Avian Flu 2022



1.

What do you imagine of when you think ‘homesteading’?

Do you think of bagging up dead poultry in a homemade hazmat suit? What about eating healthy, homegrown vegetables your whole life only to suffer chronic illness because those vegetables were grown in chemical laden soil? Maybe you’re clearing land for your farmhouse while itching a harsh rash from the Browntail Moth or dealing with the acute affects of a tick borne illness.

.

This is a difficult lifestyle. We are drawn to this way of life because we want to get out of the rat race, get away from the constant fumes and chemicals and stacking of people that city and even suburban life entails. We want to create our own worlds, grow our own food, live in connection with nature. What they don’t tell you is that nature does not necessarily want to live with us.

.

When we first arrived here six years ago I was all about the bucolic visions. I’d wander through the tall grass in a flowing skirt and imagine I was a flower child. I’d watch my domesticated birds interact with wild fowl and laugh about conversations they might be having in my head. Yes, we were working hard, learning lessons and mastering skills, it was not an easy life. But it was idyllic.

.

In 2017 while cutting back the invasive vines that threatened to choke out our properties older trees, my husband was bitten by a tick and suffered acute Lyme disease. I spent most of last summer covered in lotions as Browntail Moth rash itched it way across my body, and the moths themselves decimated our apple and oak trees. Nearby farms are being put out of business, their family livelihood disappearing because of chemicals dumped into our soils. And in the space of a week I have gone from a flock of over fifty beloved birds to zero because of the aggression pathogen that is Avian Flu.

.

Note: I feel I should add, while you’re more than welcome to share any opinions you may have, it isn’t productive to judge folks for their flocks catching this illness. We want to encourage people to report and take precautions, not feel they should hide the fact this is an issue. That belief is part of why I’m sharing this story.


2.

Avian Flu — March 2022

What happened here

.

One day, we had a deceased chicken. The next, three. And by that afternoon the birds were dropping all around us. I knew immediately it was Avian flu. I had been dreading this moment since the first news bulletins hit in February. But was I able to stop it? No.

.

Our flock was 22 geese strong, about a dozen chickens, seven guinea fowl, and about a dozen ducks. They’re all gone now. These are birds who rode in the back of our car to move from our previous home to this one six years ago. The birds for whom we prioritized building a pond. The birds I spend a ridiculous amount on feeding all winter long. Birds I’ve hatched and held in my hands while they are still wet from being inside eggs. Birds that have followed me, peeping urgently, all around the garden during spring planting. Birds who protect my garden from pests, my other animals from ticks. Birds whose eggs I have enjoyed and sold and shared and made delicious new recipes with. Birds I have never once considered killing and eating because they were, each and everyone of them, my friends. Mrs. Goose, celebrity goose, gracing the back cover of the wonderful On The Farm book. Rupert and Petunia, star-crossed lovers of the avian world. Giacomo who went to live at a neighbors only to fly to another nearby friend’s and eventually make his way home. Cuddles and Cuddles, who would sit in your lap and coo softly while you stroked their backs. The geese who, every talk I give I credit with inspiring us to find a farm and start this magnificent journey. The originators of the incredible growth that has been the last six years of my life. The inspirations behind my starting to write and penning my first book.

.

Sentimentality aside, what happened? I am not going to dedicate too much space here to how you can prevent avian flu in your flock. There is quite a bit of information out there, it boils down to keep your birds inside until summer, no possible contact with wild birds. I will explain that after we added the pond to our property two years ago, we’ve become a migratory stop for hundreds of wild ducks. The pond is also, obviously, a favorite with our waterfowl who refuse to leave its shores when spring comes (the ducks even swimming to the middle of it at bedtime to get out of having to leave). And the pond was basically a petri dish for avian influenza.

.

Why didn’t I keep my birds inside as the authorities suggested? To be honest, I have treated geese a bit like potato chips — I couldn’t have just one. I joked I wanted at least one of each breed. And why shouldn’t I? We have the land to allow them to flourish and live their best life, to truly embrace the gooseness of the goose. The fact they free ranged fearlessly was a point of pride for me, and watching them cross our fields nibbling grass filled my hear with joy that they were as happy as geese could possibly be.

When avian flu news first broke this spring, I did try to pen them up for about half a day in their stall in the barn. They beat each other mercilessly — it was the height of mating season, hormones running high, and our inside space was not big enough to safely contain a flock of our size for longer than overnight.

In all honesty, with the same flock size and conditions I probably do the same again. What I would do differently is to have a smaller flock, never expanding beyond the number of birds that could be comfortably kept enclosed for weeks on end if necessary. Even if that meant only two or three birds — which in my mind it does, because to be a happy bird, they really do need space.


