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Local Agriculture

California Agriculture Officials Are Destroying IE Chickens Spreading Newcastle Disease

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A deadly disease called Newcastle is killing chickens mainly across San Bernardino County, and it's spreading.  KVCR's Benjamin Purper has more.

If you have chickens, ducks, or any other type of bird you think might be susceptible to this disease, you can call the California Department of Food and Agriculture at 866-922-BIRD. 

Outside a small house in Muscoy, a small rural community next to the city of San Bernardino, workers in hazmat suits are carrying trash bags off the property. In the backyard, Tyler Zurcher is helping the workers round up his twenty or so chickens and ducks.

And then?

“I had the hazmat - called the ‘de-population crew’ - come and gas my birds with C02,” Zurcher says. 

The workers are there from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, or CDFA. Their job is to detect cases of a disease that’s highly lethal to poultry. They go in, test your birds, and if the tests come back positive, that’s when the de-population crew comes in.

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Credit Benjamin Purper / KVCR
Tyler Zurcher inspects his now-empty chicken coop after surrendering his chickens to the CDFA.

“So they round up all my birds with nets, and they’ve got just a nondescript trash can with a bag lined on the inside, and they have a CO2 tank with a tube leading into the top,” Zurcher says.

“So they put in a few birds, turn on the gas. Then when you wait until you stop hearing all the death throes, pretty much.”

That may seem drastic, but there’s a reason why the state has to take those measures. Zurcher’s chickens have virulent Newcastle, a contagious disease that’s essentially a death sentence for any bird that contracts it.

Some of Zurcher’s birds died from Newcastle before the hazmat crew came in. Once that happened, he considered butchering the flock himself – but then decided it would be best to let the CDFA do its job.

“It’s a shame to watch some of them succumb to the sickness, but I decided that was best,” Zurcher says. “Rather than me lobbing off heads prematurely.”

Zurcher’s flock isn’t the only one in the area to test positive for Newcastle. Steve Lyle, Director of Public Affairs for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, says they’ve found the disease at 43 residential properties in Southern California.

“39 of those are in San Bernardino County, two of them are in Riverside County, and one is in Los Angeles County,” Lyle says.

That’s led to quarantines around certain areas, Muscoy included. The quarantine simply means that animals in those areas have to be isolated, while the CDFA tries to get the problem under control.

The last time this happened, in 2003, the disease ended up spreading to commercial farms, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It’s a much more limited incident compared to what occurred back in 2003,” Lyle says.

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Credit Benjamin Purper / KVCR
Just hours before, this chicken run was home to about 20 chickens and ducks.

But it’s also not over yet. Lyle says the outbreak could, in a worst case scenario, have nationwide consequences.

“It could spread across the country, worst case, and be introduced into both residential and commercial poultry flocks across the country,” he says.

That is, of course, the worst case scenario. There’s no way to predict how bad this will get, but Lyle says that there are some encouraging signs.

“We can say that compared to 2002-2003, it is a smaller incident at this point in the project,” Lyle says.

Tyler Zurcher says he’s not happy to lose his entire flock in one day, but it isn’t a huge loss for him. He said the team from the CDFA was easy to work with, and that they’re offering compensation for the birds they had to get rid of.

“The sheer fact that they’re paying me for my birds is crazy, I did not expect that,” he says. “Because I agree with them that we just need to stomp out this disease. And so I was just turning over my flock like, ‘Yeah, this is the disease, let’s get rid of it.’”

Zurcher says he did have a connection to these birds, but it doesn’t really feel like he lost twenty pets today. He understands that their lives are pretty short, and fickle. That’s just what farming is like sometimes, he says.

“It’s hard to lose them to something as obscure as this disease, but… hard? Not like twenty pets,” Zurcher says.

“It’s not like I lost twenty dogs at once.”

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