Currently there are 41 chickens on our small parcel of land. Our layer flock of eleven birds and one rooster free range when we’re home and haven’t seen the fox for a while. The other 29 birds range from 5 days old to 2 weeks and are currently in brooders in the basement, but eventually they will live outdoors in small movable chicken coops referred to as chicken tractors. They’ll free range with our layers during the day and be tucked in at night. Some of these 29 birds will find other homes, some will replace our current layers, while others will be sent to slaughter to feed our family.
Between deciding what we wanted to add to our flock, how many meat birds we wanted to raise, and placing the order for the chicks, my news feed on social media and e-mail began to fill up with articles and information on the sudden cases of H5N1, what was previously known as an avian flu virus striking only in Asiatic zones, had finally across seas to the United States.
One sick chicken can wipe out an entire flock. If any bird in the migratory path that flies over our home carries the H5N1 virus, one small amount of dropping in our stream or on our land can spread the disease to our birds. If that happened we would have to kill off the entire flock, clean up our land as best we could, disinfect the coop or replace it, and wait for at least a year, possibly more, before we could restock out homestead with birds of any sort. What would be even more devastating would be the potential for the H5N1 virus to transfer to our lovebird, a beloved pet and criddo (critter kiddo) that we’ve had for 11 years.
So far the H5N1 virus has not been reported in any migratory paths that flow over Maine. We’re watching the reports like a hawk – pun intended. If there were to be any reports of avian flu in the migratory path that brings the birds over our homestead, we would have to take more severe biosecurity measures. We’re already planning on locking in our flock at the end of the year, meaning no new birds enter the flock unless they are hatched here in Maine, where there have been no reports of avian flu, and ideally all new birds will be hatched here on the homestead, from our own stock. The additional steps? They’re more severe. Our flock would lose the ability to free range. We would be building a larger coop and more run space to compensate. Visitors from other homesteads would have to wear protective booties over their foot ware on our property. We would have shoes only for work on the homestead, shoes that would never be worn on errands or to visit other people. Bleach, something that hasn’t been in bought with our money in 9 years, would return to our home as a common cleaner, mostly for cleaning off car tires after visiting other homesteaders’ properties. We would no longer be able to have feeders for the song birds, and most disturbingly, we would have to trap, scare off, or kill off the visiting ducks and turkeys we have every year.
It’s scary to think about. We began building our homestead with the desire to eat healthy, non-genetically manipulated food and to make sure that we can feed our family even in the worst case scenarios. When something so evasive and unnoticeable as a virus poses a treat to the entire way our life has been built, it makes you jumpy. You become hyper vigilant of your flock, constantly staring at them to see if they appear healthy. Bird watching while you drink your morning coffee takes on new meaning: it’s no longer a peaceful time, but one that makes you feel akin to an anti-terrorist agent on a stake out. It’s hard to let go of the fear and live your life as a homesteaders without it taking away the joy. Another battler added on to all the others that come with this lifestyle. Is it worth the stress, worry, and fear that comes with each new hurdle? I think so.
***Some of this blog post will be used in my thesis project regarding homesteading. I’m posting it here as well as it is of real concern for our little homestead. In the next few months, I hope to keep track of the movement of the H5N1 virus well enough to ensure the health of my flock, but my intuition already tells me that we need to prepare for the possible chance of it being an issue here in Maine. This fall, despite all the other financial set backs we have had, we will be buying an incubator for home use. It feels like the safest bet in keeping out flock locked down. I pray and hope that we are over-preparing and over-planning…***