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There's a chicken conspiracy afoot that has people, and hens, clucking.

As avian influenza outbreak worsens, local farms remain cautious

Washington lies along a major flyway for birds. Each winter, millions of migrating birds stop in the state as part of their annual trip to warmer climes.

That's a cause for concern as the United States experiences the worst avian influenza outbreak in its history, with more than 50 million birds dead from the virus so far.

John Bellow oversees 5,000 animals a year on his Chimacum farm, where he grows organic produce and allows his livestock to freely roam the grounds.

It also attracts lots of natural wildlife in the nearby marshes.

"It's not uncommon for me to go out and do evening chores and have 200 or 300 ducks lift up," Bellow said.

Despite the natural beauty, wild birds are an increasing danger to local farms like Bellow's. Ducks, geese, and other waterfowl are the primary carriers of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), or bird flu and avian flu for short, a virus that is quickly spreading through North America's major flyways.

Avian flu is a similar respiratory illness to the influenza humans catch. The virus spreads from birds breathing on each other and general contact with feathers and feces carrying influenza. It makes birds lethargic, and infected birds will sleep more often than usual.

There is no known cure for avian flu, meaning individual birds and, in some cases entire flocks, must be euthanized to curb its spread.

"I'm always concerned when avian flu is spreading around in the region," Bellow said. "Our birds are susceptible to getting sick and dying. It would be unfortunate to get a flock that was infected and have large numbers of losses, but thankfully, we haven't experienced that."

Kevin Snekvik, the executive director for the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, said this season's strain of avian flu is spreading farther and faster in birds other than chickens.

"This year, avian influenza is spreading much more quickly in wild birds," Snekvik said. "There's over 40 different species of wild birds that are affected by this strain. So, its hosts are much more diversified than previous years."

Snekvik cautioned against outdoor bird feeders, especially if there are backyard chickens. If farmers have an enclosure, like a coop, it's recommended to keep birds inside and away from outdoor water sources, where waterfowl might be landing.

It can be difficult to know when a bird is infected – Snekvik says that's "an evolutionary trait to keep them from being predated on" – but bird owners should contact a local veterinarian if they believe their birds might be sick. If multiple birds end up with avian influenza, owners should notify the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), who will do more formal testing and track caseloads around the state.

The largest portion of birds that have died so far are production birds, like chickens and turkeys. Snekvik said that nationally, 275 commercial flocks have succumbed to avian influenza and 371 backyard flocks. In Washington state, no commercial flocks have seen widespread infection, though backyard cases are present.

When cases are reported to the WSDA, the department notifies nearby farms of an "infection control zone."

Jennie Watkins, who owns and operates Ananda Hills Farms in Port Ludlow, has received a few of these notifications.

"I think it changed a few things for me," Watkins said. "I have this feed business and once a month I have people traipsing through my barn picking up chicken feed – and that kind of breaks biosecurity rules, meaning you have other poultry people coming into a poultry farm."

As a stopgap, Watkins is requiring guests to wear booties to keep potential particles from tracking throughout the farm. The initial notifications of nearby infections came in June, and she was hopeful cases would drop through July. But with such high case numbers this season, she doesn't know when it will be safe for her farm to go back to its usual operations.

At some point, Watkins says there's only so much the farm can do to protect its flocks.

"Poultry is at risk for avian flu, and there are some things I can do about it," Watkins said. "But I also know that I have a breeding flock and I've put years into it, and if I would get a case, there would go my breeding efforts. Everybody would be euthanized if they didn't die. So, it's a balance."

Watkins will continue being cautious until a state veterinarian says otherwise.

"I think for now it's just going to be ongoing," she said.

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