Omaha zoo aviary closes, chicken owners need to take extra precautions as avian flu moves closer | Omaha State and Regional News

Nebraska state veterinarian Roger Dudley said Thursday that he’s very concerned at news that the high pathogenic avian flu has been discovered in a poultry flock in Pottawattamie County in Iowa.

The USDA on Wednesday announced that the virus had been found in a flock in Iowa and one in Connecticut.

Samples from the ill Iowa birds were examined by the Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which confirmed the virus. The Iowa location has been quarantined and birds there will be euthanized. (Similar actions were taken in Connecticut.) None of the meat from the birds will enter the food system, according to the USDA.

This form of bird flu is highly contagious and deadly among domestic birds, including chickens and turkeys. It is not as deadly to wild birds, according to the USDA.

The last time the extremely infectious and fatal pathogen reached Nebraska in 2015, 5 million chickens were killed or died in the state and 50 million nationwide.

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“It tells us our domestic poultry is being threatened,” Dudley said of the outbreak just across the Missouri River.

The discovery prompted the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium to indefinitely close its aviary and lock the rest of its birds indoors.

flu aviary

The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium indefinitely closed its aviary and locked the rest of its birds indoors.


Dr. Sarah Woodhouse, director of animal health at Henry Doorly Zoo, instituted several changes there on Wednesday. The goal, she said, was to decrease the chances of the zoo’s birds becoming infected.

In a memo to zoo staff, Woodhouse said 45 birds from a backyard flock in Iowa had died from the virus. The flock, she said, was located about 20 miles east of Offutt Air Force Base.

“This means that there are very likely HPAI-infected (avian flu) wild birds in our air space, and we need to take immediate action to prevent our birds from becoming infected,” she wrote the staff in a memo.

The zoo has locked inside any birds with indoor pens, she said. Strict sanitation protocols also have been put in place. Staff is to wear special boots and sanitize them before stepping into a bird enclosure. Food and other treats are to be sanitized. And there is to be no interchange of tools, food or treats between bird enclosures. If one group of birds becomes ill, the zoo hopes to prevent the rest from becoming ill.

Woodhouse also advised that staff who have birds at home, especially chickens, consider keeping them inside.

Dudley, who works for the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said chicken owners should take steps to protect their flocks. Keep poultry isolated from wild waterfowl and human visitors as much as possible.

Kathy Garvey, who lives south of Plattsmouth, is doing exactly that. She has 16 chickens and four ducks.


The southwest Omaha yard belonging to Morgan Rye-Craft, 27, in June 2021. She and her family are working on a zero-waste, sustainable lifestyle that includes raising chickens for eggs.


“I don’t want people walking in there with any kind of footwear that could be around any contaminated areas,” she said. “At this point, I’m not planning on bringing in any new chicks, just because they would be that mild threat.”

Sarah Jenkins, who has four chickens in South Omaha, said she’ll be creating an area to wash off her footwear so she doesn’t track infected feces into her property.

“It’s deadly for chickens,” she said. “I think it’s scary.”

Dudley said this is different from the low pathogenic avian flu that arrives annually and is based in North America.

This more deadly version began circulating in Europe and Asia about 18 months ago. It was first identified in the United States in some harvested wild birds on the east coast in January and has been moving west.

“The virus is spreading with waterfowl during the migration,” he said. “The waterfowl get infected, but they don’t get sick and die. So they continue to spread the virus.”

He said the flu will continue to be a threat until the spring migration is over and then decline as long as it hasn’t spread through the millions of chickens in Nebraska.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk to people getting HPAI infections from birds is low. No human cases of avian influenza viruses have been detected in the United States.

Omaha veterinarian Michael Bosilevac, a chicken expert, said the flu basically causes pneumonia. A chicken’s eyes will get swollen, and their combs and feet turn purple. Sometimes there are no symptoms and the first sign of the disease is that a hen may stop laying eggs.

flu chickens

Chickens roam in the yard of Morgan Rye-Craft, 27, outside her southwest Omaha home in June 2021.


“They don’t get enough oxygen and die,” he said. “We just get flocks completely wiped out.”

Millions of chickens are also raised commercially in Nebraska, and Dudley said continuing to practice established biosecurity guidelines is crucial.

“Just like a backyard producer, a car can drive over droppings and take it to their farm,” Dudley said. “Or they can go for a walk in the park and take it home on their shoes. The virus will stay on those surfaces for hours at a time.”

Jenkins said people might think she’s being too concerned about the flu, but she wants to keep her flock protected.

“I don’t want them to get sick because they are my kids,” she said.


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