When it comes to disasters and preparation, psychologically it might be good to consider the quote from Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” From the strings of tornadoes that routinely ravage the Midwest and South to the recurring and intensifying cycle of wildfires and flooding along the Pacific Coast, disasters can strike at any time and have devastating consequences for humans and animals alike.
Local officials and disaster preparedness groups often advise to have evacuation plans and provide lists of supplies that everyone should have on hand. However, these measures rarely take animals into account and almost never consider backyard chickens in emergency prep.
Whether our chickens are kept as companions, sustainable food sources or a combination of the two, keeping our feathered friends safe and healthy during a disaster is important.
In this column, we’ll discuss how to best prepare to care for chickens when an emergency occurs.
The Dangers You Face
Understanding the types of disasters that occur in your area is an important step in preparing for them. Generic evacuation plans and emergency kits will only get you so far when preparing for helping chickens in specific emergencies.
Both authors of this column live on the West Coast, so wildfires, floods and earthquakes are primary concerns. Severe earthquakes often disrupt transportation routes, so evacuation might not be an option and extended stores of food and water are needed.
During a wildfire, expedient and safe evacuation is the No. 1 priority. Flooding can damage transportation and affect your ability to find viable land to raise your flock on. While reading this column, keep in mind the specific risks you and your flock face, and adapt the information presented to prepare for them.
Read more: Protect your chickens from the threat of wildfire.
To Stay or Go
As previously mentioned, whether you evacuate or wait the disaster out depends on the specific disaster you face and a gazillion other variables that you can’t predict with 100 percent accuracy. As we are all well aware, some situations call for waiting and some situations require immediate evacuation. Therefore, prepare for both.
Having some level of situational awareness will be essential toward making the best decision possible. When it comes to pets, many people stay longer because they don’t have a viable plan in place for their animals. This increases the risk for you, your pets and first responders.
Local emergency response officials will typically communicate with residents about what they should do, evacuation routes, etc. In order to be prepared “to stay or go,” have a checklist so you can easily prepare, evacuate, stay or both. Things to have on your checklist include the following.
Assume the internet won’t be functioning. Having multiple evacuation plans in place and old-fashioned maps (aka paper maps because the internet may be down) can help to expedite evacuation and reduce harm to you and your birds. Familiarize yourself with local resources including your nearest community emergency response team.
Evacuation Routes & Shelters
Situational awareness is vital in an emergency. Again, assume the internet is down. Know where bridges, elevated roads, and rivers and streams are in your area. Look for sources of smoke and fire in the distance. Be familiar with multiple surface roads in case one or more evacuation routes away from sources of danger are blocked or congested with traffic.
Having a plan to quickly round up your chickens and put them in your vehicle is important in an emergency situation. Assign family members tasks in the roundup process and practice together. Ensure that the person in charge of picking the chickens up in the coop is able to do so. Have the following readily accessible.
- Cages: Crates to transport chickens are easy to purchase online or at your local farm-supply store. The crates come in a variety of sizes but are roughly 2 1⁄2 by 2 by 1 feet can fit roughly eight full-grown chickens for several hours.
- Vehicle: One challenge is that chickens poop (a lot), and the crates are slotted which means your car could get dirty and stinky very quickly. Putting down a heavy-duty trash bag under the crate should at least help with keeping your car clean.
In a perfect world, you would be able to keep the crates in the bed of a pickup and bungee cord the crate in so it doesn’t excessively slide all over the truck bed. Gas stations will likely not be working or will be busy with others trying to buy fuel. Keep at least enough fuel in your vehicle’s tank to get you and your flock to safety.
Keeping Them Calm
To reduce stress, cover the crate with a breathable cloth. In general, darker is better.
Read more: Are you and your farm prepared for a farm emergency?
What to Have Ready
Regardless of whether you stay or go, have a go-bag (or bags) ready with supplies to last at least two weeks. Things to have in your go-bag include the following.
An average laying hen eats approximately 1⁄4 cup of feed per day. Plan for at least 14 days of feed. Include a feeder or low-walled container to portion feed.
Chickens drink roughly twice as much as they eat. Plan on about 1⁄2 cup of water per chicken per day for at least 14 days. Bring a portable waterer or low-walled container to portion water, and clean it frequently.
If you are sheltering in place, running water may still be available from a well or municipal water supply. However, this water may not be safe for you or your animals to drink. Sewage, smoke, heavy-metal contamination, etc. may make the water nonpotable. Make sure you have the ability, if necessary, to boil or filter water at home.
In case your chickens get burned or are otherwise injured, have contact information for your veterinarian handy, making sure you at least have contact information for a vet who treats backyard poultry. Also have contact information for a diagnostic lab because these laboratories will typically euthanize chickens for free.
For small injuries, keep a bottle of povidone iodine solution on hand for disinfection. Diluting commonly available 10 percent povidone iodine solutions with water to a light brown color retains the antiseptic properties of the original solution while reducing causticity to poultry skin. You can also use dilute soap. Rinse with water.
Once you reach an area safe from the emergency, allow your chickens to resume their normal activities to reduce the stress of evacuation. Plastic fencing and collapsible metal cages marketed for rabbits and other small animals work well as temporary enclosures in place of your flock’s normal run. Ensure that the enclosure you choose is taller than the height of your birds, and allows for at least 1 1⁄2 square feet per bird.
General Emergency Equipment
A readily accessible flashlight with extra batteries is perhaps one of the most important pieces of emergency kit. Keep this flashlight in a readily accessible area at all times in case your power is out. A battery and/or crank operated radio will allow you to get updates from emergency officials. Keep a bag containing any tools you will need to set up your enclosure.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) is credited with saying: “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best.” When it comes to disaster preparedness, this quote reflects how we may want to think in order to get in the right mindset with respect to preparation. In addition to the lists and information in this column, brainstorm with your neighbors and loved ones on your plan/checklist. What might seem obvious to some might not be so obvious to us until it’s too late. Regardless, update your plan and go-bag annually.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Chickens magazine. It was written by Joseph Gendreau, Dr. Chelsea Sykes, Dr. Maurice Pitesky and Dr. Robert Poppenga, all from the school of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis