Colorado state veterinarian warns of avian flu surge as spring bird migration begins

Hens for sale at Wardle Feed and Pet Supply in Wheat Ridge. Jan. 12, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Hens for sale at Wardle Feed and Pet Supply in Wheat Ridge. Jan. 12, 2023.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza, the disease spreading among wild and domestic bird populations nationwide, is expected to have a surge in cases as the migratory season begins in Colorado.

It’s been nearly a year since the first outbreak in Colorado, and while cases have slowed, Colorado state veterinarian Maggie Baldwin said the risk will go up as more flocks of birds pass through.

“[These wild birds] are bringing more virus, they're shedding more virus in the environment, and we're likely gonna see more spillover of that virus into our domestic poultry operations on both the commercial and the backyard side,” Baldwin said. 

So far, about 6.4 million chickens have either been killed by the virus or put down to prevent outbreaks within a flock. Hundreds of wild birds, mostly geese and ducks, have also been killed by the virus. Death is all but guaranteed for birds that contract it, and symptoms include sudden fatigue, decreased egg production, and nasal discharge.

The avian flu has recently been linked to deaths in mammals that consumed infected birds. 

A big impact on egg prices and commercial farms

The nationwide outbreak has driven up egg prices across the country. According to federal data, a dozen eggs cost an average of $4.83 as of January 2023, up from the average of $1.93 recorded a year prior.

“What we can likely expect is across the nation, we're going to see another increase in cases this spring, and that's really what led to consumer impacts was when we had a lot of our commercial egg laying populations impacted around the same time,” Baldwin said. 

With the length of the outbreak hitting “unprecedented” levels, Baldwin acknowledges that fatigue may be setting in for commercial and domestic owners. However, she urges owners to keep up their biosecurity measures. When big, commercial farms are impacted, it takes months and millions of dollars to recover from a mass death event. 

Baldwin, along with experts from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado State University, will host a webinar next week to share more information about the avian flu and how to keep flocks safe this spring. 

Avian flu cases among humans are extremely rare, and they usually occur only when people are heavily exposed to infected poultry. 

As crisis continues, federal officials weigh mass vaccination

The federal government is discussing the possibility for a large-scale avian flu vaccination program for poultry, and The New York Times reports a potential vaccine is already being tested.

“The USDA is really the first step in getting that approval process started because, if you vaccinate, there are potential trade implications,” Baldwin said. 

In the meantime, agriculture officials and veterinarians are still searching for other solutions. 

There’s “no clear end in sight” for this avian flu outbreak, Baldwin said. With no treatment available and the uncontrollable nature of bird migration coming back into play, it appears this strain of avian flu is here to stay.