If you were hoping to tour one of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s pheasant farms this fall, forget it.
That’s not happening.
The tours, usually conducted in September to showcase the agency’s work to raise and stock ringnecks for hunters, have been cancelled. A virus born in Asia is to blame.
A strain of avian influenza that’s behind rising egg prices exists in waterfowl populations in the Midwest. It’s suspected a few of those birds may bring it to Pennsylvania – as well as Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida – this fall by veering off their normal course and enter the Atlantic flyway.
The flu doesn’t harm the ducks, not does it hurt people or mammals. But when they pass it along in the form of feces, domestic chickens and turkeys – and in this case, pheasants – can get sick and die.
The flu – which is thought to have moved from Asia to Russia to Alaska to the Pacific northwest and now further east – somehow “recombined” to become more deadly to domestic poultry, according to experts at Penn State University. It’s devastated the poultry industry in states such as Minnesota, they said.
The Game Commission wants to do all it can to keep from losing its birds, hence the cancellation of tours, and the creation of a bunch of other “biosecurity” measures.
Justin Brown, the commission’s wildlife veterinarian, said game farm workers have been educated about influenza ecology and its impacts. They’re now trying to prevent truck tires, equipment or boot soles to carry pathogens from wetlands to pheasant pens, and making sure that any clinically ill bird is quickly administered diagnostic tests.
“But there’s only so much we can do with our captive farms because they’re open facilities. In the unlikely event a dabbling duck flies over and defecates into a pen or enclosure, we may have a problem,” Brown said. “But we will be closely monitoring the birds and looking for any sign of an outbreak so that we may respond quickly and appropriately.”
The commission intends to do disease surveillance in ducks this fall, especially around Presque Isle in collaboration with the University of Georgia.
It’s unlikely other species of wild birds — like turkeys and ruffed grouse – will experience any large scale die-off because of the flu, Brown added. Some will perish if the disease shows up here, he said. But unlike pen-reared birds, they’re too spread out at low densities. Any birds that get sick would likely die before infecting too many others, he said.
But that’s not farm pheasants, and so the farm tours are gone for this year.