There is a new H5N1 bird flu (avian influenza) outbreak in China in Hunan province, near the location of primary COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
We'll share information on bird flu symptoms and transmission, plus five strategies for a healthier flock of backyard chickens.
The H5N1 virus strain can infect humans, birds, and other animals. No human infections with these viruses have been detected at this time; however similar viruses (H7N9*) have infected people in other countries and caused serious illness and death in some cases.
The disease is normally transmitted to people via extended contact with infected birds, not person to person. It is not a serious public health threat at this time, but may be a concern to poultry owners.
There are no current vaccines against the H5N8 or H7N9 bird flu viruses and only one vaccine against the H5N1 strain.
- How Do Domestic Poultry Catch Bird Flu (Avian Influenza)?
- What are the Symptoms of Bird Flu (Avian Influenza)?
- How Do I Keep My Chickens from Getting Bird Flu?
- 5 Strategies for a Healthier Flock
How Do Domestic Poultry Catch Bird Flu (Avian Influenza)?
“Domesticated birds (chickens, turkeys, etc.) may become infected with avian influenza A viruses through direct contact with infected waterfowl or other infected poultry, or through contact with surfaces that have been contaminated with the viruses.”
“These viruses occur naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species. Wild aquatic birds can be infected with avian influenza A viruses in their intestines and respiratory tract, but usually do not get sick.”
What are the Symptoms of Bird Flu (Avian Influenza)?
From the CDC:
Avian influenza A viruses are classified into the following two categories: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) A viruses, and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A viruses.
Infection of poultry with LPAI viruses may cause no disease or mild illness and may only cause mild signs (such as ruffled feathers and a drop in egg production) and may not be detected.
Infection of poultry with HPAI viruses can cause severe disease with high mortality. Both HPAI and LPAI viruses can spread easily through flocks of poultry.
HPAI virus infection in poultry can cause disease that affects multiple internal organs with mortality up to 90% to 100%, often within 48 hours. Some ducks can be infected without any signs of illness.
How Do I Keep My Chickens from Getting Bird Flu?
How can wild birds have bird flu and not get sick, while domesticated poultry get sick or die?
The answer may lie in the difference between wild and farm-raised. In the wild, fowl feed on their natural diets with beneficial bacteria and microbes. They have fresh air and a healthy immune system that's naturally resistant to bacteria and viruses.
In captivity, we raise most of our fowl in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These are warehouse-style growing facilities where animals are crowded together by the thousands.
CAFO birds are fed mostly genetically modified grains, with little room to run or variety in their diets.
If you are a backyard chicken owner, the best way to protect your flock from bird flu is to give them a healthy environment.
5 Strategies for a Healthier Flock
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
#1 – Flock Inspection and Coop Maintenance
- Check for mites in your flock and their coop monthly.
- Vent inspection can reveal a sick or stressed bird.
- Comb inspection – Remember, combs should be nice and red, and a pale comb is a sign of a sick chicken.
- Check the feet for scaly leg mites or bumblefoot, and treat if needed.
- Keep the Coop and Roost Clean, and inspect for insects or pest problems.
- Use Herbs in the Coop to support respiratory health, repel insects and help keep the flock calm and relaxed.
#2 – Natural Diet
Chickens are omnivores, and do best on a mixed diet. If you are not able to let your chickens free-range to forage, make sure you offer grubs, meal worms, worms and crickets to eat for protein.
Fresh produce and growing things are good to add to their food mix. High water produce like watermelon and cucumbers help keep them hydrated in high temps.
#3 – Reduce stress
Give chickens plenty of room, about 2-3 square feet inside the coop and 8-10 feet inside a run.
Offer shelter from excessive temperatures. Cool your coop with a fan, shade, and air circulation in the heat of the summer. In extreme heat, try a small pool with shallow water for your flock to wade in.
Use deep wood shavings, straw bales, or other natural forms of insulation to keep them warm in the winter. Avoid cold drafts directly on the birds, but allow airflow.
Forgo the Lights in the Coop. Adding lights in the coop adds stress to your flock by not allowing their bodies to take the rest they need during the winter months.
Remove aggressive Roosters. You may want baby chicks to keep you in constant egg supply, but keeping an aggressive roo that is rough on your girls will do more harm than good in the long run.
Provide Predator Protection. If predators are in abundance in your area, consider letting birds out only for supervised foraging, and cover their free-range area with netting and or plant shade trees in which they can hide.
Free-Range When Appropriate. Chickens need to spread their wings and forage to get access to the widest array of foods and microbes. Plenty of fresh air and exercise is as good for them as it is for us.
#4 – Probiotics and Health Care
Include these items in your birds' diet for a healthier flock.
- Probiotics – Just like every living creature, poultry need a healthy digestive system and probiotics help support that system.
- Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth – Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is a fine white powder made of the tiny fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of algae. Ours is food-grade, so it's safe for your pet chickens and safe for you to eat their eggs. Add 1 pound of DE to every 50 pounds of feed to help prevent intestinal worms. To help prevent external mites or lice, sprinkle some in the nest boxes, coop bedding, and especially in your chickens' dust bathing area.
- Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) and Garlic – My family takes apple cider vinegar and fresh garlic every day to prevent sickness, and so does my flock.
- Fermented Feed – People have been eating fermented food for thousands of years to support good health. Fermenting your chicken feed not only saves you money but also has added health benefits for your flock.
#5 – Herbal Supplements
Herbs have natural antimicrobial, antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic and antifungal properties. Herbs help support a healthy immune system, improving the odds of beating bird flu.
I feed herbs to my flock daily, along with other garden scraps. The flock gets a seasonal sample of what's abundant in the garden.
Oregano, for instance, contains antibiotic properties which may help prevent avian flu, blackhead, coccidia, e-coli, infectious bronchitis and salmonella. See a complete list of herbs that are good for chickens and their uses.
Help Prevent the Spread of Bird Flu
All bird owners, whether commercial producers or backyard enthusiasts, should practice good biosecurity. Prevent contact between your birds and wild birds when possible. Quarantine new additions to your flock for 1-2 weeks.
Report unusual sick birds or bird deaths to State/Federal officials, either through their state veterinarian or through USDA’s toll-free number at 1-866-536-7593.
More Chicken Tips
- Homestead Chicken Resources
- Getting Started with Meat Chickens
- Top 7 Tips for First time Chicken Owners
Other posts by Amber Bradshaw
- Natural Mosquito Repellents that Work
- 9 Tips Everyone Should Know for Keeping Your House Cool
- Small Garden Ideas – 10 Tips to Grow More Food in Less Space
This post is by Amber Bradshaw of My Homestead Life.
Amber and her family moved from their tiny homestead by the ocean in South Carolina to forty-six acres in the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee.
They've recently filmed their journey for a TV show on the Discovery Channel and the DIY Network/HGTV called Building Off The Grid: The Smokey Mountain Homestead.
Originally published in 2015, last updated in 2020.