As if a human pandemic isn’t enough to worry about, now we have to worry about an outbreak of H5N1 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). I’ve been getting regular updates from the Twin Cities chicken keeping list I am on since the outbreak began on the east coast a couple months ago. It made it to Minnesota about two weeks ago.

Minnesota, I have learned, is the largest poultry producer in the United States. The last time HPAI made a visit, 2015-16 I believe it was, millions of birds had to be killed. Granted, the majority of these birds live in cramped quarters at factory farms where, if one bird in a barn of thousands becomes ill, the entire barn has to be killed.

James and I went to a University of Minnesota Extension Service webinar for small flocks the other evening to learn more about it, and to find out how to keep our flock safe and what to do if our hens become ill.

HPAI is a brutal bird flu. A bird that gets it is dead in less than 24-hours. Few survive. And because it is extremely contagious, if one bird in the flock gets it, all of the others will too. While the likelihood of our backyard flock contracting HPAI is small, it is not impossible. There have already been a few backyard flocks in southern Minnesota that had to be killed.

The main carriers of HPAI are water birds. They rarely become ill with the virus, but they will infect other birds. While we live near a lake, we have never had water birds in our garden. Song birds can get it, but they are low risk. The risk for our girls is James or I bringing the virus in on our shoes or other items that came in contact with poo from an infected bird. Say, we walked through the grass at the lake and stepped in some goose poo–very easy to do this time of year–and then came home and visited our chickens while wearing those same shoes. By doing that we could be their death.

Luckily for them, and us, we have never done that. In our six years of chicken keeping, we have been very good about only wearing our chicken shoes–muck boots–when we walk out our backdoor into the garden and never wearing those shoes anyplace else. Still, there have been times when we’ve run out real quick in snow boots or sneakers. We have to be extra careful to not do that right now. We also have to make sure our hands are washed before we visit the chickens (we always wash afterwards), that we wear garden-only clothes, and no casual visitors are allowed.

Even though our girls are at a low risk, it is still worrisome, especially when I turn on the news in the morning to hear about yet another flock that had to be destroyed. Biosecurity is the name of the game right now.

After a week of cold, dreary weather that alternated between rain, sleet, and snow every day, Saturday was finally dry, sunny and warm (53F!). The chickens got to be out in the garden enjoying themselves.

I looked out the kitchen window at one point in the afternoon, and had a good laugh at Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood who were both trying to wallow in the same hole. Both of them were annoyed and neither of them was going to move. So they kept pushing against each other. Mrs. Dashwood would brace a foot against the edge of the wallow hole, push against Elinor, flap dust up on herself, and then role a little. I could see Elinor hunkered down, trying to make herself as solid and immovable as she could when Mrs. Dashwood pushed against her. Then, when Mrs. Dashwood let up, Elinor would return the pushing favor.

I wanted to go out onto the deck and take a little video, but they would hear the door open and come running in hopes of treats. So I kept inside and watched through the window.

Because spring has been slow to take hold, I was able to dig up some sunchokes to cook with dinner. The glories to be found when a human digs in the garden is new to the Nuggets, so when they saw my bowl was empty, they dispersed because there were no evident treats. Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood on the other hand, followed me, and as soon as I kneeled down to dig, they were there, ready to assist.

Mrs. Dashwood got one tiny sunchoke in the first trowel of dirt but then lost interest in the sunchokes and just wanted to dig in the loosened soil. She would not let Elinor edge her way in, so the next tiny sunchoke I tossed over to her. She was thrilled and gobbled it down. Both of them were making their happy clucks. Mrs. D helped me dig, and whenever I found a pea or marble-sized sunchoke I would give it to Elinor.

We soon attracted the attention of the Nuggets. But they had to hang out around the periphery because the other two would not allow them closer. I tossed a little sunchoke into their midst, and because they had no idea what it was, I ended up scaring them, which sent them running off in a panic, not to return.

Today, Sunday, was another warm and sunny day. James was also home with me so the chicken coop and run got a good spring cleaning. James pulled out all the pine shavings, washed down the inside of the coop, washed the nesting boxes, put down fresh diatomaceous earth, and then all fresh pine bedding. While he was doing that I was in the run raking out a winter’s worth of compacted straw.

In the process of raking out the straw, I found a nest of mice. Two mice came scurrying out. Then another little head poked out, and ran. The more I raked, the more mice came running from the nest. I lost count of how many there were. At one point I was standing at the door of the run raking the pile out into the garden, when a mouse ran out between my feet. Elinor was right there and ran between my feet after the mouse. A couple years ago she caught a mouse, and she did it again. It is good that one of her first pecks killed the mouse because the rest of the chickens came running to try and partake of the prize, and the little mouse body ended up in shredded pieces.

Lucy was the next one to catch a mouse. And Mrs. Dashwood figured out where the nest hole in the run is and stood there, waiting. Eventually she caught one too. A little later in the day after we had finished the spring cleaning and I was out checking the laundry on the line, I saw Ethel with a mouse in her beak, so I think she must have caught one too. The mouse population was drastically reduced today. I must say those mice were rather bold, building their nest in the chicken run, but at the same time, they had a fabulous food supply, which is probably why there were so many of them.

