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State seeking volunteers for bird flu tests on backyard flocks

State officials are urging owners of backyard chicken to sign up their flock for bird flu testing.

The state is trying to prevent an outbreak of a new strain of bird flu like the one recently seen in China. At least 36 people have died of the disease since March.

The virus doesn’t appear to have spread beyond Asia. But this latest strain, H7N9, is carried by birds that don’t show any symptoms, and some of those birds migrate on flight paths that connect China with the west coast of North America.

“And so if we can be monitoring and testing for avian influenza, we can catch it before it becomes a problem,” said Michelle Gil with the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

There has never been an outbreak of bird flu here. But the sooner we find it, the better we’ll be able to contain it. And Gill says one of the places this wild strain might surface is in the flocks of chickens that many people keep in their backyards, especially those that are near water.

“And so the birds that are flying over, they’re migrating and they come through Washington, Oregon, California on their way to the south where it’s warmer. They stop at the ponds where they co-mingle with the backyard birds,” Gill said.

The biggest risk is if the flocks are close to commercial poultry, which might lead to an outbreak like the one that devastated the chicken industry in British Columbia a decade ago.

About 50 households who keep chickens here have volunteered for testing. And the state wants to expand that.

The birds will be tested twice over a year, first swabbed then their eggs later tested. Any willing volunteers are urged to call the Avian Health Hotline at 1-800-606-3056.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to