Protecting Chickens from Avian Flu

Are backyard chickens the great American bird flu threat? A poultry expert weighs in on how people who keep flocks of chickens at home in the United States can protect their birds — and their families and neighbors — from the threat of avian flu.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. There is more frightening news about bird flu. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. At a conference in Singapore, an American researcher said the current virus is the worst he's ever seen. He called it a vicious killer. And a White House report out this week warns that if the virus evolves so humans can pass it on, millions might die.

BRAND: Many experts say migrating birds will bring the flu to this country soon, probably by infecting a flock of backyard chickens somewhere. And with chickens somewhere is practically everywhere. But don't panic yet.

CHADWICK: If we do wind up in a battle with bird flu, it's probably going to start in a place like Fontana, near the desert edge on the vast grid cluster of Southern California. Here, on phantom front lines, Francine Bradley is an army of one.

Dr. FRANCINE BRADLEY (Poultry Specialist, University of California, Davis): Many years ago every county had a poultry farm advisor and I'm the one poultry specialist left in California.

CHADWICK: She'll swat a word for emphasis or pause sometimes in the strained, patience of someone often misunderstood. Francine was a farm kid. Now, hardly anyone knows about farms. But people love chickens anyway.

Dr. BRADLEY: I've had clubs in downtown Oakland -- we called them the condo chicken kids. They lived in condominiums and they would keep two chickens in a cage on the balcony of their condominium.

CHADWICK: Birds. She's talking about backyard chickens. A lot of experts think that bird flu will spread to backyard chickens, or back balcony chickens for that matter, from wild birds, and that it will take off from there. But it's hard to know about backyard chickens. How many are there, for instance? Researchers once tried to calculate local numbers from chicken feeds sales in San Francisco.

Dr. BRADLEY: They were astounding with the tonnage of chicken feed that sold on a weekly basis.

CHADWICK: Tonnage?

Dr. BRADLEY: Yes. So you think San Francisco, there can't be chickens in San Francisco. There are chickens in San Francisco. So, there are chickens everywhere you look or listen.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

CHADWICK: Okay. There are a lot of neighborhood chickens.

(Soundbite of chicken clucking)

CHADWICK: So, doesn't that mean that we are vulnerable? Yard chickens might get sick from migrating birds and we could get sick from them?

Dr. BRADLEY: Certainly we know that birds that come from Siberia will migrate as far as Alaska so they can co-mingle with birds that do migrate through California. Our commercial poultry is under cover.

CHADWICK: Big chicken farms she means, with barns like warehouses.

Dr. BRADLEY: But yes, backyard flocks can be more vulnerable if the people do not keep their birds confined and in covered pens.

CHADWICK: And this is what has Francine down in Fontana, hundreds of miles from her office at the University of California at Davis.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

CHADWICK: She's passing through a gate here and into a backyard, a dog pen on one side, a long chicken coop on the other.

Dr. BRADLEY: See you've got a Polish over there, a White-crested Polish.

Ms. JENNA CHADOVICH(ph): In the middle pen there is a Black-frizzled (unintelligible).

CHADWICK: These chickens belong to Jenna Chadovich.

Ms. CHADOVICH: She's over there sitting on her eggs, which she kind of separated on her own. And behind is a White-frizzled (unintelligible).

CHADWICK: There's a rooster with a spray of head feathers that suggests Rod Stewart's barber.

(Soundbite of rooster)

CHADWICK: This is not a farm. This is a normal-looking yard behind a neighborhood house. Jenna's mom never had chickens. Her dad didn't either.

What happened with you?

Ms. CHADOVICH: Walking through the fairs, I just see all the kids with their animals and I'm like, you know what, that's what I want to do.

CHADWICK: She got into 4-H. These are show chickens with ribbons. Francine says chickens make good pets. They're smarter than you think. They can learn to do tricks, though she doesn't specify which ones.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

CHADWICK: This place must be loud at dawn.

