Have you seen Jurassic Park III? We had dinosaur loving kids in our house so it was mandatory for us. One of the early scenes is on an island and a little girl finds little animals that are cute and seemingly harmless, until there are so many that become dangerous really quickly. That was our farm last week.
Have you heard of the Buffalo Gnat? We hadn't heard of them until the USDA was out at our farm. This picture was taken Sunday evening. All our heritage meat birds, organic meat birds, conventional meat birds, and new layers were all basking in their chicken tractors growing like they should.
On Monday they were all still great. On Tuesday morning they were still great. But when we got home from work Tuesday evening all but 5 birds were dead or near death. Our first thoughts were avian influenza, poisoned food, or some kind of spray drift from the fields. Any of these options was terrifying and we don't have a vet for our poultry, so we turned to Google. Who doesn't? We googled poultry biosecurity and got information from the USDA about reporting possible biosecurity threats. Within a few hours someone was at our farm examining our birds and taking samples.
The USDA vet took samples from our living birds and had them tested for Avian Influenza and Newcastle Disease. She also took some of our deceased birds to examine. The results were not what we expected. Gnats. Buffalo Gnats. These little jerks release a small amount of toxin when they bite, which isn't a big deal when you're talking a few bits. But our poor birds were being swarmed. We jumped back to Google again to find out how to prevent more gnat deaths and found vanilla and circulating air are the most effective. So Wednesday we sent the kids out to spray vanilla in the tractors and on the birds and all but two of our remaining birds were dead.
So how can these tiny things wipe out an entire flock of birds in such a short amount of time? There are a few ways. Some farmers have found that their birds are climbing on top of each other and trampling each other trying to get away from the gnats, thereby killing each other. Since ours were so spread out we think ours died from either anaphylactic shock from the toxin emitted by so many bites and/or being suffocated by the swarms of gnats. The vet that we have been working with at the USDA said they are getting more reports of chickens dying from gnats and they are finding gnats in the lungs and tracheas of the birds. The gnats prefer to fly around the head of the bird and they like to travel in swarms
The female buffalo gnat needs blood so she will bite. These girls have a small amount of toxin in their saliva which, similar to a mosquito, can cause itching and swelling (in my case it was so severe that it took a round of prednisone, prescription antihistamine, and topical steroid to bring down the swelling and control the itch). Thankfully their life cycle is relatively short, about two to three weeks, but those weeks are AWFUL. Unlike mosquitos, they prefer running water and sunlight. Ours are so bad, that they don't seem to care about either.
So what does this mean for us? First it means I should invest in mesh head covering stock and bathe in vanilla for the next three weeks. I can't go from the house to the car without being swarmed and I am super sensitive to the bites...so I'm excused from outside chores for the time being. But seriously, this has been a devastating event for our farm. We will have to cut our market short in Des Moines, IA because we won't have chickens to sell. It also means that we will be considering this threat next year and may start the market season later. While it would be easy to get discouraged, we are looking at this as something to learn from, and hopefully we can pass this knowledge to someone else so they can prevent a tragedy like this.