The Tragic Tale of my Tick Eating Chickens

In June 2010, I felt like many of my dreams were coming true. I had moved to the foothills of my favorite mountains, The Shawangunks, with my husband and 3 kids. Our new home was less than 10 minutes from where I had grown up and where my parents still live. I was just three semesters away from finally getting my Bachelor’s degree and my teaching certification (a long time dream I had been working incredibly hard towards for several years). And best of all, we were now just a few short minutes away from many of our favorite hiking spots. Life was good and we felt incredibly blessed.

Our house was a ranch house placed on an idyllic little country road in the foothills with incredible views of the valley below and the Catskill Mountains stretching away into the distance to the north. The house was almost completely surrounded by thick woods. It sat back from the road near the center of a pretty large expanse of lawn, and a small hill slopes away behind it and eventually back into the woods. We had a seasonal stream that cut through one corner of the property.  Beyond the few houses on the road behind us, Minnewaska State Park’s 4,600 acre preserve sits. My children, after several years in a slightly more urban location, were getting back to my own roots. In the fall, they would all be attending schools in the same school system where I myself had graduated and both of my parents had taught their entire careers.  It felt like we were returning to where we were meant to be, and everything was coming together.

All too quickly, this dreamy world was shattered by the sudden and constant onslaught of ticks. Inside, outside, in the grass (no matter how short we mowed it), in the woods. They were absolutely everywhere. We’d wipe down the walls, apply tick preventatives to our pets, and search humans and pets each and every time they came inside. I had never seen anything like it.
I had spent over 30 years living much of my life in the woods of this area. Nobody ever saw ticks here until sometime in the early 90’s when we started seeing many more. For many years now, I knew I needed to be aware. I had taught my kids to be aware and we always checked everyone thoroughly for ticks every time we went into the woods. We occasional found crawling ticks on hiking trips and very rarely someone would have one that somehow was missed and managed to bite someone but we promptly removed those. I had never expected that the tick situation here at my dreamy new house would be any different. But it was full of ticks.

We took every precaution we could (we kept the lawn short, we kept repellents on our pets, we kept wood piles away from the house and always, always checked everyone morning, night and when we returned from spending time outdoors. In fact, my kids quickly began to roll their eyes at me when I would declare another tick check, they got so tired of them. Still the ticks were everywhere. We tried applying Diatamaceous earth and other various natural products that were supposed to repel the ticks. None of it mattered. I began to wonder what was happening to me, when I took all the precautionary measures recommended  but yet, I still kept getting bit. I would have no ticks when I climbed into my bed at night and then when I woke up in the morning, I would find a nasty tick stuck to me, sucking my blood.  It was like something out of the twilight zone and didn’t make any sense. No matter what we did, the problem persisted. Miraculously, my kids and my husband didn’t get bit as often as I did. I couldn’t even keep track of the number of bites I’d get every spring, summer, and fall, because there were so many. All of them while I was simply trying to sleep in my dreamy new home that had turned into a living nightmare.

My healthy self, before I got sick, used to be a voracious reader (I haven’t read a book in almost 6 years now.) One night, after we had been here about two years, while laying in bed reading with a  small lamp, I noticed something on the ceiling. It was dark and moving slowly right above me. I jumped out of bed and turned on the lights and jumped up on the bed to get a closer look. It was an American Dog tick, crawling across my ceiling while I slept, hoping to find a tasty meal.  This horrified me. I had always read that ticks did not climb walls. But sure enough they were here. Now my constant morning bites made slightly more sense. If they were getting me while I was sleeping, no wonder I didn’t find them until morning.

Eventually, the countless bites took their toll and I got very ill. The first time I got sick was December of 2011. I was literally weeks away from getting that teaching degree I had been working so hard for. and suddenly found myself so sick I couldn’t crawl from my bed to the bathroom next door, let alone go to student teaching. I had soaking, shaking sweats and chills, a fever, the worst nausea and vomiting I’d ever experienced, my head felt like someone was beating it with a sledge hammer and every single muscle and joint I had hurt. I went to see my Doctor, an urgent care place, and eventually, an emergency room. I told all of them of my history of tick bites and by all of them, I was told I should stop worrying about ticks. Eventually due to the fever, high white blood cell counts, and pain, I was told I had a kidney infection and to take some antibiotics. I got a little better, and then a little worse, and the roller coaster that would be my life for several years began. Still, the ticks continued to bite me and the Doctors continued to say I wasn’t ill from a tick borne disease.

I scraped through the end of my semester sick, passed all my Teacher Certification Exams, and continued to be ill and plagued by ticks. Finally, in June 2014, after not finding a single effective measure to stop the ticks from crawling our walls, I made a big decision. It was time to get tick eating birds to help solve our problem. We considered guinea hens but rejected them because they are so noisy and I simply couldn’t imagine listening to several of them, or subjecting our neighbors to them. We decided we were going to convert a shed we had into a chicken coop and find some chickens. As it happened, the preschool where I work had hatched 6 chicks with the preschoolers, and they needed a home. We gave them one.

At the time, there were several other people on our street who owned chickens and roosters. We soon found that the chickens did indeed voraciously hunt and eat all manner of insects, including ticks. But we also quickly discovered our 6 little chickens couldn’t cover the vast yard. There was too much space and too many ticks no matter how hungry for ticks our new feathered friends were.

