6 Basic Rules For Backyard Biosecurity

With a few simple practices in place, you can reduce your chickens’ risk of contracting life-threatening illnesses.

by Rachel Hurd Anger
PHOTO: Rachel Hurd Anger

The biggest threat to backyard flocks and poultry farms is infectious disease transmitted by humans, wild birds and migratory waterfowl. Specifically, the USDA is most concerned about the viral threats of avian influenza, aka bird flu, and exotic Newcastle disease. These biosecurity basics will help keep your backyard flock healthy and prevent the spread of disease between flocks and poultry farms.

1. Isolate New Flock Mates

Any new birds you bring home, whether they’re shipped from a hatchery, purchased at a feed store or adopted from an online ad, should be kept separate from your flock for 30 days. USDA also recommends a two-week quarantine for any birds that have attended a fair or exhibition.

2. Protect Chicken Feed

Wild birds love your chicken feed, especially when food is scarce elsewhere, and they will mingle with your chickens, sharing illnesses and even parasites. If your flock free ranges, devise a system that limits wild-bird access, whether it’s by using a special feeder or by feeding only what the flock will eat at regular intervals throughout the day.

3. Keep The Chicken Yard Clean

Chicken areas, like the coop and run, should be kept clean enough that the areas do not stink. Moisture buildup in bedding, excess feces in the coop and ammonia odor all work together to contribute to general ill health, leaving chickens’ immune systems more susceptible to illnesses they might be exposed to. These dirty areas can also harbor bacteria, viruses and parasites from wild birds visiting the area. Additionally, any new equipment from a store that has been in contact with other birds should be cleaned before using it with your flock.

While humans are not at risk of contracting bird flu or Newcastle disease, we are susceptible to other illnesses, like Salmonella, so always wash your hands thoroughly, clean your shoes and change your clothes after working with your birds to help protect your own health.

4. Limit Coop Access

The USDA advises that no one else who keeps chickens should come into contact with your flock, and that garden and yard tools shouldn’t be shared between neighbors unless the tools are cleaned. Avian influenza and Newcastle disease can be present in a flock without symptoms, and humans can transmit these viruses between flocks with infectious matter, including manure on shoes, clothing and tools.

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5. Deter Wild Birds

Just like wild birds are attracted to chicken feed, it’s impossible to keep wild birds out of the yard and away from the flock if they have access to birdseed on your property. Bird feeders attract dozens of wild birds, and chickens will eat whatever the birds drop. Eliminate bird feeders, or simply stop filling them.

6. Report Chicken Illnesses and Deaths

Without a second thought, report sick, dying or dead chickens (or wild birds) to the USDA at 1-866-536-7593. This is a free service, and it can help protect other flocks and poultry farms near you.

USDA says, “AI viruses can infect chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese and guinea fowl, as well as a wide variety of other birds,” and various strains of bird flu “can remain viable at moderate temperatures for long periods in the environment and can survive indefinitely in frozen material.”

Symptoms of avian influenza include:

  • asymptomatic sudden death
  • lack of energy and loss of appetite
  • decreased egg production
  • egg deformities
  • swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks
  • purple discoloration of wattles, combs and legs
  • nasal discharge
  • coughing and sneezing
  • lack of coordination
  • diarrhea

Newcastle disease is nearly 100-percent fatal in an infected flock, but most often it infects confined birds in commercial poultry operations. The USDA warns, “The END virus can survive for several weeks in a warm and humid environment on birds’ feathers, manure, and other materials. It can survive indefinitely in frozen material. However, the virus is destroyed rapidly by dehydration and by the ultraviolet rays in sunlight.”

Symptoms of exotic Newcastle disease include:

  • sudden death and subsequent deaths in the flock
  • sneezing, gasping, coughing and nasal discharge
  • greenish, watery diarrhea
  • swelling of the eyes and neck
  • decreased activity, tremors, drooped wings, twisting of head and neck, circling, complete stiffness

For more information about backyard biosecurity and reporting information, visit the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

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