Arizona officials have confirmed the first cases of bird flu in the Southwest, which has killed 37 million birds from commercial farms in the central and eastern US.
The disease was detected by federal wildlife officials after tests in three wild cormorants that were found dead in a park in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, Arizona game and fish officials announced this week.
The agency said the disease has not yet been detected in any domestic bird or in commercial operations.
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 any visits to its farms and double-checked its biosafety program, which is designed to protect nearly 2 million chickens from becoming infected. Its hens are kept in barns that are protected so that wild birds cannot enter, and any people or equipment that enter is disinfected.
Hickman said Thursday that the company dodged a recent scare when avian flu was found to swarm 3 miles from one of its Colorado farms. And while he worries about the Scottsdale discovery, it’s nowhere near as if there was an outbreak of a nearby commercial operation.
“They’re a lot more scary because the large amount of virus that is potentially produced when you have a large population is far greater than the relatively small amount of virus per bird in wild bird populations,” he said. None of his fields were affected.
Arizona game and fish officials are closely monitoring the disease, which was no closer than Colorado before this week’s announcement, by answering all calls from dead birds.
The department’s wildlife veterinarian Anne Justice-Allen said the calls from the public alerted her agency to dead cormorants, water-loving birds that often nest in groups. The three juveniles had fallen from their nests and were found dead by morning walkers in the park, who called wildlife officials.
“It’s a good thing, because they were able to collect the birds and test them before they were removed to park staff,” Justice-Allen said.
“We had a high suspicion that this was something we don’t normally see,” Justice-Allen said. “We have resident cormorants in the area, and we don’t typically see incidents of mortality in them.”
Justice-Allen said a major concern is backyard flocks of chickens, which are allowed in parts of metro Phoenix. The disease has been found in many homeowner herds across the country.
He said bird owners should pay attention to the birds eating or showing symptoms such as lethargy, runny nose, seizures or diarrhea. Anyone noticing those symptoms should call the state agriculture department.
The first US detection of a new strain of highly contagious avian flu in domestic poultry was in Indiana in February. Since then, more than 37 million birds have been killed to stop the spread of the infection.
As of June 3, it was found in the wild in 40 states, but not in California, Arizona, Nevada or New Mexico. Commercial herds have been infected in 19 states.
Once an infection is found, the birds will not recover and will be killed to stop the disease from spreading, Justice-Allen said.
The outbreak has not only killed the domestic fowl. It has also had a huge impact on bald eagles and other wild bird species, much more so than the country’s last bird flu outbreak in 2014. That outbreak cost more than 50 million domestic poultry.
Hickman said egg producers have so far been making up for lost production from an outbreak affecting the herd this year.
“I think I can speak very strongly that no matter how many birds are affected and deported, there are eggs on every shelf in every grocery store in America,” Hickman said.