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USDA webinar will help hobbyists keep their flocks healthy
Backyard poultry farmers can learn how to stave off disease, predators
A flock of Rhode Island Red hens pecks for food in Times Life Editor Michelle Boaen Jameson’s backyard. The flock of 12 eventually fell victim to predators, namely, her two Labrador retrievers. - photo by Michelle Boaen Jameson

"The Word on Healthy Birds"

When: Today from noon-1 p.m.

Contact: Madelaine Fletcher: 301-734-6125 or Pam Goldstein: 973-377-0300

Being the chicken capital of the world, Gainesville has many chicken plants, but even more backyard poultry farms.

While driving around, you may encounter many of these "farms," where fowl roam front and backyards, seemingly care and danger-free. However, raising chickens takes more than throwing some feed on the ground.

"Two of the biggest threats for backyard poultry are diseases and predators," said Madelaine Fletcher, USDA/APHIS Public Affairs Specialist. "For bird owners, keeping their birds healthy is a top priority. Birds can become sick or die from exposure to just a few unseen germs, and by following a few simple tips (owners) can help prevent poultry disease."

Bird Health Awareness Week, Nov. 1-7, was issued by USDA's Biosecurity for Birds campaign to promote awareness for the diseases threatening chickens - and all poultry.

"Bird Health Awareness Week is an opportunity to draw attention to all aspects of bird health, particularly backyard poultry. Raising backyard poultry is extremely popular now, and as the number of backyard poultry owners grows, so does the importance of making sure that people learn about being proactive to prevent illness," Fletcher said.

In honor of Bird Health Awareness Week, the USDA is hosting a free webinar on raising healthy backyard poultry.

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is sponsoring the webinar," said Fletcher "The webinar and other outreach and education activities are part of the Biosecurity for Birds campaign that began in 2004 after an outbreak of deadly exotic Newcastle disease in California and other Western states."

During the webinar, participants will learn about everything from how to protect their birds from common predators to what precautions to take in preventing the spread of serious illnesses.

"The webinar will have two excellent co-hosts: Atlanta-based radio personality Andy Schneider, the host of Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer radio show and Dr. Martin Smeltzer, a USDA poultry veterinarian with over 25 years of experience," Fletcher said.

This webinar is geared for anyone with backyard poultry, not just newcomers. If time permits, participants will be able to ask questions.

"I have had chickens all my life," said Michelle Wiley, a science teacher at Chestatee High School. "I started with 15 babies in the spring and now I am down to four hens and one rooster. The other ten were roosters that I gave away to different people."

While chickens provide consumers with an excellent source of nutrition, backyard poultry farmers also reap other rewards with these animals.

"I enjoy feeding them our table scraps, listening to their happy sounds -it is very therapeutic - and getting eggs every day," Wiley said. "I also think it is important for my son to grow up knowing where his food comes from."

Wiley believes it is important to protect her flock from predators.

"If you saw my chicken coop, you would think I was keeping bears out with all of the precautions I've taken," she said. "I have the outside of my coop lined with railroad ties, the inside of my coop lined with cinder blocks and a hot wire that runs around the bottom of the coop on the outside."

Wiley has never lost a bird to predators; however, several possums have suffered an untimely death when trying to cross the hotwire to get to them.

"I have never had to deal with illnesses, either. I keep my chickens warm in the winter months by providing a heat lamp and I wrap the coop with plastic to keep the wind out. This helps to keep strange birds out, too," she said.

After feeding and taking care of her birds, Wiley finds time to have fun with them.

"They are not the brightest animals. I have taken something shiny and had them follow it for long periods of time. It is kind of fun to mess with them," she said.

For fun, food or companionship, raising poultry is becoming more prevalent - especially as consumers find the need to have more control over what products land on their dinner plates.

"I think all animals need to be taken care of properly, regardless if they are being raised for food consumption or not. If you can't afford to take care of them the right way, then you shouldn't have them," Wiley said.

Though "The Word on Healthy Birds" will discuss an array of information, Bird Health Awareness Week homes in on the dangers surrounding bird illnesses, like the Avian Influenza (A1) and Exotic Newcastle Disease (END)

"With the growing phenomenon of backyard poultry-raising, it important to have a better-informed public that is aware of the benefits and drawbacks to raising your own chickens and other domestic poultry," said Pam Goldstein, Partner in Diversity Marketing and Communications LLCA, a contact for the webinar.

While led by Schneider and Smeltzer, the content itself is well worth the hour spent participating in the program.

If you cannot make it to the noon webinar, it will appear on the Biosecurity for Birds website by Monday.