Archive for February, 2022

Advice from a Vet: How to Protect Your Flock from Avian Influenza*

A new strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is threatening poultry in the United States, both in backyards and in commercial facilities. A backyard flock in Michigan was diagnosed with the virus on February 24, 2022. Home to Roost recently talked with Dr. Anne Staudenmaier, VMD, DABVP (Avian Practice) of Ness Exotics in Lisle, IL, and Dr. Geoffrey Lossie (DVM, MS, DACPV), poultry diagnostician at Purdue University. Both vets provided us some information about the following questions related to avian flu.

Is avian influenza communicable to humans?

Dr. Staudenmaier provided us with a bit of background for this answer: There are many different strains of influenza, and they’re named based on two proteins that lie on the outer shell of the virus: H (for hemagglutinin) and N (for neuraminidase). Viruses are also divided into types A, B, and C. Type A viruses, which include all avian influenza viruses, are able to infect many different types of mammals, including humans, and because of this, are generally the ones responsible for epidemics. Types B and C are less diverse and have more limited host ranges. That being said, not every avian influenza strain is able to infect humans.

There are several subtypes that cause HPAI, including H5N1, H5N7, and H7N9; and several of these HPAI subtypes can affect humans. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the recent HPAI detected in wild birds and domestic flocks does NOT present an immediate public health concern, and human infections with H5 bird flu viruses are rare. In fact, no cases of human infection with highly pathogenic avian influenza A viruses have been detected to date in the United States. However, there are some cases of human infection with low-pathogenic influenza A viruses.

(Our big take-away was that viruses and their naming conventions are complicated. If we’ve gotten something wrong, please let us know!)

Home to Roost note: You can kill viruses and bacteria in poultry and eggs by cooking them to an internal temperature of 165°F. Also, experts say that animal-to-human transmission is unlikely.

How can backyard chicken keepers protect their flocks?

Wild birds are responsible for most cases of transmission to backyard flocks. Shore birds and waterfowl are considered to be natural hosts for influenza viruses and often spread disease during migration paths. Recent reports show bats carrying several new avian influenza strains. To protect your flock, Dr. Lossie points to the importance of biosecurity, especially now:

  • Limit the amount of contact that wild birds have with your birds, including access to food and housing.
  • Avoid hunting waterfowl because hunters can bring the virus back to their flocks.
  • Limit all unnecessary visitors, especially those who have their own poultry.
  • Do not interact with other keepers’ birds.
  • Do not share poultry equipment (feed/water dishes, cages, incubators, etc.) with other keepers.

Dr. Lossie suggests reading the information here.

Should a case of avian flu be reported to the USDA or state department of agriculture?

This strain of virus is a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Highly pathogenic means that this strain will cause more than 75% mortality (it can kill more than ¾ of your flock). If you suspect your flock has this virus, you must report it to the state. According to APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), all bird owners should report sick birds or unusual bird deaths to state/federal officials, either through their state animal health official, the state veterinary regulatory board, or through USDA’s toll-free number at 1-866-536-7593.

There are other reportable strains of low-pathogenic avian influenza (H5 and H7). The disease should be reported because it can cause devastation to commercial poultry flocks and the poultry industry. It is not due to the fear of a human outbreak, as many think; however, that does not mean there is no risk to humans.

A disease that kills even small percentages of commercial flocks can have serious impacts on food production and the economy. For more information on the impact of a devastating epidemic on livestock and the economy, read about the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 in the United Kingdom.

The USDA is very thorough in monitoring the health of wild bird populations and commercial flocks.

What to watch for in your birds?

Dr. Staudenmaier states that the clinical signs can vary depending on the strain and can be nonspecific, or assignable to a number of conditions. Many of the following signs can be seen with other diseases, but there is always concern when multiple birds in a flock show signs, as opposed to just one bird. These signs include:

  • Decreased egg production or abnormal eggs
  • Swelling of the head/comb/wattles/eyelids
  • Purple discoloration of the wattles/comb/legs
  • Nasal discharge, coughing, sneezing
  • Diarrhea
  • Lack of coordination
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sudden death

Dr. Lossie points out that many birds dying in a short period of time can be suggestive of HPAI. The birds may not show signs initially, but after isolating themselves, they may stop eating and drinking and eventually die.

