Your Thanksgiving turkey is going to be a lot pricier this year. The avian flu epidemic has taken a terrible toll on the nation's turkey farms this year — "the virus has already eliminated more than 6 million turkeys nationwide, about 14 percent of the nation's total turkey production," The Washington Post reports.
The situation is producing, among other things, some very bad puns: "Thanksgiving turkey prices this year will put you in a 'fowl' mood," San Diego's CBS8 warned viewers. But the effect is real. Turkey prices are already up 73 percent compared to last year — almost $2 a pound for a typical bird, up from $1.15. What is the avian flu, and how much will it affect America's holiday celebrations? Here's everything you need to know:
What is the avian flu?
It's a virus that seems to affect mostly birds — naturally — and it's really terrible for them. "The highly pathogenic viruses spread quickly and may kill nearly an entire poultry flock within 48 hours," the Centers for Disease Control says on its explainer page. Even less-dangerous versions of the virus "may cause only mild symptoms such as ruffled feathers or a drop in egg production."
What is going on with the current outbreak?
A deadly version of the virus is circulating now. "More than 47 million birds have died due to infections and cullings" Reuters reports. Just about any place that keeps a population of domesticated birds, including farms, zoos, and animal rehabilitation centers, "have scrambled to put new precautions in place, moving vulnerable birds inside and suspending public programs."
"This year's avian influenza outbreak is the worst the United States has experienced since 2015, the last time the country was hit hard by bird flu," The New York Times reports. That year, roughly 50 million birds either died from the illness or were slaughtered to prevent its spread.
Why is it spreading so fast?
No one is entirely sure, but there are theories — including the possibility that the virus has mutated and adapted. "Scientists believe wild migratory birds brought the virus to North America at the beginning of the year and have spread the virus to more than 40 wild bird species," NPR reports.
As usual with these sorts of things, climate change is probably part of the equation: Drought in California, for example, has reduced the size of the state's wetlands where birds often stop during their migration. That means "wintering flocks may be both unusually crowded and especially mobile," Sarah Trent reports for High County News. This outbreak is spreading mostly among wild birds, though and that makes it easy to spread: "Flocks across the continent are migrating now toward Central and South America, home to the largest diversity of bird species on Earth."
Didn't a famous TikTok bird get sick?
Well, yes and no. Taylor Blake on the Knuckle Bump Farm in South Florida reported earlier this month that Emmanuel the Emu was sick with the bird flu, prompting a wave of headlines in major news outlets. And while the avian flu did knock out the farm's menagerie of chickens, ducks, and geese, Blake said this week that Emmanuel's illness has turned out not to be the avian flu after all. "Emmanuel the emu does not have the avian flu as was suspected, but instead has been experiencing high levels of stress after a strain struck dozens of fellow birds on the farm," NPR reports.
Do humans need to worry about getting sick?
There is probably no need to panic. "Bird flu viruses do not normally infect humans," the CDC says, although there are exceptions if people somehow get the virus in their mouth, eyes, or nose, and the agency adds: "As these viruses threaten domestic poultry throughout the world, they are also a risk to workers worldwide who have contact with poultry." For the folks at home, the danger is less pronounced. The Guardian reports that scientists in Great Britain said "the risk to public health from the virus was very low and that properly cooked poultry and eggs were safe to eat."
So I'm probably safe. What about my Thanksgiving plans?
That might depend on how dedicated you are to a poultry-based holiday — and how much you're willing to shell out for your bird. Most analysts think turkeys will stay expensive, but they don't seem that worried about a shortfall. You should be able to get a turkey if you really want one. "It's been a difficult year for turkey farmers, but we do not have concerns about availability for the holiday," Beth Breeding, spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation, told USA Today — although she recommended making this year's turkey purchase a little bit earlier than usual.
But if the higher price is too much to handle during a year when everything else is also a lot more expensive, it's always possible to rethink your holiday traditions. After all, you don't need a turkey to have a great meal involving mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.