Saturday, February 28, 2009

Avian Influenza update

I was annoyed to hear a Bird Flu report on our local television news this past week. It referred to a Low Pathogenic strain that poses no risk, Influenza circulates through the avian community, as human forms circulate through the human community. Reporting this not uncommon event gave it more significance than it deserves. As time has passed since the most alarmist coverage, more scientists are reviewing their work and reaching very different conclusions about Bird Flu, such as Bruce Levin, noted below:
Biodefense news tips: Story ideas from the ASM Biodefense Research Meeting

The following news tips are based on presentations at the 2009 ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting, February 22-25 at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland.

IS OUR OBSESSION WITH PANDEMIC BIRD FLU JUSTIFIED? While it is almost a certainty that within the next few decades humanity will experience another influenza pandemic, it may not be caused by the avian influenza strain H5N1 that many scientists believe could be a prime candidate.

"We continue to be aroused and some nearly panicked by the threat of a flu pandemic caused by the avian influenza virus, H5N1. Is this anxiety justified? In the more than 15 years since it was first recognized, this bird flu virus has yet to cause very much mortality in humans or evolve to be readily transmitted between people," says Bruce Levin, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Biology at Emory University.

Nevertheless, because of the high case mortality of humans infected with H5N1 (sometimes exceeding 90%), pandemic influenza caused by this avian virus has appropriately stimulated a great deal of research on the microbiology, immunology, pathology, virulence, epidemiology and evolution of influenza. It has also contributed to a renaissance of interest in the great influenza of 1918, says Levin. "The next pandemic could well have the potential to kill as many or more people than that in 1918, but we are far better prepared to deal with the next influenza pandemic than we were that of 1918," says Levin. Unlike now, in 1918:·

It was not clear that a virus was responsible for the pandemic ·

There were no vaccines or even ways to develop vaccines to prevent the disease

There were no antiviral drugs to mitigate the course of this disease and reduce the rate of transmission

There were no antibiotics to treat, or vaccines to prevent, secondary bacterial infections that evidence suggests were the major cause of mortality in influenza patients.

The US Geological Survey, which has tracked Bird Flu in migratory bird populations, also finds that the predictions that H5N1 could be carried and transmitted through those routes have turned out not to be the case, as noted here November 24, 2008.

The news is: Bird Flu is not the threat it has been portrayed to be. Pandemic influenza preparedness is worthwhile, as is being prepared for any emergency. But viewing birds as dangerous disease carriers is not scientifically or rationally justified.

Friday, February 27, 2009

CCFF Laying Pullet Sale

Central Coast Feather Fanciers, the local poultry club here in California, is raising chicks for its annual Laying Pullet Fund Raiser. They buy the chicks in January and raise them until they are just about ready to start laying, in late April. They then sell then for $15 each. With eggs around $3 a dozen, it doesn't take long for one of these girls to earn her keep.

This year, CCFF is offering Buff Orpingtons, Ameraucanas, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Partridge Rocks, Speckled Sussex and Minorcas. All lay brown eggs, except the Ameraucanas, which lay blue and green and the Minorcas, known for large white eggs. The pullets always sell out. It's the club's major money raising activity for the year. Last year, the club was able to puchase new show cages, which have already seen use at the APA National and other local shows.

This picture, by Corllina Breuer, shows a Blue Ameraucana rooster with two hens behind him. Ameraucanas are a modern composite that incorporates the Araucana's interesting egg color -- blue in Araucanas, blue and green in Ameraucanas -- with better utility characteristics. The green color results when the blue gene is combined with a brown egg gene. They have beards and muffs, clearly seen in this picture. Araucanas have ear tufts, which are a disqualification for exhibition Ameraucanas. The APA recognizes eight colors: Black, Blue, Blue Wheaten, Brown Red, Buff, Silver, Wheaten and White.

The goal this year is to earn enough to purchase an enclosed trailer to store and transport the cages. Having one would make it easier to keep the cages safe and dry, and eliminate unloading them and re-loading them on a trailer.

Sale date hasn't been set yet. The sale is usually held at Templeton Feed & Grain in Templeton, California.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Animals Make Us Human

Temple Grandin includes chickens in her new book, Animals Make Us Human, She has some important things to say. As an influential person in the animal industry, I hope she will be heard and changes made.