How to diagnose and treat HPAI?

Dr. Lossie stresses that avian influenza can only be tested for by a licensed state veterinary authority. Because avian influenza is considered a foreign animal disease, a state veterinary authority or the USDA, rather than a private veterinarian) should examine the bird(s). Dr. Staudenmaier states that to diagnose HPAI, the vet needs to run a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. This is the same type of test used to detect COVID-19. It searches for the RNA of the virus in samples from the mouth, cloaca, feces, or tissues. Serology, or blood tests, are also used to look for antibodies to the virus. These tests can detect HPAI in poultry but not in other avian species.

Regarding treatment, different recommendations may be made depending on the strain. For low pathogenic avian influenza, as long as it is not an H5 or H7 strain, treatment is supportive and focused on preventing secondary bacterial infections and supporting the immune system with fluids, anti-inflammatories, and vitamins. For HPAI (H5, and H7 strains), always follow the recommendations of your avian vet and your state and comply with all guidelines to ensure the health of the poultry industry. Dr. Lossie cautions that a flock that contracts avian influenza may need to be depopulated to protect others’ flocks and the commercial poultry industry.   

Other helpful info for backyard chicken keepers

Dr. Staudenmaier offers these take-aways for backyard flock owners are the following:

  • Prevent access of wild animals to your birds’ food and water sources. Wild birds and to a lesser extent, wild mammals, can transmit many different diseases to birds. One of the biggest ways to reduce risk is to store food in protected containers. Change food and water daily to reduce the possibility of attracting pests.
  • Contact the USDA APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) and state veterinarian if you have question or concerns. They may be able to help with disease testing at discounted rates if you are worried about a disease like avian influenza.

Note: We thank editor and veterinarian Debra Teachout for her assistance with the science aspects of this article.

*Posted updated March 1, 2022, 3:27 PM.

Visit My Booth at the SCARCE Growin’ Green Garden Market on April 30, 2022!

This market is presented by SCARCE, featuring all manner of gardening supplies, seedlings, compost and more. I will give a short talk on the main points of chicken keeping. It is a family-friendly event, with lots of advice and vendors for green gardening! I hope to see you there. More info is available at the link below:

SCARCE Growin’ Green Garden Market
Saturday, April 30, 2022 9am-1pm

SCARCE Environmental Education Center
800 S. Rohlwing Rd (IL 53), Addison, IL
Note: Located on west side of Rohlwing Rd, about 1/2 mile north of North Ave

SCARCE is an environmental education group dedicated to creating sustainable communities. They present innovative, hands-on education programs for schools and organizations, demonstrate care for people and natural resources through the Reuse Center, and engage the broader public through community-wide events and programs.

My booth at last year’s SCARCE Garden Market!

Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu Hits the United States

A form of avian flu with a high potential to cause disease has appeared in the United States, and it is likely being spread by wild bird migration from the East Coast. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmed an outbreak of avian flu at a commercial turkey farm in Indiana on February 8, 2022, as well as two other locations, a commercial chicken flock in Kentucky and a backyard flock of mixed-species birds in Virginia, on February 12.

The USDA is recommending that backyard chicken keepers take precautions against the disease to keep their flocks safe.

We have reached out to poultry vets, asking for their comments on the outbreak and their tips for backyard chicken keepers. Keep watching this blog, we will post their advice soon!!

Some Basic USDA Tips for Protecting Your Flock

This is just a summary, to get you started on protecting your birds. We recommend that you read the complete guidelines HERE.

  1. Keep germs away: Clean all surfaces and items that come into contact with your chickens, including the clothes, shoes, and hands of anyone who enters the coop.
  2. Limit visitors: People who come into your chicken coop and run can bring in the virus that causes HPAI (Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza) on their clothes, shoes, skin, and hair.
  3. Avoid wild birds and pests: Restrict where your chickens roam so they do not encounter other wild birds or rodents.
  4. Follow the plan: Post these rules by your chicken coop so that everyone knows what to do.

