“We’re concerned that if this virus moves into this state, it could be devastating,” says North Carolina’s Assistant Commissioner for Consumer Protection Joe Reardon, describing the strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza that’s decimating poultry flocks in the Midwest.

“We’ve seen in the Midwest that over 50 million birds had to be depopulated because of this virus,” says Reardon. “It is, without question, the deadliest virus that has ever come into the United States of America.”

Officials in North Carolina worry if the flu spreads here it could cripple the state’s $18 billion dollar poultry industry for years to come.

“If we get this virus, and we hope that we don’t, it may last in our environment for three to five years or more, and so it may be something that we struggle with for many, many, many years to come,” warns Reardon. “Our success in planning now and working together will directly affect what the lasting affects may be from this virus.”

Wild waterfowl are thought to be carriers of the virus, and state officials are warning that when ducks and geese migrate south in the fall, they may spread the disease along the Atlantic flyway that crosses North Carolina.

Reardon says those wild birds pose the biggest threat to backyard chicken flocks, which spend more time outside than their commercial counterparts.

“What we’re learning from the USDA is that the virulence of this particular virus for backyard birds is greater now than it was months ago. What that means is it takes less exposure, less virus, to have a greater impact.”

Late last month, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture announced a plan to register every backyard bird in the state. Reardon says that’s the best way to make sure all poultry owners stay informed about the threat of avian influenza in their area.

Although online registration is voluntary, the drive has set off alarm bells among poultry owners statewide.

“Basically, I feel as though it’s an invasion of privacy for backyard chicken owners,” says Nicole Revels, the creator of a Facebook page called NO to NC Chicken Registration that’s garnered more than 1,300 supporters in just a few days. “It feels like a regulatory burden from Big Brother and an intrusion into our personal lives and everyday affairs.”

Revels is circulating a petition calling on Department of Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler to drop the mandate. She worries it could be the first step in a plan to seize and kill birds.

“There’s been some speculation that perhaps they are wanting to register everyone’s backyard chickens in order to exterminate them, should there be a reported case of avian flu,” says Revels.

Reardon says his office will work with bird owners to test for avian influenza. Further, he notes that the registration effort is voluntary and officials are not planning to enforce penalties against those who don’t participate.

“Our goal is not to take regulatory action on anybody,” says Reardon. “We want voluntary compliance, and we hope we can get our message out there, and they can understand our intent, that this is about being able to communicate so they can preserve their birds and keep them safe.”

Still, Revels says the emergency order feels heavy-handed and she’s not convinced it will help protect backyard flocks.

“If they wanted to really track every potential threat of avian flu, they would have to register every bird in the sky, and that’s not feasible.”

For more on avian influenza, including a link to the Department of Agriculture’s online registration form, click here.