She approaches the subject of animal welfare from beyond the physical needs of food, water and shelter. She looks at the whole animal and examines behavior in terms of what can be inferred about its emotional state. As a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and frequent advisor to the industry, she approaches the subject scientifically. She evaluates animal emotional welfare in terms of core emotions, as defined by Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University. Core emotions, “blue-ribbon emotions that generate well-organized behavior sequences that can be evoked by localized electrical stimulation of the brain,” include: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, PANIC, LUST, CARE, and PLAY. She follows his convention of capitalizing them.

Good environments produce healthy brain and emotional development. Bad ones don’t. Poor welfare can be inferred from such pathologies as Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors, stereotypies such as feather pecking.

Unfortunately, treatment of chickens in the industry is so poor that their physical welfare does not meet even minimal standards, and must be addressed before emotional welfare.

Grandin is very critical of the treatment of chickens in the poultry industry. She describes touring a broiler farm and a chicken hatchery that were suppliers to McDonald’s, with a McDonald’s vice president. Even the executive, when he saw the way workers grabbed the chickens by the wings, often breaking them, said, “This looks like a Humane Society undercover video.”

Conditions at the hatchery were as bad, with live chicks being thrown into garbage dumpsters to die. Laying hens were so crowded into cages they had to lie on top of each other to sleep. The spent layers were in such bad shape, “They didn’t even look like hens any more.” They were half-bald from having frantically beaten their own feathers off.

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this blog that industry conditions are deplorable, but I hope that Dr. Grandin’s publicizing them will help improve the situation. She credits traditional breeds with hope for improvement.

Chicken genetics, so intensively pursued by industry breeders, have resulted in broilers that have totally abnormal bone physiology, resulting in misshapen bones. Their feet may be rotated nearly 90 degrees and their legs twisted. She devised a simple test for evaluating lameness in chickens: those that cannot walk even ten paces, those that can but are crooked and lame, and those that can walk ten paces normally.

A recent study from the University of California, Davis, documents the problems of limited genetics,

“This is why it’s important to preserve the old breeds of animals and poultry,” she writes. “Keeping the classic breeds alive is the only way to preserve genetic diversity and to save animals that have valuable genetic traits breeders may want to breed back into commercial lines in the future….Fortunately, many of the older breeds of poultry and livestock are being raised by local farmers and sold in farmers’ markets or to gourmet restaurants. If a serious disease ever kills commercial broilers or layers, the entire world will be thanking the small producers and hobbyists who have kept the old breeds of chickens from becoming extinct.”

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Birds and Dinsaurs

Nova, the science show on PBS, turned its attention to birds this week, in The Four-Winged Dinosaur, One of the issues they are exploring is the development of flight in birds.

Scientists debate two theories: that animals, dinosaurs, developed flight from the ground up, and that they developed it from the trees down, by gliding. New fossils from China add evidence to the discussion. These feathered dinosaurs, 130 million years old, were preserved with feathers and skin by volcanic ash, giving us previously unknown information about them. The show makes the point that the film Jurassic Park should have had feathers on Velociraptor. This reconstruction shows what Microraptor might have looked like.

Paleontologists are debating where this critter belongs in the evolution of birds: was it an ancestor of today’s birds, or was it a development that died out? Most scientists agree that contemporary birds are descendants of dinosaurs. Exactly where these feathered dinosaurs fit in isn’t clear yet.

What is apparent from the fossils is that they had feathers on their feet, the four wings on the title. Xu Xing, the Chinese paleontologist studying the fossils, remarks that no contemporary birds have feathered feet, which indicates his unfamiliarity with chickens. Many breeds have feathered feet – bantams are divided into Clean-Legged and Feather-Legged classes. So the fact of feathered feet is not in itself remarkable.

The fossil feathers are different, the flight feathers of wings, rather than the fluffy feathers of Brahmas and Booted Bantams. This photo of a Sultan chicken, an exhibition breed developed in Turkey, from My Pet Chicken,, shows thick feathering on the feet. It's easy to imagine that it wouldn't take many generations to breed for asymmetric flight feathers.

As the illustration shows, this critter had four wings. The show goes on to explore how it might have flown, including wind tunnel tests conducted by engineers from Brown University's Flight Mechanics Laboratory.

It’s an interesting show all around, bringing insight into how birds came to be, and came to fly.

