OSU Extension responds to avian flu with coordinated outreach

Two girls show stuffed animal chickens at a county fair in 2022 when avian influenza prevented them from showing real chickens.

When the deadly highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was detected in Oregon in May 2022, poultry businesses were forced to cull infected birds, people with backyard chickens were worried about the fate of their birds and 4-H’ers who were getting ready to exhibit their animals at county and state fairs were disappointed.

Oregon State University Extension Service quickly recognized the importance of alerting the public about the outbreak. An interdisciplinary team encompassing 4-H, small agriculture, wildlife, communications and Master Gardeners, was mobilized to respond with science-based information about the flu and how to prepare. Announcements went out through social media, Extension offices, newsletters and other avenues.

Soon after the announcement, calls and emails started to come in. Some were directed to Dana Sanchez, OSU Extension wildlife specialist and associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences. She consulted with Brandon Reishus, migratory game bird coordinator for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, to get the latest news about Oregon’s migratory bird paths and how it would affect the spread the disease in the state.

“My main role was to reach out and get solid info from people like Dr. Reishus and pass that on to the public,” Sanchez said. “I helped people make good decisions about how to protect birds, wild and domestic. Most of the calls I got were about whether people can keep up their bird feeders. I was happy to tell them ‘Yes.’”

In the Extension 4-H program, Candi Bothum, OSU Extension statewide 4-H youth development animal science coordinator, called Ryan Scholz, Oregon Department of Agriculture state veterinarian, for guidance on whether 4-H would be able to show poultry at fairs. Unfortunately, to keep birds from spreading the disease, fairs were asked to cancel poultry exhibits in or near outbreak counties.

With cooperation from fairs, the state veterinarian’s office and 4-H staff, 4-H members with market poultry projects were allowed to use video and other means of technology to show potential buyers their animals and sell their birds at auction.

Not every county was in the vicinity of a flu outbreak, but every fair was restricted from including waterfowl like ducks, which can be carriers of the disease. In some counties 4-H youths turned to using stuffed animals to participate in showmanship, putting an emphasis on poultry knowledge. Additionally, increased focus was put on educational displays for the public. Many of the youths with poultry projects left at home for biosecurity reasons chose to participate in the innovative solutions.

The public attending the fairs took notice of the canceled shows and thousands of visitors who went through animal barns were educated by a 4-H member or volunteer about avian flu and rabbit hemorrhagic disease, another disease with recent significant impact on small animals.

As the migrating birds return, cases of HPAI continue to appear in Oregon, most recently on March 30, when 28 backyard flocks were impacted, with 1,898 birds affected, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Oregon State Fair has restricted domestic poultry for 2023, but Bothum hopes this year’s county fairs will remain open for poultry. That remains to be seen and depends on future outbreaks.

The Master Gardener program used its social media channels to reach Oregon’s gardening community, where many people have backyard flocks or know someone who does. Posts created by LeAnn Locher, OSU Extension Master Gardener outreach coordinator, were designed to inform and educate and to provide clear steps of action people can take to prevent the spread of the disease. The first post on March 18, 2022, reached over 47,000 and garnered more than 600 shares.

“The Master Gardeners, as well as the rest of Extension, recognized the importance of reaching out to the gardening public, which is a group that supports and advises each other and shares important information – not just among themselves, but also beyond for the greater good,” Locher said. “Gardeners are on-the-ground community scientists who often see invasive species first. We knew they would want to help communicate the important message and because many of them have backyard flocks.”

Locher said many people became interested in gardening and bird watching during the pandemic and, for some, it was a natural progression to add some chickens. Even those who didn’t decide to raise chickens now have a better understanding of how illness spreads and can more easily make the connection to the potential impact of HPAI.

“The sad thing about avian flu is that it will wipe out an entire flock,” Locher said. “Or you end up having to cull all of them because one chicken has it. No one wants to kill their chickens. We want to get the information out there that will help and reassure them.”

Melissa Fery, OSU Extension small farms faculty and associate professor of practice in the College of Agricultural Sciences, is well aware. In Lane County where bird flu was first discovered in wild birds, she started getting contacted right after the flu was detected by alarmed poultry owners asking how to keep their birds safe and what to do if they had a sick or dying bird.

In response, Fery partnered with Scholz to host an educational online webinar to provide facts about the disease. More than 300 people registered for the webinar. At the beginning and end of the webinar, participants were asked if they felt confident that they could protect their flock. The response increased from 3.7 out of 6 to 5.1 out of 6. A second question about whether they knew what to do and who to contact, rose from 3.5 out of 6 to 5.7 out of 6.