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Why prize-winning birds may be absent from New England fairs this year

An outbreak has put a damper on some fine-feathered favorites this year.

The Topsfield Fair opens Friday, and people are eager to whirl through the midway, try some decadent fried food, marvel at the giant pumpkin contest, and watch decorated livestock compete for top prizes.

But if they’re looking forward to seeing flocks of top-tier turkeys, roosters, and hens, they’ll mostly be disappointed: Fair organizers said Tuesday they are canceling nearly all poultry-related events this year because of the nationwide avian flu outbreak.

Fair general manager James O’Brien said he took the advice of the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources after sickly Canada geese were found near the Putnamville Reservoir, about two miles from the fairgrounds. Tests to determine whether the birds were infected with the H5N1 virus are pending.

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“Our poultry show is one of the largest in the state, and we didn’t want to bring birds from all over and potentially have a hazardous situation where we would spread the flu,” O’Brien said. “I have to go with the science.”

There is one exception: the fair’s popular hatchery, where visitors can watch newborn chicks pop out of eggs, is still a go although guests will no longer be allowed to touch the birds once they hatch.

Topsfield is the latest fair across the country to scale back or cancel events involving birds this year as researchers sound the alarm about the highly pathogenic avian influenza spreading via migratory birds across the United States and Canada. The virus poses only a small threat to humans who handle infected birds directly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it’s put farmers on high alert and has dampened an otherwise blue-ribbon year for the fairs, which have seen record crowds.

When cases of avian flu are even suspected, the results can be catastrophic for farms, which often must euthanize flocks en masse to stop the spread. Farmers have lost more than 40 million chickens and turkeys to the outbreak in the United States this year, and it threatens to send national turkey prices skyrocketing.

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Since bringing scores of birds from multiple farms under one roof could easily become a super-spreader event, fairs from Alaska to Ohio have been excluding fowl from their programming.

Just two cases have been discovered this year in Massachusetts domestic flocks (as opposed to migratory birds), in Berkshire County in March and in Bristol County on September 15, and sightings of sick and dead birds have dropped since their peak in June, state officials said. Still, farmers remain worried.

“I’ve got a real close friend who’s got 10,000 hens in one building and he’s scared to death,” said Richard Pitman, vice president of the Deerfield Fair in New Hampshire.

The fair, which kicked off Thursday and is known for its displays of exotic birds, will be bird-free for the first time in memory.

“I’ve ben involved for 40 years and I’ve never heard of” such a widespread cancellation, Pitman said. “In 145 years, we’ve only missed two years. One was World War II, and the other was because of COVID.”

Some fairs are using the setback as a learning opportunity. At the Marshfield Fair, organizers turned its poultry area into an exhibit with educational materials about chickens and the threat the avian flu poses.

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After all, a central mission of agricultural fairs is to teach people how vital, and fragile, the region’s food-producing farms are.

“People don’t understand where their food comes from nowadays. They’re so disconnected from the food supply,” said Jeff Chandler, the fair’s director of animal programs. “Chicken nuggets don’t come from the sky.”

The flu has killed more than 46 million domesticated birds this year, and the US Department of Agriculture has urged backyard chicken owners to keep an eye on their flocks and limit contact with wild birds or their droppings. In Massachusetts, wildlife officials have asked hunters to be on the lookout for sickly birds and take precautions while handling game birds directly.

Locally, some agricultural fairs and smaller bird-related expos around the Northeast have made do by displaying a small collection of birds that are sourced from the same farm and subjected to rigorous testing, according to David Anderson, president of the New England Bantam Club. But it’s been a far cry from a typical fair season and it’s come as a disappointment to the region’s tightknit bird-rearing community, whose members can spend years getting their flocks in competitive shape.

Despite the risks, Anderson said he can’t help but think the cautious approach is a side effect of the hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s 100 percent a COVID mentality,” he said. “Somebody sneezed, everybody better go home.”

Paige Leuci, 7, of Lynnfield, left, got a kick out of seeing chicks hatch before her eyes.Jon Chase

Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerBuell.