British Columbia

Backyard chicken owners have a role to play in preventing spread of avian flu, expert says

With a deadly strain of avian flu spreading across North America, experts in B.C. say everyone needs to do their part to stop it from taking hold here. That means people with backyard chickens need to protect their flocks, no matter how small.

Ministry of Agriculture, poultry industry, call on all chicken owners to practise biosecurity

Chickens living in a backyard coop in a home on a busy street in Victoria, B.C. (Kathryn Marlow/CBC )

B.C. poultry farmers are working hard to keep the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza from their flocks — and they're asking backyard chicken owners to do the same. 

On April 14, the province announced the first case of the flu in a poultry flock. A farm in B.C.'s North Okanagan is now under quarantine. 

Before that, one wild bird in British Columbia had been identified with the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu. The eagle was found in Stanley Park in early February, and later died. 

In other provinces, the virus has already infected flocks, causing more than 250,00 birds to die or be euthanized. At least 31 U.S. states have seen cases of the flu

Jennifer Woike and her family, who run Farmer Ben's Eggs, a third generation egg farm on Vancouver Island, says if a small flock of chickens in B.C. were to get sick, the flu could end up traveling to a large producer like hers — and vice versa.

"That includes those who raise hens in their backyard," said Woike. "They may not have the knowledge or understanding or awareness that this disease could happen in our area with the migratory bird routes."

Birds that winter in the south are currently migrating north, either stopping to rest in B.C. or settling here for the summer. They risk bringing the flu with them. 

"Anybody who owns poultry should be very concerned about avian flu," said Katie Lowe, executive director of the B.C. Egg Marketing Board. "We want to stop it before it gets into any flock whatsoever." 

Biosecurity is key 

Farms like Woike's already have strict biosecurity practices in place to prevent the transmission of pathogens like avian flu.

Lowe says backyard chicken keepers should do the same.

"The best protection for everybody to keep all the flocks in the province safe is biosecurity. That is our best line of defence." 

So what does that mean? 

Lowe says chicken owners should make sure their flocks are indoors. If there's no building for them, they should be kept apart from wild birds and other animals with chicken wire or netting. 

She says owners should also be careful they don't accidentally spread the virus to their animals. To do that, owners should wash and sanitize their hands and put on clean clothing and shoes before interacting with the chickens. Once done, they should wash and sanitize their hands again. 

Finally, any sick birds must be reported. Sick birds may lay fewer eggs, drink less water and seem listless. The virus hits quickly and can kill birds within 48 hours. Information on how to report can be found here

The H5N1 strain is of little concern to human health.

With files from On the Island and Kathryn Marlow