Sexing Chicks: Why It’s Important

Chick-buying season is nearly here! What do you need to know before you head out to the feed store or purchase mail-order chicks?

It is very difficult to tell the gender of newly hatched chicks, and you don’t want to wind up with 50% roosters in your flock. Nothing against the boys, but many communities have prohibitions against roosters. When they begin to crow in the early morning, and randomly throughout the day, you or your neighbors may have issues. Also, chickens don’t pair-bond, and one rooster will have a harem of hens. Two roosters in a flock can mean a fight to the death—or a seriously injured rooster.

If you do wind up with a surprise rooster that you can’t keep, finding a home for him can be difficult. See my blog post, What to Do with the Roos? If you can’t keep the boys, make sure you purchase properly sexed chicks, so you have every likelihood of having only pullets (female chicks).

Important Questions to Ask

  • First, ask the seller if their chicks have been sexed. You want to avoid Straight Run, which means that no effort is made to separate the boys from the girls. Fifty percent of straight-run chicks will be male.
  • Then, ask if the seller will take back any surprise roosters. Not all feed stores/mail-order companies will do this, however.

Methods of Sexing Chicks

Here is some information on sexing techniques and their effectiveness.

  1. Feather Sexing
    In some breeds, the sex of a chick can be determined by the rate of growth of its wing feathers. The method is largely depended on breed. Sometimes the differences are slight, and this is not a 100% certain way of determining gender.
  2. Vent Sexing
    This method involves examining the vent for the male “eminence” or genital organ. It is difficult to do on chickens and requires professional training. Even the pros do not have a 100% accuracy rate! Most hatcheries use vent sexing, but even so, you may get a surprise boy!
  3. Color Sexing / Autosexing
    Some breeds of chickens have been bred to make gender differences more obvious. These methods involve breeding chicks that will indicate their sex by the appearance of their down. Males may be lighter in color, or they may have a pale spot on the head. These breeds are called sex-linked crosses.
  4. Visual Sexing
    If you hatch your own chicks and don’t have color-sexed or auto-sexing breeds, you should be able to tell the sex between four and six weeks of age. This is when the secondary sex characteristics begin to occur: males will have a larger comb and wattles and start to practice crowing. At 8 to 10 weeks, the hackle, saddle, and sickle feathers will become noticeably different.

More information about sexing chicks is available from this Purina Mills article, How to Sex Baby Chicks.

Even if you purchase properly sexed chicks, keep in mind that no method is 100% accurate. Make sure to have a plan in case you accidentally receive a rooster and cannot keep him.

A rooster I met during the Windy City Coop Tour in 2021. This photo shows the enlarged comb and wattles characteristic of mature roosters. These secondary sexual characteristics do not become apparent until a young rooster is between 4 and 6 weeks of age.

Residents of Key West Cry “Fowl” over Feral Chickens

A rooster roaming free in Key West.

Visitors to Key West can’t help but notice the chickens that wander around town, pecking at discarded French fries and potato chips and nesting in alleys and vacant lots. They make for charming tourist photo ops, but some of the locals are understandably annoyed by the frequent crowing at all hours, chicken droppings on sidewalks and door stoops, and even the threatening behavior of some of the more aggressive roosters.

These feral chickens are well fed–even without scraps of food from humans, they can feast on Florida’s abundant foliage and insect population. But some residents purchase bags of food for the critters, and feeding the chickens is a favorite tourist activity. The result: an exploding feral chicken population.

The wild chickens are considered an invasive species. As the chicken population spreads up the Keys, there is concern that they could crowd out some of the last remaining native species of the islands. As Tom Sweets, Executive Director of the Florida Wildlife Center points out, chickens don’t have many natural predators in Key West.

“We get hawks migrating through but they don’t really get the numbers down,” he said in an article for WFSU News.

On the other hand, organic farmers in the Keys welcome the chickens, because they are excellent foragers for bugs that could damage their crops, and their droppings make excellent fertilizer.

Enough people complained to local government about the birds that the Key West City Commission recently passed an ordinance prohibiting the feeding of feral chickens within city limits.

