Rats With Wings, Vaccines, And New Breed—2024’s Solutions to the Bird Flu Crisis - Modern Farmer

Rats With Wings, Vaccines, And New Breed—2024’s Solutions to the Bird Flu Crisis

Bird flu has held the poultry industry in its clutches since 2022. If the industry won’t change, the consumers will.

Photography by Shutterstock

Bird flu has held the world’s poultry industry in its unrelenting clutches before, causing catastrophic losses of more than 50 million birds in 2015. After a brief break, where we were lulled into a sense of false security, it came back in full force in 2022. Even now in 2024, we haven’t yet curbed bird flu’s deadly spread—but those passionate about wildlife and disease prevention are doing their part to intervene and, hopefully, slow our many tragic losses of wild and domestic animals. 

But the fight with bird flu isn’t over yet, and we may come out on the other side with healthier birds (and new menu options).

Photography via Shutterstock.

Rats with wings

The humble pigeon, thought by many to be a pest, has much to offer us in this fight against bird flu. Pigeons were once revered as war heroes, used to carry messages during the world wars; the Dickin Medal, the highest possible decoration for valor in animals, has been given to 32 pigeons, beginning with Winkie the pigeon in 1942. Before that, we used pigeons for meat and eggs, and squab (juvenile pigeons) remain a delicacy in much of the world. Texts from Spain regarding raising pigeons for their meat date back as far as 60 A.D. 

But today, it’s the pigeons’ DNA that can help us. Pigeons have high numbers of interferon-stimulated genes (which signal to infected cells when a pathogen is present), giving them what researchers hypothesize is an inherent ability to prevent viruses from entering their cells and spreading. After being exposed to bird flu in a lab environment, pigeons showed a low immune response and had low levels of the virus in their bodies. In comparison, chickens and turkeys with the same exposure had high levels of the virus concentrated in their organs, particularly in the brain. 

Further studies have shown pigeons to be resistant and/or minimally susceptible to the virus. One hundred rock pigeons were tested for the virus during the 2022 outbreak; only two were positive. However, their deaths were not attributed to the virus.

Read More: What are the problems posed by Bird Flu, and traditional treatments for the disease.

Obviously, the poultry industry’s showing no signs of restructuring to push pigeon quesadillas or pigeon tenders as your weeknight dinner. Despite pigeons’ benefits in bird flu resistance, much of our industry is focused around the more traditional chicken and turkey. But for those in favor of pigeon, they claim to reap the benefits. 

Squab Producers of California, founded in 1943, is the largest squab producer in the US, producing more than 400,000 squab yearly. Although SPOC owns a commercial processing plant, the squab are raised in more than 600 different local farms that work together as a co-op, so that the birds don’t have to face the traditional factory farming environment.

The federation’s president, Dalton Rasmussen, notes that the birds produce better when they’re happier—so they try to give each bird a short but sweet life. The birds processed by SPOC spend their short time in small, locally owned farms, often with outdoor flight pens that allow older breeder birds a taste of the good life. “It’s one of the tastiest, tenderest meats that you can get,” says Rasmussen. “It used to be known as the meat of kings, because it was served to royalty all the way back to the Egyptian days.”

Prices for conventional chicken and turkey meat, as well as eggs, have suffered through the bird flu epidemic. In addition, fear associated with the virus has dampened consumers’ enthusiasm for poultry dinners. Tyson, one of the largest poultry producers in the US, reported slipping sales through 2023, leading to the closure of four of its plants. US poultry sales overall declined by 13 percent between 2022 and 2023. It’s hard to say whether it’s impacted squab farmers, with so few commercial farmers to reference, but, so far, there has yet to be a bird flu breakout at any US pigeon farming facility. In an uncertain time of H5N1, we may see more consumers trying pigeon. And with many neighborhoods restricting chicken ownership, maybe we’ll see backyard pigeon roosts gaining in popularity, too.

We can’t change Bird Flu. Can we change chickens?

There are some possible pigeon-less solutions in the works, such as gene editing. However, it’s a tricky business, and it rarely has a guaranteed payoff. 

Scout Thompson, a PhD student in biology at Western University, says the technology might not yet be sophisticated enough to prevent the spread of avian flu. “Even if [gene editing] could successfully eradicate the current strains of concern in domestic flocks, the virus could still persist in wild waterfowl and be reintroduced with mutations.” 

And, with the current state of bird flu infections, that possibility doesn’t seem unlikely. Many different species of waterfowl have already fallen victim, and experts are concerned that migratory patterns of waterfowl may cause seasonal surges in infection. Researchers have begun making progress with the CRISPR gene-editing technique, but we simply don’t yet know if this could result in long-term progress for the battle against H5N1. 

Photography via Shutterstock

Betting on biosecurity

Vaccines are always an option, but it’s not always possible to mass-vaccinate poultry on the scale that would be required on a factory farm; after a positive test, just one major poultry farm in Texas was forced to cull close to two million chickens

Learn more: Stay up to date with latest information and the Centre for Disease Control’s response to the Avian Flu outbreak.

But for smaller flocks, vaccines can be a source of hope. “I think we should make it easier for very small flocks to purchase vaccinations, medications and other treatments for their birds,” says Saro Nortrup, an urban flock owner in Nebraska. “Most of these, such as [medication for] Marek’s disease, are very expensive with large dosage options and a very limited shelf life.” 

According to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, all of the UK’s native breeds of chickens, ducks and geese are under threat from bird flu. While bird flu losses that make the news typically number in the millions, Nortrup noted that any bird’s death can cause a cascade of damage. “If you have a rare breed, for example, the loss of your flock could have a serious impact on the genetic pool of an entire breed.”

Many American producers grew frustrated as it seemed to be an endless wait for bird flu vaccinations that weren’t coming; even now, many farms don’t have access to preventative vaccines. However, renewed interest has led to new developments and increased accessibility for these vaccines; scientists are working on a vaccine for humans, in the case of a potential pandemic if bird flu begins inter-human transmission.

We don’t have all the answers to bird flu yet. But, with so many partial solutions in the works, we’ll find a way to push forward—even if the poultry industry is never quite the same.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to HPAI as H1N1. That has been corrected to H5N1. 

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8 days ago

It’s been a personal joy to see the cultural shift in how Americans see and treat pigeons. I hope to see better treatment for all of our domestic birds, but also the humble feral pigeon that we’ve neglected for too long.

Will Falconer, DVM
7 days ago

Author: name that virus properly: H5N1 is the bird flu. Also, please be aware that Gain of Function research has been going on for years now on this same virus. Can’t be good, right?
And, be aware that the culling has failed miserably, while killing millions of non-affected birds. Read more from Joel Salatin, a modern farmer with a sound head on his shoulders: https://brownstone.org/articles/why-are-the-chickens-so-sick/