Do I Need to be Worried About Bird Flu in my Backyard Chickens?

There is no short answer for the question buzzing across social media and various forums regarding bird flu and how it could impact our backyard flocks. Ultimately, the best tool in preventing avian flu from reaching your flock is knowledge. Understand that avian influenza (AI) is spread both directly, by chickens having contact with infected feces; or indirectly, through air-borne particles. There are different strands of AI. The strand that is currently going around (H5N2) is not considered contagious to humans. For additional information about the bird flu, symptoms and how it is spread, please see these comprehensive resources from the CDCUSDA, WHO, USGS National Wildlife Health and North Carolina State. That being said…

Why is it that Bird Flu is ravaging factory farms while leaving backyard birds mostly untouched?

Everyone is talking about it: WSJ, NPRRuters, CNN, FOX, and others, but most reports are centric to fiscal impact, supply shortage and general fear-mongering. This conversation, instead, needs to be centered around what is fueling this problem. Wild birds have contagious diseases. This is not new, nor is it something we’re ever likely to eradicate. However, what we can control is the environment we raise captive poultry in. Conditions in chicken farming establishments are abhorrent. Gross overcrowding fosters the rapid spread of deadly disease through weak, malnourished poultry. Thankfully, these are not the same conditions found in your backyard.

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Conventionally farmed chickens are forced to wallow in their own feces, lack the ability to dust bath to clean themselves and are denied easy access to fresh food or clean water. I will spare you additional details, but if you’re still curious about factory farm conditions for poultry, you can click here for a short video.

The rapid spread of avian flu among factory farmed poultry is alarming, especially considering the widespread “bio-security” protocols that are in place, supposedly to prevent this type of contamination by “shielding” chickens from any external, or natural exposure. Let’s hope that this outbreak sheds light on the many issues with our country’s conventional poultry farming practices. Just don’t hold your breath, because this isn’t the first time in our life time or even this decade that bird flu has ravaged through the chicken industry.

For many of us, this is a primary reason we started keeping our own chickens, to have more control over the conditions our eggs come from. So, let’s use this time to thoughtfully educate about and enjoy the benefits of keeping backyard chickens in the face of the bird flu outbreak.

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What you can do to help keep your backyard flock healthy:

1. Clean your coop and run regularly, especially if your chickens are confined or semi-confined. Be sure to use gloves and a shovel when working with manure.

2. Provide fresh, clean water for your chickens. For the time being, do not use water from a pond to fill your poultry’s water. Pond water can be contaminated by wild avian.

3. Administer a healthy diet. Just like in humans, a healthy diet helps boost the body’s immune system. Along with their regular feed, chickens need access to fresh greens, like grass or any array of green kitchen or garden scraps, such as spinach, kale, collards, romaine, cabbage, parsley, etc.

4. Do not introduce new birds. Any avian can carry Avian Flu, particularly waterfowl. Now is not the time to introduce any new outside birds to your flock or habitat, unless it is from a trusted breeder. Even then, please exercise caution and discuss any questions and concerns you have with the breeder before bringing new poultry home.

5. Avoid Flock Swaps, fairs and other gatherings where you or your birds will come in contact with other avian. While there is not a lot of concern about avian virus infecting humans right now, you could easily bring home contaminates to your flock.

6. Avoid contact with wild birds. Every backyard set up is different, so there isn’t one clear cut solution for limiting wild birds’ access to your flock. Spend some time in your chicken yard observing. Are wild birds accessing to your flock’s food and water? Is there a way to limit that exposure? Are excess food containers stored properly to protect contamination from rodents? Have you consider netting over top of the habitat to keep wild birds out?

7. Wash your hands. Before and after interacting with your flock. Always.

8. Relax and enjoy. Really. If you’re maintaining high standards of care, just continue monitoring your flock’s health with a watchful eye, as you always do, and don’t worry too much about it.

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5 Easy Ways to Help Bees this Summer

It is an unavoidable reality. Our bees are in trouble. As we become increasingly aware of the issues facing our pollinators and the detrimental impact their decline will have on our local and global food supply, we’re all looking for ways to help. Here are five EASY ways to help local bee populations that take very little time, effort and money.

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Bees are thirsty! They seek out shallow water sources to replenish from, so consider putting out a saucer of fresh water in your garden or on your patio. If you keep it full, in a few days time you will find that you have regular visitors. Bees are notoriously bad swimmers, though, so if you’re using something larger like a bowl or have a bird bath, consider putting a rock or some pebbles for the bees to perch on to drink safely.

4. Plant flowers

Bees are starving; one of the best things you can do to immediately benefit local pollinators is plant food in the form of annual or perennial flowers, as well as flowering trees and shrubs.IMG_0551 Plant in clumps, choosing  flowers of a variety of colors and shapes that bloom at different times throughout the year. Choose flowers native to your area. Native plants naturally occur in the region in which they evolved and subsequently, have additional advantages. They are adapted to local soils and climate conditions, typically require less water and are more often resistant to harmful insects and disease. Additionally, wildlife evolves with plants; therefore, local pollinators have a strong preference for native flowering plants.

Just be sure you do not purchase flowers that have been sprayed with neonics!