Artist Jason Brougham of the American Museum of Natural History shows how Sinornithosaurus ("Chinese bird-lizard") might have looked with a full set of feathers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Durham Welcomes Chickens!

Judy Morgan-Davis of Raleigh’s Tour d’Coop worked with this group in Durham to get a chicken-friendly ordinance passed, Congratulations, Judy and HENS, Healthy Egg Neighborhood Supporters!

Communities vary in their approaches to regulating chickens within their boundaries. Some approach it quite specifically, being precise about how many feet from residences the coop must be, what it can be made of, how many chickens are allowed, whether roosters are allowed.

Judy tells me that Raleigh regulates chickens under a General Nuisance ordinance. Not that chickens are, but by including chickens under a general ordinance, neighbors have latitude to work out arrangements that suit them.

"We can deal with anything that might offend anyone," she says. "It bothers me to have laws specific to chickens. We don't tell people what kind of dog pen to build or what room of the house to keep the cat in."

Judy keeps a rooster who does some crowing, but the neighbors are used to him. He reminds them of their childhood.

Durham's new law allows slaughter, so long as it's not in the public eye, but doesn't allow sale of eggs. It's interesting to see how different communities are managing these changes in the way people are changing the way they live.

"Common sense ordinances exist," Judy says. "Common sense people are keeping chickens."

An article focused on chickens in Portland, Oregon in Sustainable Life,

Evie Zanella, our cat sitter, of Auntie Evie’s Paws N the Pines,, sent this photo of cross-species care by a hen. The chicks appear somewhat chagrined, but they probably got over it and settled in. Creature comfort generally wins out.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oriental Gamefowl

Horst Schmudde has raised Oriental Gamefowl of all types for many years. He was the perfect person to write about them.

Oriental Gamefowl originated as fighting birds. In many parts of Asia, they still are. In Thailand, fighting cocks can travel on their own passports. In the U.S. fighting birds is against the law, to various extents in different states. A large cockfighting ring was busted here on the Central Coast in January,, taking 1,216 roosters and additional birds totally more than 2,000 A large amount of methamphetamine was found at the home of one of the five men arrested,

The fighting breeds, despite that reputation, are beautiful and hardy birds. Some are difficult to keep because of their aggessive nature. Horst's book, Oriental Gamefowl: A Guide for the Sportsman, Poultryman and Exhibitor of Rare Poultry Species and Gamefowl of the World, is unique in compiling current information about them.

His range is the entire world. He surveys birds in America, Europe, Australia, Asia (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Saipan, India, Japan), Russia and South America. He includes pictures of all these breeds and varieties, making the book a treasure. Those pictures tell the story in the clearest possible way. How else could these birds, so unusual to the domestic poultrykeeper's eye, be described?

These breeds are subject to vilification, much as pit bull dogs are, but those who are unfamiliar with them. I make no excuse for cock fighting. To me, civilized people do not take enjoyment from animals or birds killing each other. As in this recent bust, drugs and gambling are always involved. Sadly, the birds confiscated in the bust will probably be killed. For the birds, it doesn't make much difference whether they are owned by the cock fighters or law enforcement.

The birds themselves, however, are distinguished and honorable. They carry long histories and are part of the cultures from which they emerged. As Horst writes in his Preface, "Today after decades of environmental and political changes, countries changed names, ex. Siam became Thailand, Ceylon is now Sri Lanka, Persia became Iran, it is fascinating that most of those gamefowl breeds that existed centuries ago in those regions of the world still do exist and their popularity is flourishing worldwide."

This beautiful Cubalaya is of the national breed of Cuba. Originally brought to the island by Spanish explorers who had acquired them in the Philippines, the Cubalaya was developed more for exhibition than for fighting. Breeders retained its excellent dual purpose qualities, for both fine meat and plenty of eggs. Its flowing tail is reminiscent of Sumatras.

They make good pets and are naturally tame, according to another long-time breeder Horst quotes, Claus Twisselmann. "It is not uncommon to see your breeding rooster jump on your lap and look you straight int he eye and/or one of his hens on the other leg just wanting to get petted," Twisselmann wrote in the SPPA Bulletin in 2001.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Klinka: A tale of courage

Back in November, I received an emergency call from Animal People editor Merritt Clifton, in Washington State. His teenage son Wolf had rescued a buff chicken from a coyote attack. Her ear was bloodied and she was limp. That first night, she didn’t even lift her head up from the floor.

