Crisp mornings and warm sun. Longer days, daffodils and singing birds mean that spring has finally returned to work. The songbirds aren’t the only ones nesting. Our flocks are happily soaking up the great weather and starting their own breeding season. It is also chick time, and many of us are preparing for the exciting shipment or caring for those chicks that have already arrived.
With the start of a new season, it is time to go over the cleaning and husbandry tasks of keeping a productive and thriving coop. Dirty coops and chicken areas are one of the main reasons chicken-keeping gets banned. The coop needs to be spotless! Chickens should never smell. And keeping livestock requires more diligence and upkeep/maintenance than having dogs or cats.
Obviously, this isn’t just for spring! This daily chore is the least glamorous but the most imperative (critical, crucial, can’t ever do without) daily task we do with our birds. Droppings need to be removed several times a day, especially when the birds are in. Chickens are extremely fastidious and clean animals – all birds are, as this is a survival feature. Chickens are descended from tropical, bush dwelling jungle fowl that spend their days foraging and dust bathing, but never “hanging” out in the same spot. Chickens were never genetically engineered to hover about their own manure. When cleaning, focus on feeding areas and under the roosts. Diligently remove and compost the droppings. Check all roost poles and coop furniture for, well, poop.
Remove the manure and scrub the area. I have an old army dining knife I use to scrape up the dried and stuck stuff. You can use a bottle of agricultural disinfectant (I keep a spray bottle in the coop) and these cleaners are available at eFowl. I use Oxine as it is (OSMI) organic and made from a stabilized chlorine – dioxide, food production area grade of chlorine. You can use it to clean the eggs as well. If you hate the idea of any chemicals and that’s smart simply rub an opened lemon or lime over the area and clean using the squeezed out juice. The smell is wonderful and you can hear those nasty bacteria and viruses dying. Agriculture lime is a great scrub. And good ol’ soapy water cleans great too. A clean coop should never have accumulated poop.
Chicken yards MUST be cleaned as well. If you keep your chickens in pens (not recommended, unless you rotate the areas to prevent parasite loading and tired ground that readily leads to disease and infected injuries like bumble foot), be sure to keep that ground free of droppings.
Keeping birds in a single area also encourages rodents, bird infestations, flies and other undesirable additions. Heavily used pens or runs need to be limed and turned over regularly.
Be especially diligent to clean and disinfect roost poles and ramps. Do this weekly. Dirty (and you can’t see the bacteria!) roosts are directly attributed to staph foot infections.
A healthy chicken gets that way from the inside out. Healthy chickens (AND clean coops and runs) are the best and fool-proof way to prevent disease. Prevention is always key. You want to be sure that the birds’ immune systems are up and running at all times. Check e-fowl for a wide selection of foods and supplements (https://www.efowl.com/Poultry_Supplies_s/51.htm). Provide good-quality prepared food (organic if you can), supplements including probiotics and seaweed/vitamin mixes, fresh greens and fruits. Only feed chickens human-grade and well-cooked meats or fish. Never feed moldy or stale foods. Clean all food dishes after feeding human foods.
A rule of thumb for food bowls and water bowls if you wouldn’t drink or eat from it it isn’t clean enough for the birds either.
Well, this is one to think over and chat away with the folks on the back porch. Chickens get worms. They usually get some of them from bugs (crickets and grasshoppers and earthworms). Do not feed the chickens bait-grown insects, some have been linked to tapeworms (I know first hand). A strong immune system keeps worms at bay. You can use natural remedies to help prevent worm build-up. Old stand-bys are garlic, pumpkin seeds, papaya seeds, etc. Try this one, Zyfend. If you have a significant infestation use a conventional wormer. I use a special preparation of imported oregano oil and piperine which has been proven to reduce parasite and protozoan burdens (VERY important for turkey keepers watching out for black head).
