Peggy Ife knew something was wrong from the moment she walked into her Bourton-area chicken farm on April 21.
“We’ve seen [dead] A sparrow here and a bird there, about five or six. “We thought something had entered the yard. We found a hole in the fence. So we thought that was it. We cleaned up the birds and brought the other birds back into the barn.”
But the next day the birds were still showing signs of stress – some showed no interest in eating, or congregated in the corners of the barn.
“I knew something was wrong,” she says. “I call them ‘my girls’ – I spend enough time with my children.”
Then more began to die.
“Friday night, I found a couple on the floor who didn’t look very well, and I thought, OK, this looks like they’re going through a ‘stress’ phase,” Ife recalls. “Then they started falling, literally, dead.”
By the time CFIA inspectors arrived the following Monday morning, she had lost nearly 60 of her 70 birds.
This was not an easy time, and having to cull her entire herd is ‘devastating’.
“I’ve had birds since 2006. I was born here in 2012 and one just died. I have a 14-year-old goose,” she says.
Inspectors arrived and took samples of her birds. A few days later, she received the news: Her birds were infected with H5N1, the deadly strain of bird flu.
The handful of birds remaining in Ife had to be culled, as a measure to stop the virus spreading to more areas.
“My husband kept looking at me to see if I was OK,” Ife told the Valley Voice the day before she received the news. “I’m hanging out there, but the more I think about what’s going to happen—I’m sorry, when the time comes, I can’t be the one to put my kids down.”
Ife posted her story on several community pages on Facebook, and word got out to hundreds of poultry farmers in the backyard of the Valley Voice readers’ area to be on the lookout for bird flu.
Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” is a contagious and deadly virus that can make birds sick or die. There are two strains of the disease, one mild and one virulent. He hunted the last Ife flock, H5N1, which is believed to be coming north with the spring migration of wild birds.
Ife says she suspects this is how she hunted her birds.
“The wild bird feeders were all empty for a few weeks, so I decided to be nice, and fill them up to feed the wild birds. And I have plenty of feeders,”
Agricultural officials urge small herd or backyard herd owners to continue to be vigilant and to take appropriate precautions.
“Measures include eliminating or reducing poultry opportunities to encounter wild birds, decreasing human access to the flock, and increasing cleaning, disinfection and sterilization of all objects (including clothing and footwear) when entering areas where flocks are located,” recommends CFIA.
Ife flock is not the only case of bird flu in British Columbia. A week ago, CFIA officials announced a confirmed case in a backyard poultry flock in Kelowna. A dead bald eagle has also been found on the lower mainland.
This is where the biggest concern lies – the lower Fraser Valley is home to the county’s chicken industry. The last time bird flu broke out there, in 2004, 17 million birds had to be culled to save the industry.
Avian influenza is rare in humans and does not spread easily between people in general.
“During an outbreak of avian influenza in poultry, the risk to the general public is very low,” says CFIA. Most avian influenza viruses cannot be transmitted easily from birds to humans or from person to person. However, any new influenza virus in humans is of concern due to its ability to mutate and adapt for easier transmission between people.”
Meanwhile, Evie is pleading with fellow poultry farmers in the area to do the right thing: remove sources of interaction between wild and domestic birds, and report any dead wild birds they may find.
“If you have feeders for wild birds, take them down,” she says. “If you want to shoot a distance, there is always a chance to catch something. But if you are jogging, make sure there are no bird feeders, and if you are feeding them outside, make sure they are cleaned before wild birds come in. Bring a water source for your birds inside.”
While ordering the culling of her birds is difficult, Ife says she did the right thing by reporting it.
“I understand why people don’t want to report, because of that,” she says. “But if they don’t know where this is happening, they won’t be able to stop its spread.”