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Raise a Healthy Flock

Author Photo
By Madelaine Fletcher | Jun 27, 2019

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Dusko Matic

From urban hens in Wisconsin to 4-H chicken projects in Florida, the backyard poultry revolution is sweeping the nation. Whether you raise chickens for meat or eggs, breed show birds or game birds, or have a big flock or just a couple of hens, health is an important priority. Practicing the fundamentals of offering your birds sufficient space, clean quarters, healthy, uncontaminated feed, and clean water will go a long way toward keeping chicken diseases at bay. If you take it a little further, you can create a zone of biosecurity around your fowl that’s tough to penetrate.

According to Dr. Fidelis Hegngi, senior staff veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), in some countries, infectious poultry diseases, such as avian influenza (AI) and virulent Newcastle disease (vND), formerly known as exotic Newcastle disease (END), can cause serious problems for flock owners. While these poultry diseases aren’t normally a threat to people, they can make birds sick, and even kill them in extreme cases.

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Sven Klaschik

The best insurance against poultry diseases involves taking a few precautions known collectively as “backyard biosecurity.” Hegngi says backyard biosecurity includes a broad range of practices that can protect your birds from contracting diseases. Above all else, cleanliness is critical. His tips for keeping things clean include:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before entering the poultry yard and before handling your birds. For your own health, wash your hands thoroughly again when finished.
  • Once a week, or as needed, clean and disinfect equipment that comes in contact with your birds or their droppings, including cages, feeders, waterers, and tools. Make sure to remove all dirt and manure before you disinfect.
  • Try to avoid sharing tools and equipment with other poultry owners. If you do borrow tools or cages, clean and disinfect them before they reach your property.
  • Scrub your shoes with disinfectant before working with your birds. It may seem like overkill, but your footwear can easily carry disease to your chickens. Alternatively, keep a pair of shoes or boots near your coop to wear specifically when working with your birds.

Hegngi also advises chicken owners to practice a “keep it away” policy, restricting access to your flock, especially if visitors have poultry of their own.

Photo by Stockphoto.com/Iain Sarjeant

Tips for keeping away outside diseases from your home flock include:

  • Avoid visits to other farms or households with poultry.
  • After you’ve been near other birds or bird owners, clean and disinfect your shoes and clothing before going near your own chickens.
  • If your birds have been to a fair or exhibition, isolate them for two weeks before returning them to the flock. When bringing in new chickens, isolate them for at least 30 days, if possible.
  • Control rodents, as mice and rats carry disease.
  • Keep wild birds away from your flock, because they can transmit diseases. If you raise birds outdoors, when possible, keep enclosures covered with wire mesh or netting, and provide feed and water in an area that’ll minimize contact with wild birds.
  • Properly dispose of dead birds. While deaths are inevitable, if your chickens are sick or dying in rapidly increasing numbers, call your veterinarian, county extension agent, or state department of agriculture for guidance.

Look for Warning Signs

“Bird owners should know the warning signs of bird diseases, such as AI and vND, because early detection can help prevent their spread,” Hegngi says.

Some key signs to look for are:

  • sudden increase in bird deaths in your flock
  • sneezing, gasping for air, coughing, and nasal discharge
  • watery and green diarrhea
  • lack of energy and poor appetite
  • drop in egg production, or soft- or thin-shelled, misshapen eggs (not related to molting and/or first-time layers)
  • swelling around the eyes, neck, and head
  • purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs (AI)
  • tremors, drooping wings, circling, and twisting of the head and neck, or lack of movement

“Early detection of a problem can help protect the health of your flock,” Hegngi says. “USDA/APHIS maintains a website (www.APHIS.usda.gov) with biosecurity information and a host of free resources to help.” Check out this free government resource for a wealth of information on keeping poultry healthy.


This is an excerpt from Raise Backyard Chickens by our sister magazine Mother Earth News(Ogden Publications).

Raise Backyard Chickens

Whether you live on 1,000 acres or 1,000 square feet, there’s plenty of room in your backyard for a flock of chickens. Join the chicken revolution today and be prepared to reap a lifetime of benefits that goes far beyond the enjoyment and the eggs.

In the pages that follow, we help get you started with everything from incubating fertile eggs to receiving and raising day-old chicks to building a chicken coop to keeping your birds safe and healthy. We’ve even outlined a 9-step process to help you promote legalization of backyard bird-keeping in your city or town. You’ll find top-notch advice on how to protect your flock from predators, produce the healthiest eggs, and so much more. And if your interest is in cooking with eggs and/or chicken, we have you covered.

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