Maryland is beefing up its poultry regulations to guard against the outbreak of diseases such as the avian flu, and the new rules will require registration of pet birds -- including parakeets, canaries and parrots -- if there are four or more in a household.
The new regulations, which are being drafted by the state Department of Agriculture, also will require commercial poultry and egg-laying operations to be registered, along with backyard flocks of chickens and racing pigeons.
"We want to know where the birds are so we can respond rapidly if there's a problem," said state veterinarian Guy Hohenhaus. "If we know where the birds are, we can better identify the risk and improve our chances of preventing an outbreak of a disease flu and its spread."
The program is designed to help protect Maryland's poultry industry, which accounts for about one-third of total farm sales, as well as public health, Hohenhaus said.
He said the new regulations also could help state officials deal with a potentially devastating outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease. Three years ago, the disease forced federal officials to destroy more than 3 million chickens and turkeys in California and neighboring states at a cost of nearly $200 million.
It was believed that the disease came from parakeets smuggled from Mexico.
An outbreak of avian flu on the Eastern Shore in 2004 resulted in the destruction of more than 300,000 chickens.
"Poultry is Maryland's No. 1 agricultural commodity involving more than 2,500 farm families and 14,000 poultry company employees on Delmarva," Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said in a recent news release announcing the program.
"The registration program is designed to protect all the poultry and bird industries in the state -- from commercial to agri-tourism to backyard flocks," Riley said.
"In the event of any avian disease outbreak, a rapid response is essential in preventing the spread of disease and the loss of family income."
There also is concern among scientists that migratory birds could eventually carry the deadly strain of the avian flu -- H5N1 -- to the United States. This is the form of the flu that has killed people in other parts of the world.
Hohenhaus said the registration program would not be "hugely helpful" in combating the West Nile virus, another bird-associated illness.
Hohenhaus said the state would use the registration process as a way of getting information on ways to prevent diseases to poultry farmers and pet owners.
"If we get to the people, we can explain things they can do to reduce the risk," he said. "We would have phone numbers and fax numbers. If there was a problem, we could inform them not to take their birds to a show or not to take them outside."
There is no cost to register, said Kate Wagner, a spokeswoman with the Agriculture Department.
Wagner said that a chick or baby duck given as a gift would not need to be registered if it is in a household for less than four months. But registration would be required for birds that are around longer than four months and destined to be sold, have their eggs sold or are used for breeding.
Marilyn Bassford, coordinator of the program at the Agriculture Department, said there would be no penalties for failing to register. But this could change, she said, once the writing of the regulations is complete.
She said the department would be trying to get word of the program out by sending a newsletter to Maryland's 2,500 veterinarians and displaying exhibits at state and county fairs and other farm events.
Bassford said registrations will be kept confidential. Registrants' identities will be protected, according the department, unless it is determined that disclosure is necessary to protect public health or prevent the spread of disease.
This is the second major move by the state this year designed to prevent the spread of bird flu. In January, Delmarva poultry companies, in conjunction with the Agriculture Department, initiated a plan to test commercial poultry flocks for avian flu before the birds go to market.
Previously about 40 percent of the birds were tested in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, the three states that make up one of the nation's largest poultry-producing regions.