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Bird Flu Outbreak Hitting Sonoma County Poultry Producers Hard

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A group of four differently colored chickens.
Chickens in an aviary in Acton on Oct. 5, 2022.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

A fatal strain of bird flu is tearing through Sonoma County poultry populations, leading to mass euthanization efforts as farmers work to stop the spread of the virus.

In less than a month, four Sonoma County farms have detected the highly pathogenic avian influenza strain that’s been found in bird populations across the state, country and world.

More than half a million ducks and hens have been affected at those four farms experiencing outbreaks, according to an online infection tracker by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Across California, the number is more than 1.3 million.

Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said the outbreaks are a devastating hit to farms in the area.

“Everyone’s doing all they can and just praying daily and losing sleep, hoping that we’ve seen the worst of it and, you know, that it doesn’t continue to spread in our area or anywhere for that matter,” Ghirardelli said.

Because of the highly contagious nature of the virus, all birds in a commercial flock where avian flu is detected must be euthanized. According to the USDA, commercial flocks are operations with 1,000 or more birds (domestic poultry).

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Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, says prices could go up soon as hundreds of thousands of birds are euthanized and others at nearby farms are quarantined.

“Because we’ve lost so many ducks and we have a small duck population in California, that could affect pricing more at restaurants than anywhere else,” Mattos said.

The first reported outbreak occurred in late November at a duck breeding facility where nearly 170,000 ducks were affected.

Then last week, Liberty Ducks Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Reichardt announced on a GoFundMe page that one of their farm locations detected the virus among a population of nearly 5,000 ducks.

Liberty Ducks is a supplier to several fine dining restaurants in Sonoma and other parts of the Bay Area.

“There was never going to be a good time for this to hit, but during the holidays, it is especially hard,” Reichardt said in an email. “These should have been our biggest three weeks of the year, and it’s been severely crippled with the outbreak.”

Mattos also warned about the possibility of rising egg prices, as has occurred in previous years when avian flu numbers were high.

“The price of eggs could change if we lose more [egg] layers in California. … We just saw 3 million layer chickens in Ohio have bird flu and have to be depopulated,” Mattos said. “And a lot of the Ohio birds come into California because they meet our cage-free standards. So the price will depend on if this affects more than California.”

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Mattos made those remarks before the discovery of the latest Sonoma County outbreak at an unnamed egg-laying operation where 270,000 birds were affected, the largest single outbreak in California in the past two months.

This Eurasian H5N1 strain of the avian flu has been in California since 2022 and was first detected among waterfowl populations, which are often responsible for spreading the virus to new areas. Now, cases are on the rise again as wild birds embark on their annual migration south, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Peter Tira, a CDFW public information officer, said infection numbers among wild bird populations don’t seem to be as high as last fall. But he added that the migration is beginning later than usual this year, meaning more birds, possibly more infected birds, are on the way.

Tira said once the winter passes and birds begin to migrate north again, the disease should begin to dissipate again.

Though even if cases subside, this avian flu strain could be sticking around for a while.

Maurice Pitesky, a professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine-Cooperative Extension, said the outbreak is akin to a global pandemic among poultry.

According to the USDA, over 4.6 million birds have been killed so far this year compared to the almost 58 million birds killed last year when the outbreak began. The disease has been found in dozens of countries across five continents, according to the World Health Organization.

“I think most people at this point view the virus as somewhat endemic in the waterfowl population,” Pitesky said. “As long as the virus infects the ducklings and goslings that these adults are hatching, we’re probably going to be in some kind of persistent cycle with this specific strain of influenza for a while.”

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