Avian flu hazard for state poultry rises as cold nears

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is circulating among wild waterfowl in Arkansas, particularly in young snow geese. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks)

An incoming cold front could push wild birds southward and potentially raise risks for spreading Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza to poultry kept outdoors in Arkansas.

The 2,300-mile long Mississippi Flyway is the most heavily used U.S. bird migration corridor for ducks, geese and other waterfowl; many birds heading south along the flyway for winter will pass through Arkansas's eastern Delta region.

The fall bird migration is in full swing now and will continue through the rest of the month, though some species will also migrate a bit later, said Dustan Clark, extension poultry veterinarian for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

"The main concern with the fall migration is that we'll have increased potential for exposure due to migration of wild waterfowl," Clark said.

"It's my understanding that the virus has been detected in every state, except for Hawaii, in wild birds," Clark said.

National Weather Service at Little Rock Forecaster Joe Goudsward said on Wednesday the cold front will work its way across the state on Sunday between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. and cold temperatures will ramp up by Monday morning, adding the cold front is coming from the northwest to the southeast.

"The winds don't look particularly strong, we're not looking at any particularly severe weather, but there will be a wind shift from the southwest to the north, once the front does pass," Goudsward said.

Most of northern Arkansas is forecast to be below freezing and most of southern Arkansas could be close to freezing by Tuesday morning, Goudsward said.

Cases of avian influenza leading up to this fall season were very low compared to last year, with just one case affecting 520 birds reported in New Jersey in September and one case affecting 800 birds in New York in August of this year.

But cases of the virus began ramping up this month and reports have been inching east toward Arkansas. The virus was detected in a mixed flock of 80 birds in Carter County, Oklahoma last week, approximately 200 miles from Arkansas's eastern border.

So far in October, there have been 618,801 birds affected by avian influenza in 10 states: Oklahoma, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Montana, Minnesota, Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

Clark said avian influenza has been detected in commercial flocks in only three states so far: Utah, South Dakota and Minnesota, while in the seven other states, the virus has been reported in smaller hobby flocks.

From Oct. 1 to Oct. 25, 2022, there were 865,039 birds affected; for the entire month of October 2022, 2.1 million birds were affected, with 1.1 million birds affected just in Iowa.

There have been no reports of avian influenza in Arkansas since Dec. 1, but in 2022, Arkansas had three cases of avian influenza that affected 56,490 birds, mostly commercial broiler breeder pullets in Madison, Pope and Arkansas counties.

"I think the big concern now is with the cold front," Clark said.

"That weather front is moving in. Many times, weather patterns do affect bird migration, especially when high enough winds can blow them off course and then when we have a storm or bad weather, typically, they will settle down and wait it out. So if we've got them settling in an area due to cold, or bad weather, that does increase the risk ... that they could be in contact with some of the small flocks or other flocks as well."

Clark said it's important for poultry growers in Arkansas to keep bird pens covered with plastic or tarp -- especially backyard and hobby flocks -- to reduce the risk of birds coming into contact with wild bird droppings, and also repair or replace any damaged pen coverings to keep out wild birds.

Producers should also take biosecurity measures when visiting their birds after walking near ponds -- cleaning, disinfecting shoes, changing clothes and washing hands -- to mitigate the spread of the virus in their bird pens, Clark said.