Fresh hen’s eggs for “free” in your backyard. That’s often the allure for having small backyard flocks of chickens.
Like any other animal venture though, the eggs are not produced without cost, and the birds remain susceptible to disease.
There is the feeding, care and security of the birds to consider. Beyond that, there are poultry diseases most people don’t incorporate into their fantasy of subsistence egg production.
In California, a disease called virulent Newcastle disease, or vND for short, is running rampant among backyard flocks. During the last epidemic, it was called exotic Newcastle disease.
This viral disease of poultry and most wild birds was first identified in Java, Indonesia, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, in the middle 1920s.
That’s where the name came from. But before that, Newcastle disease was shown in retrospect to have caused the decimation of domestic flocks in northwest Scotland in 1898.
Worldwide, vND remains one of the most serious poultry diseases. Death rates among infected birds is 100 percent among unvaccinated flocks.
And despite there being competent vaccines, even some that can be used in hot climates, vND can still infect and kill some vaccinated birds.
While some humans can become infected, the disease is very rare unless the person has an immature or impaired immune system.
The disease does not affect the safety of poultry or eggs properly cooked as food.
The U.S. hadn’t had an outbreak since 1974 before the last outbreak in California in 2002.
Early on, the virus was confined to small backyard poultry operations that breed and exchange birds used in cockfighting, which remains illegal in California.
Eleven months later, the battle to control the disease was over.
It cost more than $200 million to contain and eradicate. The process was limited exclusively to euthanizing more than 3 million birds and properly disposing of them. The outbreak covered more than 46,000 square miles and involved nearly 2,200 sites where birds were being kept, including 22 commercial farms.
Veterinarians throughout the country volunteered to travel to California to help with the massive depopulation. They rotated through just like tours of duty in a combat zone.
Since May 18 last year, the USDA has confirmed 440 affected premises in California. It has also spread to one location each in Utah and Arizona.
vND spreads to healthy birds through direct contact with bodily fluids from sick birds.
The virus can travel on manure, egg flats, crates, other farming materials or equipment, and people who have picked up the virus on their clothing, shoes, vehicles or hands.
So what happens to the chickens? Trust me, you won’t mistake this one.
Flock owners will notice immediately sudden death and increased death losses. The birds will be sneezing, coughing and gasping for air, often with copious nasal discharge. There may be swelling around the eyes and neck and some birds may develop tremors.
Birds will often develop greenish, watery diarrhea, have decreased activity and drooping wings. Some may oddly twist their head and neck, circling incessantly and develop complete stiffness.
So why is this disease so prevalent among backyard flocks and cockfighting rings? In a word, biosecurity. Commercial poultry producers are vigilant with biosecurity, and they vaccinate their birds.
Their flocks are closed and they aren’t bringing home birds from sources like farmer’s markets or cockfights.
They don’t mix birds either, like a criminal element would, secreting birds from fight to fight.
Still, when a disease like vND breaks out, it may be the commercial producers who pay the biggest price in losses to control disease propagated by small unregistered flocks.
Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email firstname.lastname@example.org.