued a public warning about the bald eagle and urged producers to be vigilant.

In an email to the Capital Chronicle, agency officials said producers – and backyard enthusiasts – need to practice biosecurity. That involves restricting visitors, wearing protective outer garments, using disposable boot covers, washing hands before and after touching poultry and disinfecting equipment. 

Williams acknowledged that hobbyists are not likely to wear booties or change their clothes when gathering chickens in a field, for example. But he said they should keep wild birds away from their flocks as much as possible. 

Any unusual bird deaths should be reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 866-536-7593. 

“The best protection for birds are owners who practice effective biosecurity,” said Ryan Scholz, the state veterinarian. “We must be vigilant and strict with our biosecurity practices especially for backyard flocks, as well as educated on when and how to report potential avian influenza deaths.”

He added: “Our preparation could reduce the risk of infection among poultry and prevent or limit the impact of HPAI introduction in Oregon.” 

HPAI is the highly infectious strain of bird flu.

If there’s a widespread outbreak, pathology experts at the OSU lab will be involved. 

“It will be on our radar, and we’ll be looking out for it,” Williams said.

Officials at the state Agriculture Department said if an outbreak occurs, they will work with federal officials and poultry producers to get rid of infected birds and dispose of the birds. Disposal sites vary depending on the size of the flock and local conditions, the department said in an email.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.