Agriculture

Backyard chickens are dying in droves in SoCal. Will disease spread to Valley?

Raising backyard chickens has become a fun hobby for many urban dwellers in the San Joaquin Valley, but a devastating poultry disease currently raging in Southern California could put those birds and others in jeopardy.

State and federal agriculture officials have issued a warning to all poultry owners, including backyard chicken keepers and commercial chicken farmers, to be on the lookout for signs of the virulent Newcastle disease. The disease was discovered on May 17 in Los Angeles County and has since spread to San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

To poultry owners, the disease, formerly known as Exotic Newcastle disease, is considered one of the most lethal. It’s also highly contagious. An outbreak in 2002 that also started in a backyard flock eventually spread to 22 commercial poultry farms, resulting in the death of 3.2 million birds.

Since May, the disease has been found at 74 residential properties in Southern California, triggering a quarantine of more than 1,000 homes. More than 9,000 birds have been euthanized. Testing is also taking place in areas with commercial poultry operations, but officials said the disease has yet to be found.

Recently, state and federal officials held outreach meetings in Southern California with backyard bird owners and students raising poultry for school projects to talk about disease prevention.

One of the state’s concerns is that with the popularity of backyard chickens, the potential for the disease to spread increases.

Maurice Pitesky, a veterinarian and University of California extension specialist in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, said backyard chicken owners should closely watch their flocks.

Symptoms include, sneezing, coughing, green watery diarrhea, neck twisting, paralysis, decreased egg production and swelling around the eyes and neck.

Pitesky said one of the challenges in keeping a lid on the disease is the continued popularity of raising backyard chickens. Although there are no official records of how many people raise backyard birds, he estimates that there are about 100,000 homes with poultry, with each home averaging about five chickens.

“That is a lot more than in 2002 when we had the last outbreak,” Pitesky said. “And while people have the best intentions, unfortunately a lack of biosecurity practices in people’s backyards is one of the contributing factors of the disease spreading.”

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Backyard chicken owners in the Fresno area say they too are concerned about the disease and are taking extra precautions with their birds.

Patty Floyd Cappellutti knows what it takes to keep chickens healthy and happy. She works hard at keeping her chicken coop clean, including changing the water and bedding frequently. And she watches for any sign of illness.

“I know there are a lot of people in the Silicon Valley who think this is the new hip thing and they are trying to outdo themselves with their chicken coops,” Cappellutti said “But that’s not me. We took our daughter’s old swing set and turned that into a coop.”

Luffy Bailey, who has raised backyard chickens for about three years, checks on the health of his six birds every day.

“As an owner, you have to be responsible for keeping track of your animals,” Bailey said. “If they seem lethargic and acting out of the ordinary, separate it from the rest and observe it and get it diagnosed.”

Bailey agrees that the backyard chicken trend has spawned a lot of interest over the last several years.

And while you may build an Instagram-worthy coop and have beautiful birds, the hobby is not for everyone.

“Chickens are cute and fuzzy and people want to have something cute and fuzzy in their lives,” he said. “But there are some people who don’t fully realize what they are getting into.”

Pitesky said one of the ways the disease is spreading is through the purchase of birds from a private party, who may not be able to verify the bird is free of disease.

He recommends buying from a hatchery or feed store that is affiliated with the National Poultry Improvement Plan, an organization that focuses on disease control.

Also, do your homework. There are several online sources where you can learn more about disease prevention and biosecurity practices. The California Department of Food and Agriculture, www.cdfa.ca.gov, is a good place to start and the University of California Cooperative Extension, www.ucanr.edu. Both sites have information in Spanish.

“The goal is to be preventative,” Pitesky said.

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