The H5N1 strain of influenza, or bird flu, has been found in 18 flocks – Farm Forum

If you’re a poultry producer, you remember very well the influenza outbreak that affected millions of birds in South Dakota and neighboring states back in 2015.
That virus was especially deadly to chickens and turkeys, earning it the highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, designation. After the virus entered a turkey barn or layer operation, breathing problems and death quickly spread among the birds.
Although federal funds were available to affected producers for economic relief, this was a nightmare situation. Birds that didn’t die had to be quickly euthanized and disposed of, monumental and emotionally draining tasks for people who dedicated their lives to taking care of animals.
Every spring since then, I’ve held my breath waiting for the next HPAI outbreak. While a handful of HPAI cases popped up sporadically in various locations, nothing came close to the widespread number of infections we saw in 2015.
In 2022, that respite is over. At the time I’m writing this, the USDA has identified 19 different flocks infected with the H5N1 strain of influenza – the most recent one found right here in South Dakota. These flocks have been found in widely dispersed areas including Maine, Virginia, Indiana, and Iowa – and now in our state.
The interesting aspect of these affected flocks is that many of them are small backyard flocks with as few as eight birds. This is in contrast to the 2015 cases, which were mostly groups of tens of thousands or even millions in the case of layer flocks.
The source of the HPAI virus back then was never definitively found. The way in which it would pop up seemingly out of nowhere leads veterinarians and researchers to consider migratory birds as the likely sources. Some of these bird species can carry and spread HPAI without dying or becoming sick themselves.
This year’s HPAI outbreaks already have the attention of caretakers of large poultry flocks who are now looking closely at their biosecurity plans – processes meant to keep this rogue virus out of their animals.
But how about owners of smaller flocks? If you’re a backyard bird owner, how can you keep your animals safe from the threat of HPAI?
Even if we don’t know exactly where the HPAI virus came from in these outbreaks, we know the most likely routes. High on that list is wild birds, particularly migrating waterfowl species. Therefore, figure out how you might block your birds’ contact with wild birds. Can you house them in an enclosure covered by netting? Can you move them inside at night?
Could you be tracking the virus into your flock yourself? Consider the situation where you’ve been treading through areas where wild birds might have spent time – working out in a field or yard, for example. Since HPAI virus can be spread through droppings and can survive a while in that material, you could walk the virus right into your birds’ territory. Change your boots before going into your bird’s area.
Limiting outside visitors is important for the same reasons. In particular, people with their own birds at home should be restricted from contact with your birds and their surroundings, unless they change clothes and wash their hands before doing so.
Also, think about vehicles and other equipment moving between different groups of birds. Proper cleaning and disinfecting is essential before it moves to another farm. If possible, dedicate its use to one site only. The failure to properly manage the movement of equipment between operations is thought to have contributed to the cases back in 2015.
Perhaps your most important action item is something that your fellow backyard bird owners are already performing well. I think a big reason many of this year’s HPAI cases have been from backyard flocks is that their caretakers have known to call the right people when they noticed something off. Swollen, purple-colored combs and feet, and open-mouth breathing are potential signs in addition to death losses.
Russ Daly is the South Dakota Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.
Call your veterinarian or, in South Dakota, the Animal Industry Board if you suspect something wrong. If your problem does turn out to be HPAI, the solution won’t be pleasant, but you will have done your part in preventing other flocks from going through the same heartbreak.