Why all of this matters
Once you bring poultry home you are now a pivotal member of our community. What you do and how you raise your chickens affects us all. The news loves to spread the word about chickens but they also love to blow-up bad stories too. The recent rash (couldn’t resist) of backyard poultry salmonella fear stories are essentially internet pop science.
Everybody’s favorite word. The risk of contracting salmonella (or any other disease) from healthy backyard flocks is so minimal it is barely worth mentioning. Yet, for some strange reason it makes the news. As us chick keepers and long-time farmers know, the chances of getting sick from our animals is really minimal. There is researched evidence that proves we have enhanced immune systems when exposed to other animals. One study, from the journal Pediatrics, reiterates that, “findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood.”
Poop is a fact of life for us and we are usually harboring some of it!
I eat and drink with my birds, we share food, I cuddle and kiss them on a daily basis, and according to the internet scientist this puts me on the same recklessness scale as bungee jumpers and drag racers. Like other farmers, I come from a loooong line of madcap critter handlers. I guess we are risk takers. I am sure there are other fellow keepers that have had fecal matter sprayed across their face while bathing an unhappy show bird! I instruct all of my clients to cuddle and handle and kiss their birds. This is how you bond, and chickens absolutely love to snuggle against your face they just do.
And healthy birds living in clean environments are about as likely to get you sick as a meteor is to strike your house. For those who are immune compromised, just be more careful, use common sense, and always wash your hands after handling. Children under 5 should always be watched when they are around animals – and anything else!
Perspectives and debunking the pet chicken salmonella risks
Here are some common sense and enlightening research results. Always purchase birds (and people food!) from reputable sources. If you rescue poultry from dubious places use extra caution you know the ropes I don’t need to preach to the choir.
- Humans as significant human-disease risks – Studies by independent labs and the NSF conclude that humans provide the most significant source of disease-causing organisms – including salmonella (the kind that causes disease in humans), coliform (in 81% of, most likely non-poultry keeping, houses tested) and e-coli.
- Food-borne outbreaks – 1 in 5 or 6 humans contract illness from food. There has been some to-do about hatchery chicks and bacteria. Well, folks look at these numbers. I am using a loose collective from the CDC as numbers are fairly consistent.
- Live poultry out of roughly 50 million chicks hatched (CDC, 2011) only 96 reported cases of salmonella. In 2013 (CDC), reports of 158 cases of poultry linked salmonella. Yes, it is that low.
Additional fact: It would take 50,000 salmonella cells to sicken a healthy chicken. It takes 10 of these cells to sicken a chronically stressed bird.
- Human food cases (CDC 2006 -2010): outbreaks of salmonella and other organisms leading to 23 deaths 29, 444. Let me rephrase that 29, 444.
The CDC estimates that food-borne cases of salmonella are hovering around 1.2 million cases (not 158!).
I may never go out to eat again, but I am sure going to kiss those chickens!!!
- Pets in the home. As the CDC website states, Healthy pets Healthy People (http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/dogs.html) and that sums up how we need to approach our poultry as well.
- Dog and cat feces health risks: toxoplasmosis, hookworm, campylobacter and MRSA contaminated pet toys (23% of houses had contaminated pet toys, NSF). This NSF study is corroborated by the CDC, MRSA strains isolated from household pets typically are prevalent human strains that likely were acquired from human contacts (CDC).
Yet, we do not see these warnings about handling and keeping dogs and cats at pet stores. The same rules apply to our poultry family members you are at no more of a risk working and enjoying your poultry than enjoying your dog or cat. In fact, poultry never carry the deadly rabies virus, and they do not use the litter box and then walk across your kitchen counter. Why is THAT not in the news!?
Final word folks use common sense, keep your chicken areas clean and sanitized, and darn it -ENJOY those birdies!
Respiratory Tract Illnesses During the First Year of Life: Effect of Dog and Cat Contacts, Pediatrics,8/1/2012 .
NSF International, http://www.nsf.org/newsroom_pdf/2011_NSF_Household_Germ_Study_exec-summary.pdf