Urban poultry untroubled by notorious flu


Gwen, Yoko and Frieda have been cooped up all winter, but that’s okay with Jill Meyer and Louise Hotka.

Gwen, Yoko and Frieda are Meyer’s and Hotka’s three hens. They’ve been living in the Meyer-Hotka backyard for about 10 years. “They used to give us eggs,” Meyer says, “but now they’re just fun to watch.”

Meyer and Hotka, who live in Seward, say they often “plop our lawn chairs out in front of the chickens,” just to see what they’re up to. Peat Willcütt does the same with the flock he cares for on Nicollet Island. “I watch less TV,” he says, “because I’m too busy watching ‘Chicken TV.’”

Meyer and Hotka had never kept chickens before, but Willcütt has. Growing up in New Prague, Minn., Willcütt kept not only chickens but rabbits, geese, and a pet goat. When he moved to Nicollet Island, he says, “I thought my chicken days are over.”

But what Willcütt didn’t know was that his new neighbors, Leslie Ball and Phyllis Kahn, had been talking for years, says Ball, about “how we wanted to use wind power and grow our own food, keep chickens for their eggs.” According to Ball, Willcütt overheard one of these conversations “and transformed our entire life.” The three of them (along with husbands and partners) now cooperatively keep a coop of 25 hens and one rooster. “I can’t say enough about how much it’s transformed my life,” says Ball. “I’m honored that I get to live with these gorgeous chickens.”

Willcütt, in fact, would like to see more people keep chickens. “If you’re a busy urban professional,” he says, “chickens can still come into your life.” To that end, he is teaching “Chickens in the City” this month through Minneapolis Community Education. The class, to be held April 15 at Seward’s Matthews Center and April 17 at Anne Sullivan Communication Center in Longfellow, will give people the basics of backyard poultry: how to apply for a permit (you need the approval of 80 percent of the neighbors within 100 feet of your house), how to build a coop, and which breeds of chicken work best for city life. He’ll also throw in a few “eggcellent” recipes, and include a segment on how to spot bird illnesses—including bird flu.

Of course, there’s been a lot of talk about bird flu recently, but it hasn’t dampened Willcütt’s or Meyer’s enthusiasm for their chickens. Dave Halvorson, veterinarian at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, doesn’t see why it should. “There’s no reason to be particularly concerned about [catching bird flu] from backyard chickens,” he says.

Buddy Ferguson, risk communications specialist from the Minnesota Department of Health, agrees. He points out that bird flu is spread by migratory waterfowl, so the easiest precaution is to keep backyard chickens separated from wild geese or ducks, something that most urban chicken-keepers already do when they mesh in the birds in order to keep out predators, like raccoons, who feed on eggs. “If you follow some basic precautions, you can keep birds safely,” says Ferguson. Those precautions include monitoring birds to make sure they’re healthy, keeping their food and bedding clean and, just like with regular people flu, washing your hands.

Elizabeth McClure, public health physician with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, says there is always avian flu in birds and that, like humans, some birds may feel the effects more than others, with some getting the equivalent of the sniffles, and others needing to take the avian equivalent of a long lie-down.

The current bird flu (the H5N1 strain) is causing so much concern due to its high mortality rate in birds. Ferguson, however, cautions, that high bird mortality rate does not translate into a high mortality rate for humans. In the past three years, he says, there have been only 173 cases of the virus being transmitted to the birds’ human caregivers.

McClure agrees; people are much more likely to get different types of flu. “H3N2 and H1N1 are the most common human flu,” she says, adding that other animals get the flu, too. According to the Center for Disease Control website, “H7N7 and H3N8 viruses cause illness in horses, and H3N8 also has recently been shown to cause illness in dogs.”

As for Meyer and Willcütt, they’re standing by their birds. “It’s like bringing the country into our urban life,” says Jill Meyer. Says Willcütt, “If you want a little bit of the country, you don’t have to keep a milk cow.”