The discovery of two cases of avian influenza, subtype H5N1, in wild birds earlier this month in the Montérégie has heightened concerns among local poultry farmers over the highly contagious and deadly virus.
Several other provinces have also reported cases in both wild and domestic populations, including Ontario, British Columbia, and in the Maritimes. In Quebec, the virus was identified in two snow geese found in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and in Saint-Isidore-de-Laprairie, while a third case was identified in a Canada goose in Granby. An outbreak of avian flu has also now been confirmed on a duck farm in Saint-Claude in the Eastern Townships, where the owners of Brome Lake Ducks have quarantined their facilities there and in Knowlton.
Experts suggest that while most forms of avian influenza are relatively mild, H5N1 can result in serious disease and death, and is especially lethal for domestic birds. In a press release announcing the initial cases in Quebec, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPAQ) noted they had been identified as part of the provincial avian influenza surveillance program, and that the discovery was not unexpected.
“It is getting more and more serious,” says Doug Bryson, a commercial poultry producer in Ormstown. “Every year around this time there is a scare, but this time it seems more real,” he admits, noting that our area is on the same migratory path as the sick bird found in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. “Chances are that the geese I am looking at right now are carriers,” he adds, suggesting that while his barn is far from major waterways, the geese are landing in the fields. “They are everywhere!” he exclaims.
In response, Bryson has increased his biosecurity protocols on the farm. He has a separate change of clothes including coveralls and boots for the barn and is very careful about his movement around the property. He says technicians have been advised not to make farm visits, and even feed delivery bills are now being sent by email to avoid any possibility of cross-contamination between farms. “We are trying to be smart about it,” he says, while adding he feels fortunate that the poultry density in the Valley is quite low.
Bryson currently has 27,300 chickens in his barn, and the repercussions of an outbreak would be devastating. As the sixth generation to work his family’s farm, Bryson fulfilled his lifelong dream to become a chicken farmer just last year. He says losing chickens to the virus would hurt financially but would also represent a significant waste of food. “We work hard to make sure they have optimal conditions, he says, while explaining how he takes his animals’ welfare to heart. “We are doing it for what we believe are the right reasons,” he says. “We don’t want to have to cull them.”
A danger for backyard flocks as well
The MAPAQ has issued reminders of the importance of avoiding all contact between domestic poultry and wild birds, and this includes chickens in backyard flocks.
Bryson recommends that owners of small flocks consider keeping their birds cooped up if possible until the geese have moved on. This will help to protect backyard flocks and potentially keep the virus from spreading.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suggests people prevent wild birds from coming into contact with chickens by keeping food and water away from wild birds and by prioritizing cleaning to avoid any unwanted attention. Equipment must not be shared or borrowed from other bird owners, and it is important to clean hands, clothing, and footwear before and after handling birds. Finally, visitors should not be allowed where chickens are kept; while humans are rarely affected by avian flu, they can spread it.
Bird owners should also be on the lookout for signs of sickness in their flocks, including sudden death, decreased food consumption, huddling, depression or closed eyes, respiratory symptoms such as coughing or sneezing, and decreased egg production.
The general public should report finding any dead or sick wild birds by calling the Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks at 1-877-346-6763.