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David Waltner-Toews is a veterinary epidemiologist and professor emeritus at the University of Guelph. His most recent book is A Conspiracy of Chickens: A Memoir.

News outlets have been warning over the past year that we could be on the verge of an avian influenza pandemic that could infect humans and be much more deadly than COVID-19. Many of the articles carry an edge of worry, and some spill into a sense of panic.

The concerns are valid and urgent. But if the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that spending large amounts of money in a moment of panic is a poor response.

As a veterinary epidemiologist specializing in zoonoses (diseases people pick up from other animals), I’ve spent decades working with small-scale farmers in Southeast Asia to integrate the health of people, other animals and ecosystems. Since early this century, much of this work has focused on how to prevent or contain avian influenza, and determining if free-run birds are a threat to global food security.

So why do I have chickens in my urban backyard? As one says of personal relationships on social media, it’s complicated.

After my retirement, my wife gave me seven baby chicks for my 70th birthday. I did not remember having expressed any desire to own chickens, so I was both confused and happily surprised.

Some of my colleagues were dismayed that I would keep free-run hens. Others, online and off, tried to recruit me into the cause of promoting urban poultry rearing. Close friends suggested it might be a therapeutic intervention; I was spending too much time at the computer, my head enveloped in a cloud of global doom. I needed to get outside. My happiness (and hence that of my friends) was at stake.

About 1600, Henry IV of France declared that if God kept him alive, he would ensure that every peasant in his realm would have the means to have a chicken in the pot every Sunday. At the time of his declaration, Henry hadn’t been thinking about the wild jungle fowl of Southeast Asia, the progenitors of our domestic fowl, nor of the birds whose behaviours and entrails were used for divination by Roman army generals, nor of the competitive singing roosters of Java.

Indeed, although his declaration was one of political expediency, Henry would have recognized, and perhaps smiled at, the recent rush for people to own chickens as a hedge against inflation, or to sidestep the disruptions of pandemic supply chains.

Industrial-scale chicken production did not catch on in a big way until after the discovery and manufacture of vitamin D (so the birds did not need sunshine to produce good eggs and strong bones) and cheap antibiotics (to suppress infections and promote growth when birds were crowded). These discoveries were coupled with intensive genetic selection and breeding, which created a new variant of chicken whose bones, when found in the soil millennia from now, will be markers for our current Anthropocene age.

The global body mass of commercial chickens now exceeds that of all other birds combined. Poultry meat production leaped from nine million tonnes to 133 million tonnes between 1961 and 2020, and egg production from 15 million tonnes to 93 million tonnes, and manure output has increased commensurately. My baby chicks, purchased from a commercial hatchery, were a variant of these finely tuned GMOs.

Since it was first noticed more than 20 years ago, highly pathogenic avian influenza has killed tens of millions of chickens; more have been slaughtered to prevent its spread. As long as the virus remained in chickens, the main concern – not a trivial one – has been economic. That is now changing.

In the past few years the avian flu strain H5N1 has been detected in foxes, raccoons, skunks, bears and other mammals. Although fewer than 900 people have come down with the disease since 2003, about half of them have died. We really don’t want this virus to adapt to human-to-human transmission: We’ve had enough of pandemics. As an epidemiologist, I think the important lessons, while not heeded, have at least been delivered.

All of this brings me back to the costs and benefits of my backyard hens. Have I saved money? Probably not. I estimate that, after accounting for the cost of building a coop, I saved a couple of dollars on each dozen eggs during the first year.

The hens produce a great deal more excrement than eggs, so it is important to have a composter and a garden, or at least friends who have those. If it were just about saved cash, I’m not sure I could recommend it. After a year, as every chicken farmer knows, production drops off, and birds die.

As a veterinarian, I knew a bit about how to do a postmortem on a dead chicken, but, in examining the causes of death in my small flock, I have extended my insights into an unexplored area of mindfulness that the Buddha called “corpse meditation.”

So what else are backyard chickens good for? In order to care for them, I reflected on many things: which animals we prioritize over others (dogs versus chickens versus raccoons), community attitudes to varieties of noise pollution (leaf blowers versus chickens), urban predator-prey relationships, interactions between weather variability and climate change and how that affects caring for animals, how big an ecological footprint our food sources stomp on the landscape, the various uses of chicken excrement, the viciousness of pecking orders, strategies to prevent rats from entering the flock, and how to keep neighbours happy.

I have been able to divert almost all my leftover table scraps from the landfill by feeding them to the chickens. My hens have offered me the discipline of forced daily exercise, kept my blood pressure within normal limits, and been an audience for my rants, which otherwise might have cluttered the inboxes of newspaper editors. They have also offered opportunities for off-key singing, thus enabling me to not compromise my human friendships.

The threat of avian influenza is serious, but can be managed. The biggest threats are to the salaries of corporate CEOs of agribusinesses, who care little for chickens in any case. In my decades of research and practice, I have found no evidence that a small backyard flock is a danger to the planet or food security.

Waterfowl such as ducks and geese are the natural reservoir for influenza viruses, so an essential part of preventing the spread of avian influenza is to not let the backyard hens interact with them. My yard is nowhere near any waterways or lakes. During the seasonal migrations, I keep my hens fenced in and under a roof.

If there is one big lesson I’ve learned from my backyard flock, it’s the need to pay attention. At its best, keeping urban hens is a lesson in ecological mindfulness.

Have the hens been a successful hedge against inflation? Not really. Am I happier and healthier than if I’d just been sitting at a computer screen? Unequivocally, yes. Do I think my chickens are a threat to global food supplies or public health? Probably not.

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