The specter of bird flu has impacted some of the agriculture exhibits at the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction, Vermont, which opened Friday. The fair's poultry superintendent said this year, some exhibitors are keeping their birds at home, to cut the risk of exposure to the avian influenza virus.
"Everyone wants to be very careful with the birds," said Leah Britch, a fixture in the poultry barn at the fair for about 20 years.
Britch said this year, there are half the number of birds on display than in a typical year. She said she was expecting about 400 birds this year, whereas in some years, 800-1,300 filled her indoor cages and outdoor pens.
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"This is the lowest number we've had in probably 20 years," Britch estimated.
The bird flu virus has killed about 50 million birds this year, tearing through flocks in the Midwest and leaving veterinarians bracing for its arrival on the East Coast by this fall or next spring.
"Domestic poultry are highly susceptible to HPAI H5 virus, which can spread rapidly from bird to bird and typically results in high mortality rates," Vermont state veterinarian Dr. Kristin Haas said in a news release early this month. "All poultry owners, whether they are backyard hobbyists or commercial producers, should evaluate their farms for risk factors that could contribute to avian influenza occurring on their farms."
According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, all poultry owners, regardless of size and business structure, should adhere to the following disease preventative measures:
- Obtain a federal premises identification number by calling the State Veterinarian's Office at (802) 828-2421. A unique farm identifier will aid regulatory officials in providing information to owners pre-outbreak and assisting owners with disease control and business continuity during a disease response.
- Keep poultry away from wild birds, particularly waterfowl and shorebirds, and remove wild bird attractants from poultry housing areas.
- If poultry are housed indoors, don't let wild birds (or their fecal material) into barns.
- Clean and disinfect all equipment prior to entry into a barn or poultry housing area.
- Use barn-specific boots and coveralls, and consider using boot baths/washes.
- Do not bring disease home with you -if you exhibit your poultry at fairs or swaps, do not share cages or equipment with other poultry owners.
- Familiarize yourself with signs of illness in your birds and call the State Veterinarian's Office if you see nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, lethargy, discolored wattles or combs, a drop in egg production, or sudden death.
Bird displays and swaps have been canceled entirely at fairs in several states including Pennsylvania and New York. But the Champlain Valley Fair wanted to keep its poultry show, as a way to educate the public about the disease.
Britch said she will be sharing information about best practices for raising healthy flocks, and will also be talking to visitors to the barn about other facts of bird flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it considers the risk to people from this bird flu epidemic to be low, but animal viruses have been known to mutate. The United States Department of Agriculture also has said that the nation's food supply is safe from the virus.
"If they decided to shut the show down this year, we would still have put up a display of information, because this is all important to get out there," Britch said.
Darryl Kuehne, an animal health specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, was at the Champlain Valley Fair testing the birds on display for both pullorum typhoid and avian influenza.
The bird flu tests were for a strain that required samples to be sent to a lab in Connecticut to examine, Kuehne noted. Those results wouldn't be back in time to prevent showing at the fair, Kuehne explained, but would give the agency knowledge and assurances about a sample of birds from the many communities exhibitors at the fair come from.
"It could be devastating," Kuehne said of the possible arrival of bird flu in Vermont. "You have farmers raising turkeys that they expect to sell at the holidays - it's very, very serious."
Kuehne reiterated that farmers or hobbyists who raise fowl should report sudden bird illnesses or deaths. "We really want to know as fast as possible, so we can go out and do some testing, so if we do get avian influenza, we can stop it before it spreads," Kuehne said.
Julio Rivera of St. Albans, Vermont, was eager to show off his prized Russian Orloff chickens at the fair, and told necn he has taken precautions including reducing the chances his birds will come in contact with wild birds. He said he is also now more mindful of having clean boots and clothes when working with his small flock.
"If there's a possibility one of my birds may have it, I'd lose my whole flock," Rivera said of bird flu. "We hope, eventually, they'll find a cure or get it to a point it's controllable."
Britch said she and her volunteers aim to discourage wild birds from landing at the poultry barn by cleaning up food supplies and by reducing opportunities for wild birds to seek water near the Champlain Valley Fair's bird displays.
The Champlain Valley Fair runs through Sunday, September 6. It also features entertainment, rides, food, and many other agriculture displays aside from poultry. For more information, visit this website.