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Bird flu arrives in Southwest after millions of birds die

Bird flu arrives in southwest after millions of birds die

A bird lands on the top of the net behind home plate during a spring training baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in Phoenix. Arizona officials have confirmed the Southwest’s first cases of bird flu that has killed 37 million birds from commercial farms in the central and eastern US. Credit: AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File

Arizona officials have confirmed Southwest’s first cases of bird flu that has killed 37 million birds from commercial farms in the central and eastern U.S.

The disease was spotted after tests by federal wildlife officials in three wild cormorants found dead in a park in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, Arizona Game and Fish officials announced this week.

The disease has not yet been found in domestic birds or in commercial surgeries, the agency said.

But it’s a concern, according to Glenn Hickman, president and CEO of Hickman Family Farms, one of the largest egg producers in the Southwest. Hickman operates four chicken farms in Arizona, one in California and two in Colorado.

The company has stopped all visits to its farms and double-checked its biosecurity program, which is designed to prevent its approximately 2 million chickens from becoming infected. The chickens are kept in sheds that are secured to prevent wild birds from entering, and any people or tools that come in are disinfected.

The company recently dodged a scare when bird flu was found in a flock 3 miles from one of its Colorado ranches, Hickman said Thursday. And while he’s concerned about the Scottsdale find, it’s not nearly as worrisome as if a nearby commercial operation had an outbreak.

“Those are much scarier because the huge amount of virus that can potentially be produced if you have a large population is much more than the relatively small amount of virus per bird in the wild bird population,” he said. None of his farms were affected.

Arizona Game and Fish officials have been closely monitoring the disease, which was no closer than Colorado before the announcement this week, by responding to all calls from dead birds.

Anne Justice-Allen, the department’s wildlife veterinarian, said calls from the public notified her agency of the dead cormorants, water-loving birds that often nest in groups. The three juveniles had fallen from their nests and were seen dead by morning walkers in the park, who called conservationists.

“It’s a good thing they did,” Justice-Allen said, because they were able to collect and test the birds before park workers removed them.

“We had a strong suspicion that it was something we don’t normally see,” Justice-Allen said. “We have cormorants in the area and we don’t normally see any mortality in them.”

Justice-Allen said a major concern is backyard chicken herds, which are allowed in parts of metro Phoenix. The disease has been found in many homeowner couples across the country.

Bird owners should watch for symptoms such as birds not eating or lethargy, runny noses, seizures or diarrhea, she said. Anyone who sees these symptoms should call the state department of agriculture.

The first US discovery of the new strain of highly contagious bird flu in domestic poultry was in Indiana in February. Since then, more than 37 million birds have been killed to prevent the infection from spreading.

By June 3, it had been discovered in wild birds in 40 states, but not in California, Arizona, Nevada or New Mexico. Commercial couples in 19 states have been infected.

Once an infection is found, the birds will not recover and are killed to prevent the disease from spreading, Justice-Allen said.

The outbreak didn’t just kill the chickens. It has also taken a heavy toll on bald eagles and other wild bird species, far more than the last avian flu outbreak discovered in 2014. That outbreak cost more than 50 million domestic poultry.

Hickman said egg producers are making up for lost production from flocks outbreaks so far this year.

“I think I can say quite confidently that no matter how many birds have been affected and depopulated, there are still eggs on every shelf in every grocery store in America,” Hickman said.

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