First-time flock owners sometimes feel completely lost, as though they’ve been tossed into an ocean without knowing how to swim. It’s a common sentiment, one shared even by those you’d expect to be experts when it comes to raising chickens.
Mike reached out to me over Easter weekend. He felt it was the perfect time to talk chicks. Not only does he come from a long line of chicken keepers—his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all kept breeding flicks—but Mike has a leg up on other poultry owners.
He’s a veterinarian with his own clinic in southern New Mexico.
During vet school, Mike had a required poultry unit, which involved learning about viral, bacterial and fungal infections common to poultry as well as conducting necropsies. From time to time, he uses that training outside of his clinic, inspecting poultry-processing facilities. All his studying about poultry illness and morbidity left a lingering effect on the good doctor.
When I asked him what questions I could answer for him regarding starting a microflock of chickens, Mike immediately replied, “How do I avoid getting sick?”
The hot topic right now for chicken owners is Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), otherwise known as bird flu. Bird flu has infected flocks in the US and around the world for years, with the latest American outbreak occurring in 2014. The current outbreak, however, has far more drastically affected poultry due to its presence in thousands of migratory birds, which spread the disease via their droppings and through direct contact with other birds.
Agriculture officials, working with avian veterinary pathologists, have been euthanizing infected flocks to reduce the contagion. We’ve seen the results: sky-rocketing egg prices as millions of laying hens—more than 6 million in Colorado alone—are euthanized. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), almost 60 million commercial, hobby and backyard chickens and wild birds have tested positive for HPAI since January 2022.
Despite the dire conditions, there is encouraging news: only one case of avian-to-human transmission of HPAI has been confirmed in the U.S. since the start of this poultry pandemic. The infected individual was not a backyard or hobby flock owner but rather one of the specialists tasked with directly handling and culling the infected birds. Also, his only symptom was fatigue.
The CDC has actively monitored the more than 2,500 people involved in the nationwide culling operation and otherwise exposed to the current strain of HPAI and, so far, only this one infection has been confirmed. As a result, the CDC considers the risk of transmission to be low.
This is welcome and reassuring information for anybody concerned about getting sick from bird flu via their chickens.
The more realistic health threat posed by backyard flocks is Salmonella infection. The CDC estimates that there are approximately 1.35 million confirmed cases of Salmonella in the U.S. each year, with more than 25,000 resulting in hospitalization. Not all of these cases are caused by contact with chickens or eggs. Most result from eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water.
In fact, the CDC estimates that only one out of every 20,000 eggs is contaminated with Salmonella.
Still, the potential threat of getting sick from Salmonella is nothing to ignore, especially by owners of backyard chickens. Chickens can carry Salmonella and spread the bacteria to their eggs and chicks. Such basic flock-keeping activities as collecting eggs, refilling feeders and waterers, cleaning out coops, and cuddling chicks can be enough to spread the bacteria from bird to human. Fortunately, contamination is easily preventable.
Steps to Take
Putting measures in place to prevent the transmission of avian-based illness is rather easy. It’s making these practices routine that involves repetition and effort. It may seem inconvenient to not just dash out to the coop for a couple of fresh eggs, but every step taken helps keep everyone healthier.
Consider implementing these measures as part of your everyday flock upkeep:
- Wash your hands with antibacterial soap and hot water after handling birds, eggs or any poultry equipments or housing.
- Throw away cracked eggs and eggs with feces-covered shells.
- Cook egg dishes to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees F. Both the yolk and white should be firm, not runny.
- Designate footwear that is to be worn only inside the chicken run and coop and nowhere else, including the yard or garden. This will limit the spread of Salmonella via droppings carried on the soles of the shoes or boots.
- Consider purchasing a set of coveralls to wear over your regular clothing when working in the coop or run. Keep the coveralls in a sealed storage bag in your coop or garden shed, not inside your home or garage.
- If you free-range your flock, rinse off or scrub the tires of your tractor, lawn mower and any other vehicle that comes into contact with the flock’s range.
- Sanitize your bird feeders and waterers regularly.
- Avoid hanging wild-bird feeders or installing wild-bird nesting boxes and baths in your yard.
- If at all possible, install a roof over your chicken run or cover your run with fine bird netting to keep wild birds out. If you are building your first coop, consider a fully contained coop with a covered run and 1/4-inch mesh fencing. Small birds such as English house sparrows can easily fit through traditional 2×4 mesh fencing.
Michael was relieved to hear that common-sense measures similar to those already in practice at his clinic was all that was needed to safeguard himself against getting sick once he begins keeping chickens. For now, he is planning to review blueprints for fully contained coops and quite possibly design his own to ensure not only his health but also that of his flock.