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Avian influenza basics for urban and backyard poultry owners

Quick facts

Avian influenza is harmful to poultry flocks especially if it’s highly pathogenic (HPAI). Always report any signs of disease to your state agency or veterinarian. Preventing disease is the best way to keep your flock healthy.

  • Separate your flock from disease sources including wildlife and wild birds.
  • Keep your poultry area and equipment clean.
  • Separate new or returning birds from your flock for at least 30 days.
  • Don’t share equipment between neighbors.

2022 HPAI outbreak

HPAI is appearing throughout the United States.

Many confirmed cases of HPAI have been in backyard flocks. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reports recent cases of HPAI including place, type of bird, and size of the flock.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a reportable disease. If your flock has sudden, high death rates or many birds with signs of HPAI, contact your veterinarian or the Minnesota Board of Animal Health right away. Please use the Minnesota Avian Influenza Hotline at 1-833-454-0156.

See the Minnesota Board of Animal Health website for up-to-date information on HPAI detection in Minnesota.

See the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website for up-to-date information on HPAI detection in the U.S.

What is avian influenza?

small flock of hens in outdoor, mobile pen with metal feeder

Avian influenza (AI) is a disease that affects domestic poultry including:

  • Chickens
  • Turkeys
  • Pheasants
  • Quail
  • Ducks
  • Geese

Waterfowl and shorebirds are natural hosts for the avian influenza virus. These birds will shed the virus, often without showing signs of illness.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is rapidly fatal for poultry. Sudden onset of HPAI and high death rates are common among all poultry (except ducks and geese).

In chickens, HPAI signs often include respiratory (gasping) and digestive (extreme diarrhea) signs followed by rapid death. Chickens may have swelling around the head, neck, and eyes. The heads and legs may also have purple discoloration.

Other poultry species, including turkeys, may have nervous symptoms such as:

  • Tremors

  • Twisted necks

  • Paralyzed wings

  • Laying down and pedaling

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports confirmed cases of HPAI. HPAI has occurred in wild waterfowl and backyard poultry as well as in commercial poultry flocks. See the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website for up-to-date information on HPAI detection in the U.S.

Public risk is very low with no food safety concerns because infected birds don’t reach the market. Infection risk normally only exists for people in direct contact with affected birds.

Always properly handle poultry and eggs and cook to an internal temperature of 165 F. Don’t eat birds that appear sick or have died for reasons unknown. For more food safety information read Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Minnesota.

HPAI in your flock

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health responds to avian influenza cases. 

If your flock has sudden, high death rates or many birds with signs of HPAI, contact your veterinarian or the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, at 651-296-2942, right away.

The Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory (MPTL) works with the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) to conduct and coordinate testing for AI.

You can contact the laboratories at:

  • MPTL: 320-231-5170

  • VDL: 612-625-8787

HPAI in 2022

In 2022, HPAI is appearing in places throughout the East Coast and the Midwest Regions. Most confirmed cases of HPAI have been in backyard flocks. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reports recent cases of HPAI including place, type of bird and size of flock.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a reportable disease. This means the disease is very contagious or infectious with extreme consequences to animal welfare and product supply. Programs are set up to help control the spread and stamp out the presence of HPAI. 

Stopping the spread of HPAI

Birds are euthanized on farms confirmed with HPAI. Flocks within a 6-mile radius of a confirmed case will be tested for HPAI. These flocks will also be checked throughout the outbreak. Euthanasia will only occur on-premises with infected birds. Financial reimbursement will be provided if your flock is euthanized under the Minnesota Board of Animal Health or USDA care. 

Signs of illness

Detecting HPAI early is key to limiting the spread. Sadly, one of the first signs of HPAI is sudden, unexplained death. In 2022, most HPAI cases report poultry drinking less water before unexplained death.

  • Egg layers may show signs of depression, have ruffled feathers, and be quieter than normal. Other signs may include purple or dry combs.
  • Turkeys may be quiet and depressed, lay down more than normal, and have swelling around their eyes.
  • Waterfowl do not always die from HPAI or show signs of illness, but they can carry the virus and spread it to other birds.

Protecting your flock from HPAI during an outbreak

You can protect your flock by being mindful and using biosecurity.

Avoid attracting wild birds to your residence.

  • Cover or enclose any outdoor feeding areas for poultry.
  • Promptly clean up any feed spills.
  • Avoid visiting any ponds or streams, especially with pets.
  • Consider reducing large puddles and standing water that may be a nice resting place for migratory birds.  

Limit or halt any travel with your birds to sales, shows and swaps.

  • Ensure you have clean hands, clothes and footwear before handling your birds if you do attend any poultry events.
  • Do not allow others to handle your birds.

Limit who visits your birds at home.

If someone else must visit your birds: 

  • Ask them about what other bird contact they have recently had. 
  • Ask them to wash their hands and wear clean clothes and footwear.

Preventing disease

Biosecurity plans are steps flock owners must take to prevent disease in their flocks.

Poultry get HPAI from infected waterfowl (ducks and geese) and gulls. Infected poultry can spread disease to new flocks. Review your biosecurity plan often. The USDA has the following biosecurity tips.

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Authors: Wayne Martin and Abby Schuft, Extension educators; Robert Porter Jr., Extension poultry specialist; Sally Noll, Extension poultry scientist; and Carol Cardona, Extension poultry virology specialist

Reviewed in 2022

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