Fat Rabbit is too big for the chickens to eat, but James and I are beginning to take steps toward ki’s eviction. We have assessed the garden perimeter and determined what we need to do. We have taken inventory of our supplies. We have begun to establish our defensive foundations.

Assuming we will have a rabbit-free garden in a couple of weeks, I ordered a few plants from Honeyberry USA, a farm located in north central Minnesota. They have more varieties of honeyberries than I knew existed! I only ordered two shrubs (Aurora and Honey Bee) because an article I read from the U of MN extension service suggested that my honeyberries, though severely rabbit damaged, may sprout new canes from the ground.

I also ordered a new Juneberry (serviceberry/Saskatoon), variety Honeywood (there seems to be a honey theme!). And a Crandall clove currant (Ribes odoratum), which I have wanted for ages but have never found a place to get one. They are supposed to be a sweet, juicy black currant. So excited! The plants will be shipped to my door at the end of April/early May.

vegetable seedlings sprouting indoors under a grow light

The indoor sprouting has gone well and the sprouts are growing strong–tomatoes, a couple of peppers, a couple of luffa, and several French marigolds. I have thus far managed not to over water them. This is my first challenge with indoor sprouting. I always kill a few by giving them too much. I seem to have found the balance this time around. My next challenge will come in the middle of May when I need to harden them off before planting them in the garden. I always manage to scorch something. Will I find the right balance this year? We’ll find out in a month!

Reading
  • False Hopes by Eliza Daley on why technology won’t save us from the mess we are in.
  • Scientists sound alarm at US regulator’s new “forever chemicals” definition. One of these days I am going to get around to writing about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Until then, you can read and be horrified by this article that talks about how the government has decided, against scientific evidence, that certain “forever chemicals” are nothing to worry about and will allow companies to continue to pollute the environment and kill us.
  • The 1.5 Degree goal is all but dead by Robinson Meyer. I get Meyer’s weekly climate newsletter from The Atlantic, and, while I appreciate his work, I often find him conservative in his assessments about how messed up things are. But after the final IPCC report that just came out, he’s finally coming around to acknowledging the world will not keep warming to 1.5C
  • Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard. So good!
  • The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk. I loved her book Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I just began Jacob last night and I am enjoying it immensely.
Listening
  • Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson (audiobook). A rogue wave has just destroyed the best defenses of The Netherlands and Rotterdam is flooding. I suppose I would finish the book sooner if I listened to it for more than 30 minutes a week.
  • Between the Covers Podcast: Crafting with Ursula: Karen Joy Fowler on Experimental Women, Animals, Science & Story. This episode is just short of two hours long but worth every single minute.
Watching
  • Star Trek: Picard, season 2. I love Star Trek. I am a fan of Captain Picard. I love Q. But I find this season’s storyline problematic when all of the Star Trek future hinges on one person. History doesn’t work that way and it only serves to perpetuate the “Great Man” mythos. Grrr. So I am working hard on suspending my disbelief on this one and enjoying all the side stories with the rest of the cast.

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11 thoughts on “Bird Flu

  1. May the Ladies stay safe and the water birds stay away! That Crandall clove currant sounds like a wonderful addition to your garden collection, good luck with it. So glad to see you’re enjoying the Tokarczuk so far!

  2. Lovely and thoughtful post. Well, except for when taking a mouse-view – not so lovely. Just sent a card. Let me know if you ideas on best avenues to pursue to find a gooseberry bush.

    1. Thanks Care! Heh, at first i felt sorry for the mice and then I was like, whelp they built their nest in a chicken run so…

      A gooseberry! Honeyberry Farm USA has lots of varieties. I was going to get one but my gooseberries have some buds on them so Fat Rabbit didn’t kill them. Jungs Seeds also is a good company and they sell gooseberries too. Order soon so they can ship them while they are still dormant.

  3. Sounds like you are doing everything you can to avoid the bird flu. I’m sorry it’s around because it undoubtedly causes worry. But you’re doing great! I loved hearing about the chickens’ adventures with the mice snacks. Those were bold mice! I bought a few herbs at the UT Garden plant sale but that’s all. Oregano, parsley, and lovage. I plan to let them flower mostly for the pollinators to enjoy but will also use some in the kitchen. I’ve discovered two herb farms in the area and plan to visit them soon as well. I’m on the hunt for lavender!

    1. Thanks Laila! We are doing our best to keep the chickens safe. I was surprised at how bold those mice were! They must have been very careful all winter to only come out when the chickens were in the coop. The chickens are such good mousers, even better than cats! Yay for herbs! I hope you find some lavender. The May plant sale here has an allegedly MN hardy lavender in it that I am itching to get and try 🙂

  4. I must say that as you described your mice and chickens, I was picturing that scene from Disney’s Cinderella when Gus is trying to get a corn kernel for breakfast, and the chickens are picking them all up. At one point, he has a hold of a kernel that is picked up by a chicken, that tries to shake Gus free. Your story was quite animated (perhaps pun intended?) in my head!

    1. Hahaha GTL! that is excellent! My chickens, it turns out are great mousers and they’d rather eat Gus than shake him off for the kernel of corn!

  5. Glad your chickens aren’t in too much danger from the bird flu. My heart was in my mouth when I read the title of this post.

    1. Thanks Jeanne! We just have to be vigilant, but even though we are low risk, it’s still a little scary. Maybe I should make masks for my chickens? 😀

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