We at Home to Roost approve of this approach to controlling the chicken population, especially because feeding chickens fast food and random table scraps is bad for their health. Chickens are very good at foraging for their own food, especially in a lush environment like Key West.

Another solution that locals favor is to trap the chickens (without harming them) and bring them to the Key West Wildlife Center. Then the chickens are transported to farms and stables on the Florida mainland.

The chicken has become an unofficial symbol of the island, frequently seen on t-shirts, caps, and artwork for sale in Key West boutiques. When I visited the island a few years ago, I fondly remember the Funky Chicken Store. Visiting a vacation area where the chickens run free has its charms, as long as the local chicken population is managed responsibly.

Register Now for Chicken Coop Basics – Online on February 16!

I will present Chicken Coop Basics, the next class in my series for Villa Park Public Library, on February 16, 6:30pm – 8:30pm. I hope you can join me for this free online class!

Register now at this link: Chicken Coop Basics – Online

This class addresses what you need to know about building a safe and comfortable home for your hens. You’ll learn the basic housing needs of backyard birds. Find out the essential components of a coop, construction materials to choose and avoid, important construction tips, and see different coop styles.

When Should I Call the Vet?

When a member of your flock is injured or sick, sometimes it is difficult to know if veterinary care is needed. A predator may have attacked your chicken, and you are not sure if the cuts or scrapes will heal on their own, or if there are worse injuries to attend to. Perhaps your chicken is showing signs of a respiratory infection. Or that bad case of bumblefoot is not responding to home treatments.

While not trained in veterinary medicine, Home to Roost provides “in-between” services for hurt or sick birds that require assistance. We provide first aid and simple at-home, animal husbandry-related solutions; however, for more complicated issues, we will refer you to avian veterinarians for diagnosis and treatment. Visit the “Home to Roost Services” tab of my blog for more information.

Do you need to see a vet? Here are some guidelines:

1. Does your bird have an injury that is life threatening or that involves a wing or leg?  

Any kind of trauma, such as a predator attack, broken bone, amputated limb, or deep wounds, requires a visit to the vet. In these cases, your chicken may need pain medication and/or antibiotics. A trained avian veterinarian should know how to assess the bird’s condition and treat appropriately.

2. Does your bird have a respiratory infection that is not improving?

Signs that suggest a respiratory infection include sneezing, coughing, rattling, wheezing, and mucus coming from your bird’s nares (nostrils). Bubbles in the corner of the eyes can also suggest a respiratory infection. Birds have a complex respiratory system that involves nine air sacs positioned around the body. Because of this complicated system, respiratory infections may not resolve on their own and may require antibiotic treatment. While you might be able to access antibiotics for chickens, antibiotics must be prescribed by a veterinarian.

3. Does your bird have bumblefoot (pododermatitis) that is not improving?

If Epsom salts soaks and drawing salves are not working on your chicken’s bumblefoot, do not perform surgery on your own. Surgery is a delicate procedure that may result in damage to the bird’s foot. Surgery is also very painful, and your bird will need pain medication.

4. Does your bird need antibiotics?

Antibiotics are prescribed based on the kind of infection, the location of the infection, and the purpose of the bird. Some medications are not approved for use in chickens. An avian veterinarian will know what medication to use and how to administer it (injection, drinking water, with a syringe, etc.). It is important to limit unnecessary use of antibiotics; if antibiotics are given too often, bacteria can develop resistance to them, and infections may not respond to future treatment.

5. Does your bird need pain management?

How can you tell when a chicken is in pain? Chickens tend to hide pain to avoid predation and prevent being excluded from the flock. They also do not have facial expressions that can be easily read. A chicken in pain may withdraw from the rest of the flock, show little interest in food, or stop vocalizing. Limping also may be a sign of pain, as well as breathing hard, panting, or a heartbeat that is faster than normal. Chickens often peck at a painful area. Birds that require pain management should be taken to a veterinarian.

Avian Vets in the Chicago Area

If you live in the Chicago area and have a chicken that needs medical attention, I maintain a list of recommended avian vets in the area. Go to the Resources tab of my blog. Tell these practices that Home to Roost sent you!

Jennifer Murtoff
Photo by Liz McCrory,