3.

What do you do?

.

Information on how to practice flock biosecurity is extensive. I won’t go into it too much here. Do ensure that you have the ability to take biosecurity measures for your flock, and all farm animals. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because nothing bad has happened before.

Also, side note - human visitors are a huge part of biosecurity. Yes, wild ducks can fly into your pond or even just soar overhead and drop the virus on you. But some friendly person can also track it onto your farm on their boots. We live in a very rural spot, but we happen to be on a public road. In the summer we see tourists stopping their cars to take pictures of the goats, and we have more than one neighbor who walks the road and wanders to our fence lines to pet the animals. This is NOT ok. It seems sweet and neighboroughly. But it could cost your animals’ lives. And bird flu isn’t the only threat here, there are numerous diseases people can carry from farm to farm that affect livestock. Someone is visiting your farm and wants to get out of their car and walk around where your animals live? Without exception, they should bring a change of shoes or bleach-bath their shoes, wash their hands, and not engage with your animals without your explicit approval.

.

If you find sick or dead birds, be encouraged to call the USDA. I did not want to. I knew it meant the culling of my entire flock. I had read it would mean months not being allowed in my barn — where my goats and sheep live. I was worried they’d just swoop in with hazmat suits and no bedside manner. But they were extremely accommodating. They do not euthanize any birds until it is confirmed the disease is avian flu (and if a different disease is found, they’ll talk you through treatments). They ask you to quarantine poultry equipment and take basic hygiene steps, but are deeply respectful of your property and space, and do not make any rules about what you can or cannot do on your property. They answers any questions or concerns you may have, if you’re freaking out about any associated health risks or your other animals, they are veterinarians who will talk you through it. They also offer compensation for your flock, which may sound a bit tawdry but if your birds are a source of income for your farm that’s going to be an vital salve on the wound of losing your poultry.

.

Be EXTREMELY CAREFUL if you plan to add poultry this year. Use only reputable sources that practice careful biosecurity, quarantine new birds, and quite frankly I would avoid new birds until this wave has passed.

.

I am also going to link a very helpful map from the USDA in my stories which shows where the cases are. Interestingly while huge factory farms in the midwest mean that they have the highest number of bird fatalities, Maine is by far the leader in the virus’ effect on backyard flocks.


4.

Adapting to new realities.

.

So where do we go from here? I don’t believe this will be the last bout of bird flu that runs through our state. The other hostilities of this geographic location aren’t changing, and I doubt the hostilities of your environment and the human impact on it will either. We do tick checks and soil tests; we do the best we can.

.

We moved to the country to escape the worst of modern society. But people have already encroached on our rural places to the point that nature is fighting back, and now we have to defend ourselves against her even though our deepest desire has been to connect with her. That is the harsh reality I’ve come to accept after years of ‘Hostile Valley’ living.

.

As for our plan with poultry — we aren’t done, but we are changing. We plan to take the year off, which will give us time to tweak some designs in our coops and move spaces around. In the future, we’d like to have a small flock of 4-5 geese to wander the property and provide us with eggs and entertainment. I will make it a priority to keep all the same breed, keep my numbers small, and whichever breed we choose to keep we may offer hatching eggs to people and help promote a rare or unique type of goose. We can dig our pond deeper and maybe someday swim it in since it won’t be home to dozens of waterfowl. We can clean up our coop spaces and transfer some of them to weaning areas for goats and sheep and equipment storage. We want to have a farm where we aren’t struggling to keep up, and where we can provide each and every animal with the individual attention they need to thrive - quality over quantity, if you will. At the moment, that means continuing our breeding programs with the goats and sheep (programs I am deeply proud of), but not expanding our herds. It means always being comfortable that our infrastructure could handle any quarantining or separations needed for our animals. And of course, keeping up with routine health and good nutrition every step of the way.

.

This is not meant to scare people away, nor is it giving up on my part. It is a bit of a warning, a realty check that the challenges you’ll face homesteading go beyond what you might have imagined. And it will mark some shifts on our farm. But I still deeply believe this lifestyle is right for me, and right for many others who want to connect more deeply with their food and their world. The fact that nature seems to be fighting back is precisely because we have lived in such disconnect from her for so long, factory farming birds, ignoring climate change and shaping nature to our ideas instead of the other way around. If you live this lifestyle, you’ll have to do some battles with nature because others before you have mistreated her.

.

RSS Feed

Follow us on facebook at hostilevalleyliving

or on instagram at

hostilevalleyliving

Questions?  Feel free to email us at hostilevalleyliving@gmail.com