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Vineyard farmers worried avian flu could devastate their flocks

Jeremy Hynes
Cormorants (pictured) and other birds have been found dead or dying over the past few months on Martha's Vineyard.

Hundreds of dead seabirds are turning up along the Massachusetts coast — especially on Martha’s Vineyard — and state environmental and health officials suspect avian influenza could be the cause.

Cormorants, seagulls, eiders and other birds have been found dead or dying over the past few months, and farmers are concerned the virus could spread to domestic poultry.

“It can wipe out a whole flock,” said Kristy Rose, who raises chickens and turkeys on Chappaquiddick.

She said people in Edgartown have been noticing something amiss since February or March. One of the first things they saw were dead swans — four in a two-week period — probably because swans are large and easy to spot from a distance, she said.

Some of the island’s animal control officers have been trying to draw attention to the problem.

On Wednesday, state officials said they are monitoring the situation. Testing is underway to determine if influenza is the cause.

Although it has not been confirmed, the state suspects the birds are dying from a “highly pathogenic” avian flu. Scientists classify avian flu viruses into two groups: highly pathogenic and low pathogenic.

Avian flu can be dangerous to humans if they contract it, usually from direct contact with poultry. But human cases are rare, and avian flu is generally not passed from person to person.

As for the threat to local farms, it's too early to panic, Rose said.

She and her husband follow biosecurity measures to minimize the risk on their small homestead farm. They use separate shoes for poultry areas, wash their hands often, and limit visitors to the farm.

The state is asking the public to report dead or dying wild seabirds at mass.gov/reportbirds. For domestic birds found dead or dying, call the Division of Animal Health at (617) 626-1795.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.