August 2010
From the State Vet's Office

Canary in a Coal Mine

I suppose most people have heard the phrase "canary in a coal mine." The phrase refers back to a practice used by coal miners until well into the 20th century. Canaries were very sensitive to certain dangerous gases like methane and carbon monoxide, which were sometimes found in mines. The miners would carry a canary into the mine with them. So long as the canary was singing, the air supply was good and the miners could keep working. When the canary stopped singing, it meant immediate evacuation for the miners. Technology has changed that practice and nowadays it only exists as part of coal mining lore. In Alabama, the number three poultry broiler state in the country, backyard chickens, hobby flocks and exhibition poultry sort of act as the canaries in the coal mine for the poultry industry.

When I was a kid, fresh chicken meant exactly that — fresh. The fried chicken on your plate was processed by grandma about two hours earlier. It was pretty common for most country folks to have a few backyard or barnyard chickens to provide the family with eggs and fried chicken when the preacher came to dinner on Sunday after church. There are many things factoring into the decrease in the practice of chickens roaming free on the farm. Predators have made it necessary for those who keep backyard chickens to at least keep them in a pen. That on top of the fact of the neighbors in the subdivision getting a little upset when your chickens come over and roost above their new vehicles. Nonetheless, the practice of owning poultry outside of being a commercial poultry grower is alive and well in our state. In fact I have a small flock of chickens in a pen in my backyard. It is a good opportunity to let my kids know where food comes from and have the responsibility of taking care of the flock.

If something should happen to my flock and I no longer had my backyard birds, it wouldn’t have much of a negative impact on the economy of the state, my family budget or my kid’s education. My birds and other backyard flocks can, however, have an impact on the commercial poultry industry which is so important to our state. Just like the "canary in the coal mine," when backyard chickens get sick, it is time to take measures to protect the poultry industry, both commercial and noncommercial.

Diseases like avian influenza and other diseases carried by water fowl and other wild birds can more easily infect the backyard-type birds because of husbandry practices that may not limit exposure to wild birds. There are a number of diseases that can affect chickens. Many of these diseases can be kept to a minimum through good husbandry practices, good nutrition and biosecurity practices.

There are times when these diseases break out in the noncommercial poultry. That is where we can help. If you have ever heard me speak, I like to say, "I’m from the government and I am here to help you." Through surveillance programs, our poultry diagnostic laboratories and the National Poultry Improvement plan, we offer help in keeping the backyard chicken producer in business. And a healthy noncommercial poultry industry helps keep the commercial poultry healthy. In a state where 21 million broilers are processed a week, it is extremely important to have "a canary in the coal mine."

There is no way to know the number of people who own backyard chickens and for certain, no way to know how many of these birds are out there. Based on some data we have, it seems like the noncommercial poultry industry is doing very well. In Alabama, there are 100 independent hatcheries registered with the Department of Agriculture and Industries. Last year we tested 3,128 upland game birds from 87 flocks for avian Influenza along with 3,128 birds from 546 flocks at flea markets and auctions and 1,005 birds from 213 flocks at shows and fairs. There are 98 chick dealers like the local seed and feed stores we have registered. There are 334 independent flocks, representing 119,138 game birds on the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) monitoring for pullorum disease. Alabama ranks second only to Florida in NPIP participation.

For an individual flock owner to join the NPIP, all of their birds used for breeding stock must be tested and banded. Each flock will be visited one time a year to test any new breeders and to spot check old breeding stock and other birds on the farm. An Independent Flock Agreement (PD-2A) and a blood testing report (VS 9-2) will be filled out each year on each flock. There are two types of options on joining the NPIP. One is as a hatchery, which is for flock owners who sell hatching eggs or baby chicks. We will provide the shipping papers for hatching eggs and baby chicks. The cost for this is normally $9 per year; $5 for the hatchery permit and $4 for the testing. The other option is for flock owners who only sell adult birds or go to shows and exhibitions. Birds will still be tested once a year, but there will be no charge for the testing. To ship adult birds, you must get a health certificate from a local accredited veterinarian. Again the main purpose of this program is disease prevention, so it is imperative that whenever a new bird is brought into a flock it be pullorum clean or at least kept isolated until it can be tested. Also, when you bring your own birds back from a show, it would be best to keep them isolated for up to three weeks to ensure they don’t have a problem or have brought back some parasites with them.

If a bird is found to be a reactor to the pullorum test, the tester should take the bird to a State Diagnostic Lab for further testing. No birds should move into or off this farm until confirmation of the lab results.

For more information or to join NPIP, call Ray Hilburn at (334) 240-7213. Anyone wishing to take sick birds to one of our state diagnostic laboratories should contact them at the following numbers: Hanceville (256) 352-8036, Boaz (256) 593-2995, Elba (334) 897-6340 and Auburn (334) 844-4987.