Jake LePage of Northeast Laboratory Services packages vials containing poultry vaccine in Winslow in March 2021. Poultry can be vaccinated against a variety of diseases, but there is currently no vaccination for a highly pathogenic type of avian influenza, known as H5N1. As the avian flu circulated across the state and country last year, Tom and Judy Abbott of West Gardiner said they raised 78 turkeys at Foggy Moon Farm with no problem. Their chicks were already inoculated when they arrived on the farm. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

LITCHFIELD — Mike Robinson is keeping a sharp eye on his chickens.

At RMT Farms on Academy Road, the 65 chickens he currently has on site are allowed to roam freely on the farm’s 35 acres, along with the other rescue animals he and his crew tend.

“We just keep a close eye,” he said. “They come in every night, so we’re able to check over them. And we have cameras around the whole property so we can see if a bird is acting (in a) way it shouldn’t be acting when we’re not there.”

Now that avian influenza has been identified in Kennebec County where Litchfield is located, Robinson said he’s going to continue to keep an eye on his chickens, but they will continue to have the run of his pastures.

For more than a year, the highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) has been circulating throughout most of the United States, resulting in widespread infections of domestic commercial poultry flocks. To slow the spread of the disease, millions of birds have been euthanized, which has affected the supply of chicken, turkeys and eggs.

In Maine, avian influenza was first identified in Waldo County in a backyard flock in February 2022. Since then, it has been identified and tracked in wild birds by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in coastal counties and Penobscot County. The state Department of Agriculture, which rates the current risk posed by avian influenza as high, has tracked the presence of the virus in backyard flocks that until this month were only in Maine’s coastal counties.


Last week, it was confirmed to be spreading in Kennebec County for the first time. The state Department of Agriculture reported it in a backyard flock in the county, and the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife confirmed the six hooded merganser ducks that had been found dead at Mill Stream in Winthrop at the end of January had tested positive.

On Monday, Mark Latti, IF&W communications director, said more sick and dead ducks have since been found at that location.

Animal health experts are urging vigilance for people who keep poultry regardless of where they are in Maine, because the disease is carried by wild birds and can be spread when they come in contact with domestic flocks.

“As a bird owner, it does not mean that if you don’t live in Kennebec County you have nothing to worry about,” Carolun Hurwitz, assistant state veterinarian, said. “That is not the case, and that is not the message we want people to hear.”

Wild waterfowl, which carry the virus, are drawn to water and they can be attracted by what people feed their own backyard flocks, she said. Keeping domestic birds from the chance of exposure to wild flocks is critical.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Oxford County,” she said. “We haven’t had a case there yet. But the risk remains, because we have so much of this virus in wild birds. So if your birds have access to wild waterfowl, they are also at risk. It doesn’t matter where we are located.”


In West Gardiner, Tom and Judy Abbott have been raising beef, pork and poultry at Foggy Moon Farm for about 25 years.

Last year, the Abbotts raised 78 turkeys with no problem. Their chicks were already inoculated when they arrived on the farm.

Cage-free chickens walk in a fenced pasture at an organic farm in Iowa in October 2015. AP

Because they had had a problem with predators — Judy Abbott thought a bald eagle was preying on the flock — they installed netting both over and around the turkeys’ outside pen.

“Even through it may be present here, I doubt when we start again in July there will be any exposure whatsoever, simply because of the process that’s followed,” Abbott said. “We would know if we had a problem, because they would start dying.”

One year, viral pneumonia spread among the turkeys and the Abbotts lost most of the flock.

“Those things happen to farmers,” she said. “It’s always something.”


Hurwitz, the assistant state veterinarian, said the Department of Agriculture has information on its website, and people can sign up for status updates via email.

She said it is best practice to contain domestic livestock, including poultry. That doesn’t mean they have to be shut up inside a barn, but they should be able to be kept separated from wild birds by fencing or a coop or some combination of both.

The reason for the separation is wild waterfowl are generally uniquely adapted to tolerate the influenza virus, but that’s not the case with the highly pathogenic strain of the current outbreak.

“We’re all worried about the transmission of avian influenza, because it’s a highly impactful disease,” Hurwitz said. “And we’re seeing a lot of birds die. We’re still learning a lot about the virus.”

In Litchfield, Robinson said his farm is regularly inspected by both state agriculture and wildlife officials, and he and his crew practice biosecurity to keep the animals safe by limiting access to lessen the possibility of disease transmission.

When the farm takes in new birds, they are isolated until they are cleared to join the rest of the flock. The size of the flock fluctuates during the year, as the farm and sanctuary takes in drop-offs, which peak in the spring and late fall, as well as older birds.

And when the chickens are in the field, he said, the emus and alpacas tend to drive off wild birds.

Robinson said he didn’t hatch chicks to sell last year nor will he do so this year, because he didn’t want to take the chance of spreading disease and the market for chicks has been down.

“(Avian influenza) is always going to be here,” Robinson said. “You just gotta watch your birds more closely.”

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