Reviews | Bird flu means I quarantine my chickens
Since January, a highly contagious strain of bird flu has traveled west from the east coast, leaving havoc in its wake. Some 37 million chickens and turkeys have been killed either because of the disease itself or because of efforts to stop its spread. Dozens of bald eagles and thousands of wild birds have died, but poultry – chickens in particular – have borne the brunt of this virus.
For months, anyone with backyard chickens has wondered if they should “flock” their chickens until the threat of bird flu passes. There’s no real way of knowing how long this might last. In Britain, chickens and other poultry were kept indoors by government order in November. The restrictions were not lifted until early May.
This virus is difficult to stop because it is mainly spread by wild birds. But we don’t really know how widespread bird flu is in wild populations. It is likely that waterfowl can carry the virus, spreading it from pond to pond during spring migration. From there, the virus can either find its way directly to domestic birds – maybe someone has a pond in their yard or their chickens, like mine, like to munch on spilled seeds under a feeder. The virus can also find its way into a chicken coop on shoes, clothing, or even through items like food bags.
With the exception of two older hens, rescued from an egg farm when they were considered too old to be profitable, I have raised all of my hens since they were one day old. I have watched them go from fluffy chicks to fully mature hens. They each have names and quirks. My dwarf, Emmylou, likes to lay her eggs in the yard where I can’t find them. Peggy, a tall gray hen with a jaunty beard, is the leader of the herd and comes between the fights and breaks them up with just a look. Olivia, a Black Copper Marans who lays chocolate-colored speckled eggs, is convinced that she is constantly starving and will push others away when I hand out treats.
Although they live in a coop and provide lots of eggs, I don’t consider them any different than any cockatiel or parakeet I’ve had. I hire a pet sitter when I’m out of town, and they go to the vet when they get sick. That’s why, when the first case of bird flu was confirmed, I decided that the chickens would be confined to quarters until the threat of disease passed.
Usually, chickens spend part of the day in their coop with an enclosed enclosure where they have room to perch, scratch, and wash off dust. For the rest of the day, they have my suburban half-acre yard running. They nap in the sun, peck worms and dandelion leaves, and sometimes stretch their wings with a leap in the air. No more. Now they’re stuck in their coop and running around for weeks, even months, while I try to find ways to keep them from getting bored. I’m even looking for ways to sanitize my “chicken shoes” before entering the coop to avoid tracking the virus.
This is a small scale version of what commercial poultry farmers normally do. It’s easier to keep chickens in large, enclosed coops away from other birds that can spread disease and to limit the number of people who can go inside. When I visited a hatchery a few years ago, I had to wait until I hadn’t been around other chickens for a few days and wear clean shoe covers over my shoes for biosecurity reasons. The threat is real: the virulent Newcastle disease caused the death of more than a million birds in California in 2019. In the last outbreak of avian flu, in 2015, more than 50 million birds were euthanized in the USA.
Best practices for the backyard hen keeper are harder to pin down. Most of the guidelines sent out by state agencies are densely worded and seem written for farmers large and small — not people who like to hang around and watch their chickens peck in the yard at the end of a long day. . While social media chicken forums are full of people looking for information on how to protect their flocks, the advice is mostly unofficial and common sense. Dismantle your bird feeders. Keep your birds in an enclosed enclosure. Only enter the chicken area with clean clothes and shoes to avoid spreading disease.
So, once again, we are alone in the face of a virus. Neither the chickens nor their keeper are happy about this, but at least I know I’m trying to save their lives.