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Highly pathogenic avian influenza for noncommercial poultry flock owners

By Wayne Martin, Extension Educator, Alternative Livestock and

Abby Schuft, Extension Educator, Poultry

History of avian influenza

Researchers found highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in 1878. They discerned it from other poultry diseases that shared a high death rate. Current evidence suggests that HPAI changed over time. Strains before 1996 had a low risk of causing disease. Later, strains appeared more often and affected millions of chickens and other poultry.

HPAI Outbreak of 2014 – 2015

In 2014 – 2015, HPAI hit North America, which led to the loss of almost 50 million chickens and turkeys. The outbreak began on the west coast and moved through British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California. Highly pathogenic avian influenza affected only one commercial flock on the west coast. The other cases occurred in what were considered “backyard” poultry flocks, which included a pheasant farm with over 5,000 birds.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza arrived in the Midwest in March 2015. It showed a different pattern of infection than it did on the U.S.’ West Coast. Highly pathogenic avian influenza only affected six “backyard” flocks in the Midwest: one each in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. All the rest (over 180) were commercial flocks.

Map of confirmed cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the U.S. in 2015

Map of confirmed cases (green states) of HPAI within the U.S. during 2014 – 2015.

HPAI today

In 2022, HPAI is appearing in places throughout the East Coast and the Midwest Regions. Most confirmed cases of HPAI have been in “backyard” flocks. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reports recent cases of HPAI including place, type of bird, and size of flock.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a reportable disease. This means the disease is very contagious and/or infectious with extreme consequences to animal welfare and product supply. Programs are set up to help control the spread and stamp out the presence of HPAI. 

Stopping the spread of HPAI

Birds are euthanized on farms confirmed with HPAI. Flocks within a 6-mile radius of a confirmed case will be tested for HPAI. These flocks will also be checked throughout the outbreak. Euthanasia will only occur on premises with infected birds. Financial reimbursement will be provided if your flock is euthanized under Minnesota Board of Animal Health and/or USDA care.

Signs of illness

Detecting HPAI early is key to limiting the spread. Sadly, one of the first signs of HPAI is sudden, unexplained death. In 2022, most HPAI cases report poultry drinking less water before unexplained death.

  • Egg layers may show signs of depression, have ruffled feathers, and be quieter than normal. Other signs may include purple or dry combs.
  • Turkeys may be quiet and depressed, lay down more than normal, and have swelling around their eyes.
  • Waterfowl do not always die from HPAI or show signs of illness, but they can carry the virus and spread it to other birds.

Protecting your flock from HPAI

You can protect your flock by being mindful and using biosecurity. Avoid attracting wild birds to your residence.

  • Cover or enclose any outdoor feeding areas for poultry.
  • Promptly clean up any feed spills.
  • Avoid visiting any ponds or streams, especially with pets.
  • Consider reducing large puddles and standing water that may be a nice resting place for migratory birds.

Limit or halt any travel with your birds to sales, shows and swaps.

  • Ensure you have clean hands, clothes, and footwear before handling your birds if you do attend any poultry events.
  • Do not allow others to handle your birds.

Limit who visits your birds at home. If someone else must visit your birds,

  • have a conversation about what other bird contact they have recently had.
  • ask them to wash their hands and wear clean clothes and footwear.

Biosecurity reminder sign on gate to poultry area
Posting signs can help remind you and any visitors to follow biosecurity steps before entering and exiting your poultry area.


Alexander, D.J. & Browe, I.H., (2009). History of highly pathogenic avian influenza. 28(1), 19.

Lupiani, B., & Reddy, S. M. (2009). The history of avian influenza. Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 32(4), 311–323.

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