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Information Exchange

Ontario specialists have bridged the information gap for owners of non-regulated birds


May 22, 2009
By Kristy Nudds


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When avian influenza (AI) brought the British Columbia poultry industry to its knees in 2003, there was a joint push from provincial and federal regulators in Canada as well as industry to take a hard look at biosecurity efforts in all sectors that raise birds and improve them.

When avian influenza (AI) brought the British Columbia poultry industry to its knees in 2003, there was a joint push from provincial and federal regulators in Canada as well as industry to take a hard look at biosecurity efforts in all sectors that raise birds and improve them.

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 A kit has been developed for non-regulated bird owners to help them understand disease and how to manage their flocks.

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The commercial (regulated) poultry industry has been quick  to point at owners of non-regulated birds – including backyard chickens, gamebirds, and waterfowl – as a potential threat with regard to AI transmission. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) poultry specialist Al Dam says that even though non-regulated birds are commonly thought of as a reservoir for AI. “the facts are still uncelar,” he says. “The problem is no one had offered them information on biosecurity or flock management.”

When Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) announced funding for poultry biosecurity three years ago, Dam and OMAFRA veterinarian Dr. Babak Sanei applied for some of the available money with the intention of developing something similar to a DVD offered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in the U.S., for non-regulated birds.

University of Guelph pathobiology professor and veterinarian Dr. Bruce Hunter came on board, wanting to develop information for non-poultry/rural veterinarians, those most likely called when non-regulated birds are ill.

In the end OMAFRA, University of Guelph and Poultry Industry Council ended up partnering and getting funding from OMAFRA.  Three years of dedicated work has resulted in a information kit called “Keeping your Birds Healthy” that offers extensive resources on disease, flock management and biosecurity for non-regulated poultry industries.

Getting to the final stages has been an intensive task. Dam says the group struggled a long time with determining the target audience, deciding to omit groups such as falconers, zoos and the pet parrot industry, and focusing on groups they could, or should, reach. They began investigating which groups had formal associations, clubs, and loose affiliations, and summer students were hired to identify groups and begin networking and dialogue.  

It proved tricky, as unlike the commercial industry, says Hunter, non-regulated flock owners are not in the loop with respect to conferences and seminars, and don’t have dedicated poultry veterinarians and a service sector or marketing board to keep them from being “isolated islands.”

Their approach was also key. “AI is only one concern, but for the many non-regulated groups it’s not just an AI issue,” says Hunter. “How do you reach people, how do you set up a rapport and a line of communication with these groups, and get good management information that will improve flock management and the health of their birds.”

It was the focus on health, rather than just AI that helped non-regulated owners feel comfortable talking with these researchers.  Hunter says that when California experienced its last Newcastle disease outbreak a heavy-handed approach by regulatory officials drove “critically important” non-regulated groups such as cock fighters underground.

The intent was not to map the farm locations or collect personal information, but rather to create an information exchange. Dam says there was initial hesitation from owners, suspicious that government, marketing board and university inquiries would interfere with their privacy and interests. Dam says once it was explained that the intent was to determine what their needs were and deliver the information in a usable form, summer students could then begin visiting the premises and collecting information. 

Dam says that despite what members of the poultry industry might think, “these people do care.” Most of the birds in question are valuable; genetically, monetarily or emotionally, and their owners were anxious to get information on how to protect their bird’s health.

Using what has been developed within the commercial poultry industry Canada as standard principles of biosecurity, a gap analysis was performed to identify what was lacking in non-regulated flocks. “We’re not here to say they can’t have birds outside,” says Dam.  “We wanted to help them identify where things could be tightened if a disease event ocuurrs, Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) or not.”

The gap analysis also helped the team identify which diseases required information in the form of factsheets. The result of his and OMAFRA’s work has resulted in the “Keeping Your Birds Healthy” kit, containing 60 factsheets relating to biosecurity principles, management and disease, numerous weblinks, barn/aviary biosecurity signage, a logbook, information posters, and a CD.

Initially released last summer, the kit has been expanded and updated. By the end of this summer, Hunter says he will have finished an upgraded training program for rural veterinarians that are often unfamiliar with bird medicine and diseases to “improve their comfort level with birds” and  will include a video on necropsy techniques. “Having rural veterinarians more aware of bird diseases will  enhance our FAD surveillance. The more we can teach them about birds, the better off we are,” he says.

Those involved in the creation of the kit will also make themselves available for regional meetings for non-regulated groups, continuing the education process. “Keeping Your Birds Healthy” is free and available by calling the OMAFRA Agricultural Information Contact Centre, at 1-877-424-1300, visiting an OMAFRA Resource Centre or ordering the kit on-line at www.healthybirds.ca .