PhotoGrid_1432300694885It can be a devastating realization for someone that they may have inadvertently killed or weakened the bees they were trying to benefit by purchasing pollinator-attracting plants from a large retailer or major nursery. Home Depot and Lowe’s have recently made this easier on consumers by voluntarily labeling their plants. Albeit it is in tiny font, tucked away at the base of the plant on a separate, hard to spot, easy to dislodge secondary label, but it’s there. Usually. Unfortunately, the majority of their plants are still currently treated but, in response to customer demand, both major retailers have announced plans to phase out neonic treated plants by 2019. So, in the mean time, be vigilant.

3. Reduce or eliminate use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers at your home

Science has proven time and time and time and time again these are harmful to bees. Specifically, neonicotinoids (neonics) and glyphosate, found in the ever popular RoundUp. Not only are these killing bees, they are harmful to you and your children and are contaminating our soil and water supply. Please stop using them. Seek alternative methods. Pull the weeds by hand, or BONUS: if they flower, just leave them. Bee food.

2. Buy LocalIMG_1413a

Local fruits and veggies, local meat and, of course, local honey! Get to know your farmer/grower/beekeeper. Ask them questions; go visit their property with your children. In addition to supporting pollinators, buying local reduces emissions, leaving you cleaner air and water, helps strengthen your local economy, and bolster your community’s knowledge, health and ecological longevity.

1. Encourage and educate others

We can talk about wide spread regulation of pesticides and grand conservation efforts all we want, and trust me that is being done at length, but that takes time. The quickest way to make a positive impact is to start now in your own community.Talk to your coworkers and the individuals at your place of employment responsible for lawn care; talk to your neighbors and friends about reducing pesticide use and planting pollinator friendly landscaping. Take time to understand how our actions such as urbanization and suburban landscape, the loss of biodiversity through monocrop agricultural practices and pesticide use collectively impact bee populations and how our choices as individuals and communities play a roll in that.

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Rescuing a Goose and her Goslings

We found ourselves in a Home Depot parking lot late one night last week with a dilemma. A Canada Goose had made her nest in a small island of a relatively busy parking lot. She had dutifully sat on that nest among the constant disturbance of loud shoppers, boisterous children, heavy vehicle traffic and the never ending flicker of street lights for three long weeks, bringing us all together to this moment. Her babies had hatched that day. Some other kind soul provided her a small Tupperware of water that she had tipped over, leaving it empty. I bent over to fill it from my water bottle while she hissed and we weighed our options…

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The newly hatched babies can’t last long without access to water and there was no way Mother Goose was going to be able to safely navigate her brood through the parking lot and across multiple roads to the closest pond or lake, especially without the help of her mate who was no longer in the picture.

“Well, what do you want to do?” But we both already knew the answer before the Handy Man even asked. We couldn’t just leave them there. “It is Earth Day, after all,” I shrugged and that set us in motion. The employees at Home Depot kindly gave us a large empty box to transport her and after a brief debate about who would take off their shirt to cover her with (I won, for obvious reasons), and a little strategizing, we quickly secured Mother Goose and her seven goslings to the box. She was weak and easy to catch. Too easy, really. We decided to relocated them to the security of our backyard for the night, and asses further action in the morning.

We ushered our ducks to the safety of their house and set her up a hay nest next to the small man-made duck pond where she could sleep peacefully for the night. The next morning we awoke to all seven goslings playing boisterously in the pond, devouring the unmowed grass.

IMG_0518IMG_0526  The rest of the farm was intrigued by the visitors, but kept their distance. IMG_0525 A little rest, food and water had done everyone good and they were ready for their final relocation and release at a near by pond. For the record, catching a rested, nourished Mother Goose was significantly more terrifying than catching the one we had encountered in the parking lot. There are no photos or video of the capture, but this pretty much sums it up, if you were wondering what that is like…

This fairy tale ending made it all worth it, though.

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This isn’t an uncommon problem for geese. Over hunting and loss of habitat took its toll and by the 1950s they were believed to be extinct until, in 1962, a small flock was found in Minnesota and a breeding and release program was established. They have rebounded, but still have on going issues with habitat disruption. In the US, these geese are largely considered pests due to their droppings, noise and confrontational demeanor in urban environments. As suitable nesting habitats dissipate, geese have turned increasingly to man-made havens.

Things to know if you happen upon a nesting goose in an urban environment:

Do not feed them! These are wild animals. You do not want them becoming dependent on human food, nor do you want to give them food that is damaging to their very complex digestive systems. Bread is a big no-no! The goal is to guide them safely to an area where they have the ability to feed themselves and their babies appropriately.

Do not remove a goose from its nest if the eggs have not hatched. Wait until all eggs have hatched before relocating the bird. Any disturbance to the nest and eggs will likely result in death to the unhatched birds.

Do not separate the goose from her goslings. This causes obvious emotional trauma for the parents and the goslings, who rely on their parents for protection and food. Goslings left to fend for themselves fail to develop proper socially, struggle learning basic flight skills and become non migratory without someone to teach them the complex migratory patterns.

Make sure to relocate the gander with the goose and goslings. Geese are monogamous and mate for life around the age of two. The gander shares incubation responsibilities and helps raise the goslings, so taking his family away from him would be devastating to everyone involved. If you can not locate the gander or truly do not believe he is still in the picture, all is not completely lost. The goose will go through a period of morning and likely find a new mate the following year.

Limit physical handling as much as possible and do your best to mitigate the stress of the situation. It is preferable to gather a group of people to gently herd the geese away from hazards to a near by body of water verses capturing and relocating.