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Farmers ramp up protection for flocks after cases of avian influenza confirmed in owls on North Fork

Farmers in Suffolk County have ramped up biosecurity protocols to protect birds following the recent discovery of the highly pathogenic avian influenza in owls on the North Fork.

An adult great horned owl and two owlets found dead in Peconic earlier this month tested positive avian influenza, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 

“We’re scared. We’re scared to death. But of the 20,000, 30,000 people on Long Island that have backyard flocks, we’ve only seen it in three or four flocks and it’s been around for months now,” said Wayne Meyer, owner of Long Island Poultry in Calverton. He said if one of his birds caught the flu, the farm would shut down. 

“This is our main business,” he said. “Everybody comes here for their birds. If we had one infected, that means the state would have to come in and cull our flock, and then the rumor would get out that we had avian flu on our property and nobody would come to buy birds. We’d be done, that’s it, our business would be over and we’d be looking for jobs.”

Visitors at Long Island Poultry are now limited and everyone coming onto the property needs to wear protective booties. The disease is contagious enough that it can be spread via people’s shoes. Birds are also not running free range, to limit interaction with wild birds, and visitors have never been allowed to touch or handle birds before purchasing them, he said.

“For the chicken owners, make sure you limit free-ranging your birds for now and make sure you don’t have people coming and going, touching your birds. Most if not all chicken owners have coops and pens; keep your birds in the pens for the next few months until they get this thing figured out,” Mr. Meyer said.

Eric Wells of Wells Farm in Aquebogue — which sells livestock, including chickens — said the farm has similarly implemented biosecurity protocols such as preventing people from touching the animals and asking visitors to bleach the bottoms of their shoes. Mr. Wells said the farm would not be OK if hit with HPAI, but he isn’t too concerned about the virus appearing on the East End.

“If everybody does what they’re supposed to do, everything will be OK,” he said. 

Tom Hart, owner of Deep Roots Farm in Southold, said as a mixed vegetable and livestock farm, they’ve always been “really cautious with a lot of things, in terms of contamination.” The farm is no longer allowing tour groups and visitors, and the only two people caring for the birds wear a separate set of shoes while interacting with them. They “tightened up feeders and waterers” to discourage wild birds, especially waterfowl, from settling on the farm as well. 

“A little bit earlier in the year, we did have some flocks of geese that would land in our field so we fired some warning shots to kind of not allow them to make themselves at home here,” he said, noting they haven’t had any since. Since the farm cultivates a diversified selection of crops and livestock, the bird flu would not wipe out his business. Around 20% of his farm consists of chickens for meat and eggs. 

“We’re definitely being careful,” he added.

Paula DiDonato of Peconic discovered one of the owls that tested positive for HPAI. She’d been watching a nest in her neighborhood for about two weeks when she noticed a “large great horned owl” sitting in the tree during the day, which she thought was unusual. She said she later found the carcass of an owlet on the ground near the nest with no clear cause of death.

An owl in Peconic. Two juveniles and one adult were recently found dead in the area. (Credit: Paula DiDonato)

In February, the first case of HPAI in New York was found in Suffolk County in a domestic flock. There have been three cases total confirmed among domestic flocks in the county, leading to the closure of an 82-year-old gaming farm in Sag Harbor after thousands of birds were culled. The other two incidents were isolated to backyard flocks. 

Excluding the owls, there have been four cases confirmed among wild birds in Suffolk County. The DEC releases data on a county level only. 

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the recent HPAI detections in birds do not present an immediate public health concern, the DEC said. No human cases of avian influenza viruses have been detected in the United States.

HPAI is highly transmissible among birds, though, to the point that it could be spread between flocks by someone handling different birds or stepping in contaminated soil. Rob Carpenter, administrative director for the Long Island Farm Bureau, has advised producers to implement a biosecurity plan for their flocks. 

Some preventative measures suggested by experts at workshops held by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County have included changing shoes and clothing before and after interacting with birds; minimizing exposure of domestic flocks to wildlife; and frequent cleaning. 

“I think one of the biggest things that would be helpful is if folks can just limit to the best of their ability any interactions with their backyard birds and wild birds, whether that’s trying to enclose them in a run, moving food sources so you’re not attracting other wild birds to the area, trying to limit that exposure in that way, and then keeping in mind that it can spread pretty easily through contact,” said Nora Catlin, agriculture program director at CCE of Suffolk County. 

“If you wear shoes into your coop, or if you’re wearing shoes into an area where let’s say there are infected wild birds and if the droppings get on your boots and then you wear those boots around your chickens, you can bring the virus particles into your yard in that way,” she added. 

The DEC said the public should report dead ducks, geese, swans, waterbirds (including gulls), raptors, pheasants, turkey and grouse, or any group of five or more dead birds in one area to the regional DEC Wildlife office at [email protected]v or the DEC Wildlife Health Unit at 518-478-2203. For more information visit www.dec.ny.gov/animals/6957.html.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County also offers resources at ccesuffolk.org/agriculture/avian-flu