North Carolinians’ views split on requirement to register chickens to combat bird flu

Chickens in a Triangle back yard. Image credit: Tour D'Coop.
Chickens in a Triangle back yard. Image credit: Tour D'Coop.

Chickens in a Triangle back yard. Image credit: Tour D’Coop.

RALEIGH – A decision by the N.C. Agriculture Department to require registration of all North Carolinians who keep chickens, regardless of flock size, is intended to prepare the state to combat avian influenza but is ruffling feathers in some parts of the backyard chicken community.

Agricultural officials, who announced the decision July 22, admit that there is a “delicate balance” between unwanted government intrusion and preparation for bird flu, which is not present in North Carolina yet. The department says avian flu has affected 21 states, led to the loss of almost 50 million birds, and cost U.S. taxpayers half a billion dollars so far.

“It’s worth noting that the information collected will be used only for animal health purposes and is confidential by law,” department spokesman Brian Long wrote in an email.

Backyard chicken enthusiasts, known in some areas as the “urban chicken” movement, are split on the decision. The decision has not gone over easy with some, including a group that started a “No to NC Chicken Registration” group on Facebook. The group, which has garnered more than 900 supporters since its formation July 23, takes a very anti-government stance, declaring that “Who controls the food supply, controls the people. Opposition to Steve Troxler’s declaration that if you own one single chicken you must register yourself.”

Others support the decision by agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (R) to register flocks beginning August 1. They include Bev Norwood, a leader of the urban chicken movement in Raleigh and co-founder of Tour D’Coop, an annual tour of Raleigh-area backyard chicken coops.

N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler

N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler

“I like the fact that the state of North Carolina is taking proactive steps to perhaps prevent it from coming here,” Norwood said. “I don’t interpret it as anything where they’re going to be the chicken gestapo and come in and regulate our backyards.”

Norwood says when she found out about the requirement, she went on the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services avian flu website and found helpful videos showing precautions flock owners could take. But the message has yet to get to all in the backyard chicken community. Laura Harper, who owns The Urban Chicken store in north Raleigh, says that she has not seen a clear description of the policy.

“Are they going to register everybody so that if they find it they’ll alert you, or is it something where if they find it they’re going to come out and kill everybody’s chickens in a two-mile radius?” Harper said. “I don’t know what the intent is.”

One powerful legislator is in support of the decision. Sen. Brent Jackson (R- Autryville) is a farmer from Sampson County and vice chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He points out that poultry is the leading agricultural industry in North Carolina, with what he says is a total economic impact to the state of over $34 billion (that figure is from a report by the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association).

“I believe in the privacy of our citizens and that they should be free from unnecessary government intrusion,” Jackson said via email. “However, when we are faced with the potential for an avian flu outbreak that could economically devastate entire communities, the state is right to step in for the greater good of public as a whole. Preventative measures, such as the Department of Agriculture’s decision to require registration of all birds, are necessary to ensure we protect our poultry farmers and the N.C. citizens who are employed in the industry.”

Troxler’s office says he has not received the petition from the “NO to NC Chicken Registration” group, but it has fielded “numerous phone calls and a handful of emails” about this issue.

“Registration is just one of the measures the department is taking to prepare for the possibility of an avian flu outbreak in North Carolina,” Long said. “The department has been working with poultry growers and companies, extension staff, academia, and other state and federal agencies to ensure a quick and effective response if an outbreak occurs. The department is erring on the side of preparation.”

Preparation and prevention resonate with Norwood, the urban chicken enthusiast.

“I want to keep educated and updated about where things stand,” Norwood said. “I just think it’s a good idea.”