Ms. CHADOVICH: The people behind us have chickens. Down the street, I believe there's some chickens. You can hear them in the neighborhood.

CHADWICK: Jenna is showing Francine what she's doing to keep these birds safe from avian flu. And it's a lot, the sturdy shed, the individual raised cages inside, the daily precautions against introducing germs.

Ms. CHADOVICH: You worry about, you know, your shoes. We have a set of just backyard shoes that come back here. and so, you're kind of keeping it more contained so with avian flu we're a little more prepared for it.

Dr. Bradley, what do you think about these chickens?

Dr. BRADLEY: Oh, I'm very impressed with Jenna's set up. I'm delighted that she has all her birds in confined, protective housing. Often backyarders, they like the idea of having free-roaming chickens, but that's not best for the safety and the protection of the birds.

CHADWICK: Dr. Bradley, are you saying that there basically should not be any more such thing as a barnyard chicken?

Dr. BRADLEY: No, definitely not. Each person has to make a decision what he or she is willing to do in terms of bio-security.

CHADWICK: Bio-security. Kids wander through a county fair and fall in love with a 4H chicken, that's normal. And next, they encounter a concept like bio-security.

Dr. BRADLEY: For folks who currently have birds free-roaming, I would encourage them to at least confine your birds.

CHADWICK: Francine launches into a Zen-like progression, ever higher states of bio-security consciousness.

Dr. BRADLEY: For people who've already confined their birds but don't have a top on the pen, I'd say now is a good time to put a top on the pen. If they have a top on the pen, but it's not solid, I'd say now better than ever this is a time for investment, this season, is get a solid top.

CHADWICK: Otherwise a migrating bird flying overhead might drop something. Or it might see a water bowl or food dish and come down with germs. But there are more likely ways for chickens to get sick.

Dr. BRADLEY: With a backyard situation, typically, who wants to come back and see your chickens? Other people who have chickens, who like chickens. So you want to cut that stream of traffic, because you don't know what they're birds might have.

CHADWICK: You don't want to take something from one flock to another flock?

Dr. BRADLEY: Exactly. Exactly.

CHADWICK: That is how disease is likely to spread, she said. People get contaminated, maybe on a trip overseas and they come back without thinking. Or worse, here's something she worries about. A diseased bird falls into a farmyard somewhere and pigs get at it, or a cat. They're mammals and some of them already carry human viruses.

Dr. BRADLEY: Then you have the opportunity for that mammal, potentially, to become infected with avian influenza and maybe with a human virus, have those two to commingle and then produce a virus that will more readily pass from human to human.

CHADWICK: The threat from backyard chickens, Francine says, is actually not so big. People are vigilant. There are labs and testing procedures and not just in California, in every state. Still, there is one threat she worries she cannot stop: misinformation spread by the news media. Let us note how few stories about a bird flu pandemic stress how really unlikely a pandemic is. Misinformation, dear listeners.

Dr. BRADLEY: Unfortunately, oftentimes the media gives just enough information to frighten the listener. And certainly, that's what's happened in many European countries. People saw photos of the birds dying and assumed then that if they ate poultry meat or products that they, too, would become infected, which, of course, is not the case.

CHADWICK: But news reports from a couple of months ago carried the story. Poultry sales off 70 percent in Italy, 40 percent in Greece, 15 percent in France.

Dr. BRADLEY: And it's had catastrophic impacts on the livelihoods and the economies of those countries. So say once again, we do not have avian influenza in the United States, but should we have an isolated outbreak there still will be no danger to eating properly cooked poultry and eggs.

CHADWICK: Backyard chickens are not the avian flu threat, Francine Bradley is saying. We are the threat, if we don't care for the chickens properly. And one more time now...

Dr. BRADLEY: You do not get the disease from eating properly cooked poultry or poultry products, that's very important.

CHADWICK: Dr. Bradley, thank you.

Dr. BRADLEY: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: And good luck.

Dr. BRADLEY: We'll need it.

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