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Lessons from the lockdown

The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been decimating birds across the whole country since the beginning of the year. It hit California in mid-July and is still active in 36 states.

To protect our birds we went into lockdown, meaning no more free ranging in the yard. All chickens are now confined to their coop which has been covered to avoid any contact with wild bird droppings which is the main way the disease spreads.

We decided to split our flock between our 2 coops to reduce the stress. Chai, being a bit of a bully, moved with Truffle and Keemun, the 2 Australorp sisters, into the guest coop. Our six remaining girls are cozying up in the main coop.

In doing so we provide 170 sq ft for the 6 hens and 50 sq ft for the 3 others. This is way more than the minimum requirement of 10 sq ft of roaming area per chicken. But we quickly realized how small that space is, and especially how quickly dirty it became! This minimum is fine short term, like evenings before going to bed or an occasional weekend, but it is insufficient long term. And if it’s going to be used full time, then be ready to increase the cleaning schedule. From cleaning the run once a week, we are now cleaning it every other day.

Lesson 1: When setting up a coop, plan for situations where the birds have to be locked down for several months, and build a run that is really big. Ten square feet per chicken may be enough to avoid major squabbles, but 50 sq ft per chicken is a good minimum to keep the maintenance manageable.

The hardest part of the lockdown for us, their keepers, is not being able to see our chickens anymore unless we go into their coop. Before, our girls were freely roaming in their yard while we were at home. We could see them from every room of the house, including in our bathroom, where we would see their reflection in the mirror. And they saw us too. They would get excited when we went to the laundry room to get their bowls and then back to the kitchen to fill them. They were a constant presence in the yard, waiting for us at the fence when they saw us picking some greens from the vegetable garden. And now, the chicken yard is empty, and I miss my chickens very much!

I realize that I was always monitoring them subconsciously: making sure Chai wasn’t bullying Sweetie, noticing that Summer finally got accepted by the flock, and taking a mental note that I should check on Truffle as she looked quieter than usual. We have to make the extra effort of observing them as any change of behavior is almost always a sign that something is amiss.

Lesson 2: Out of sight, out of mind is real. Don’t place your coop in the side yard or at the very back of the yard.

In short, build a run as big as you can and place it where you will see your chickens often.

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