The chicken was one of the neighbor’s small backyard flock. Wolf visited them and discussed the situation. They released the bird to Wolf to care for. Wolf’s mother, Merritt’s former wife, Kim Bartlett, president of Animal People, accepted responsibility for the chicken. They named her Klinka.

They put her in a cage to rest. She wasn’t looking very good the next morning, lying on the floor of the cage. She raised her head to look at Merritt when he arrived for work. She flapped and squawked when he picked her up, then settled in the center of the cage. He thought she might not be able to stand. She ignored food and water.

He was concerned that the six dogs that live in the office might have frightened her, given her already terrifying canine experience with the coyote. They were initially interested in their new office mate, but soon resumed their usual routine of naps. The ten cats pretended they didn’t see her.

Klinka didn’t show any improvement, so they took her to the vet. She gave Klinka an injection of dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat ear infections in animals. The vet thought Klinka had inner ear and brain damage. After a week of treatment, Klinka continued to sit quietly with her head down and her eyes closed. So far as Kim could tell, she hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the attack. She and Wolf gave her some food and water by syringe. Kim thought she was dying. She medicated Klinka with buprenorphine, a pain killer, to make her comfortable. Klinka showed no change. Kim determined to bring Klinka to the vet for humane euthanasia the following day if she showed no improvement. Klinka remained quiet, eyes closed, head down.

But the next day she began to show signs of recovery. “She is standing up and her head is only slightly tilted to the right. The head wobbles when she is moving it up or down. The right eye stays shut some of the time but the left eye is wide open. It was on the right side where there was a little blood and where the vet thought the ear might have been injured by the coyote,” Kim reported. Although Kim hadn’t observed her eating anything, Klinka did a big load of poop.

They continued observing her. She began to welcome the syringe of water, although she didn’t appear to eat much. By a week after the attack, she was well enough to go for a walk in the yard, carefully supervised by Wolf.

Within the next week, she began vocalizing to the office in general. She settled on the perch in her cage. Although they offered her several different kinds of food, she appeared not to be eating. One day, Wolf took her outside for a walk and scattered some chicken scratch around. She pecked at it. When she returned to her cage, she began eating from the pie pan of scratch.

“Today there was snow on the ground and it was lovely to see her out pecking in the snow with a few wild birds joining her, even though I was worried that the cats would catch the wild birds and had to keep knocking on the window when I saw cats stealthily crouching forward. The birds were most in danger from the two pure white Egyptian cats. However, no birds were caught, and the scene looked like something from a Beatrix Potter story,” Kim reported three weeks into the recovery.

Klinka’s feet were very cold when she came in, but Kim noted that she didn’t seem to mind. And then: “After she had been in her cage for a while, I heard a klinking noise that turned out to be Klinka eating from her pan. It must seem very silly for me to be thrilled by this. Maybe now she will gain some weight and I won't have to worry about her so much,” she wrote.

Klinka continued to improve steadily. Kim and Wolf observed her closely, watching for possible worm and mite infestations and learning about chicken care and feeding. Klinka continued to live in the cage in the office. Lining the cage with dog training pads made it easy to clean. A blanket draped over three sides at night gave her some cozy privacy.

In January, about seven weeks after the attack, Klinka laid an egg. She followed that with another egg the next day. Kim and Wolf took that as a sign that she was fully recovered. Kim gave her a parakeet mirror, which Klinka curiously pecked. “At first she tried looking around and behind the mirror to see the rest of the chicken,” Kim wrote. “It will be interesting to see if she eventually recognizes that it is herself.”

More than two months after the attack that seemed likely to kill her, Klinka was delighting her new companions. Kim recounted this episode: “This afternoon I looked out the window to the back yard to check on Klinka and saw that she was chasing the cat Osiris, who had a little bird in his mouth. She pursued Osiris until he dropped the bird and it flew through the chain link fence to safety. Then Klinka patrolled that area of the fence for a few minutes. I always heard that chickens would bravely confront predators to defend their chicks, but Klinka chased a cat to save an unrelated bird, not even of the same species. Why do people malign the brave little hen when referring to human cowardice as ‘chicken?’ Perhaps one is lucky to be able to have a chicken for a friend.”