We began to get more chickens. We tried several different breeds before we eventually decided that if we were going to keep chickens, we were going to try and also bring back some rare heritage breeds that had been fading out. My daughter, who already participated in 4H, decided to raise chickens as well. We increased the flock and within just a few months, something miraculous happened. There were no more ticks. I never found them crawling the walls. I didn’t wake up with a new tick sucking my blood every morning. I couldn’t believe how well it worked. Even the cats and dogs, who sometimes ventured further into the wooded perimeter, stopped coming back to the house with ticks on them.

The ticks had done everything we had hoped. Plus, we had converted a shed, and ripped out a monstrously huge forsythia bush to create their attached pens. We didn’t even need to give up any space we had used before we had them. Each morning, we’d open the coops, and the chickens would immediately start searching the yard for anything tasty to eat. And aside from a nice afternoon nap, they are always on the look out for a tasty bug to gobble up.

We had some difficulties, like learning that free range chickens (required for good tick control…they can’t eat them if they can’t get to them) were very tasty targets for the many predators that lived in our parts. We also learned we didn’t need to buy grocery store eggs or chicken anymore, because our flock supplied plenty of eggs and meat. We learned some chickens were more suited to free ranging than others. In August we added some runner ducks to the flock. They were supposed to be good at eating garden pests the chickens didn’t (like slugs) and mosquitoes, and were good mosquito eaters.

We learned that roosters are essential to a flock of free range chickens. They keep the hens all together, point them in the direction of the tastiest bugs, and most importantly warn the girls  of predators. And of course, roosters are essential for creating more chickens. Our chickens were not some common hatchery brand chicks from tractor supply, but rare show quality breeds. They are not easily replaced. But the best way to keep a good population in predator country is to continue to breed them, and keep up with any losses to predators. Chickens that you breed yourself are actually proven to be better tick foragers than hatchery birds as well.

Over the course of 14 months we built two new chicken coops, each with attached yards, and built our flock into amazing show bird quality tick eating machines that my daughter proudly won blue ribbons for at the fair. In June of 2015, after being plagued by a fox with an appetite for chickens, and losing many birds, we learned that geese were good “farm watch dogs,” and could be especially good at  warning the flock of foxes and that some geese even actively chase them away. There are constantly wild flocks of geese here, and in fact the name of our town in the native american tongue actually means “goose” and my children’s school mascot is a gander. On June 27th, 2015, we brought home 3 day old sebastapol geese to be “watch dogs” for our flock of tick eaters. Meanwhile we continued to see absolutely no ticks at our home.

We had no idea we were making the worst possible mistake. The geese grew up and began to be the intended protectors of the yard. When pulling in our driveway you’d be greeted by the 3 geese, who would come up to your car to make sure you knew they were keeping an eye on you.

On June 27, 2015, there was a knock on our door. It was a town building inspector. We were informed that according to Town Zoning Laws, we were actually not allowed to have a single feathered animal on our wooded acre and a half full of ticks. (although in an odd twist we were allowed to have a hooved animal like a cow, pig, horse, or donkey).   We expressed our shock and confusion. And we said “but so many people here have them with smaller yards than ours, and we need them for tick control. We were told that the building inspector had watched us build our tiny chicken empire, increasing our flock, building coops and fences. But that we were never informed we were not actually allowed to have any chickens because they do not enforce such zoning laws unless they received a complaint. At this point we had almost 200 birds, including the young ones we had been raising. We were horrified. We also didn’t like upsetting neighbors (we got chickens, rather than the much louder guinea hens to avoid exactly that). We were totally confused, since we had been keeping these birds for almost 17 months without anyone having an issue, we couldn’t understand what was going on. Why would there suddenly be a complaint after all this time and how could all this we had worked so hard to build actually be illegal?

We began going to all of our neighbors with our deepest apologies, hoping we could solve the problem ourselves, and that if there was no more complaint we wouldn’t have an issue. My daughter and my husband found the people who were upset with our birds. It turned out they live on a small road that loops up the mountain quite a distance behind us, through thick woods. We can only see them slightly from our house through the woods in winter. We apologized, explaining we didn’t want to upset anyone, but needed the birds for tick control. While they were talking up the hill, someone pulled into our driveway and the three young geese ran up to them honking. Up the hill, the neighbors said “that noise. What’s that noise? Those are roosters, right?” my daughter explained that was not roosters, but was actually our geese, honking. The neighbors said that they liked to entertain friends on their deck and that the noise of our birds was intrusive. Especially that noise they had just heard the geese make. We deeply apologized. We left them our phone number and reiterated that we didn’t want to bother anyone.  We said that if they called us on a day when they were having friends over, we would be glad to put the geese and roosters in the garage for the day so they wouldn’t be bothered. We hoped that would be the end of the problem. And it was….for almost a year.

We heard nothing else for almost a year. We also never received a single phone call from the neighbors asking us to put up the birds. Then in Early May of 2016, we received a threatening anonymous letter in the mail. It gave us just a short few days to get rid of our roosters, in which case, they would not report us to the town for illegally keeping birds and we could go on “raising chickens”. We spent considerable time weighing this note. We couldn’t get rid of our roosters. First of all, we already knew the problem was geese. Second of all, the roosters were necessary for protection from all the predators and to continue raising our rare heritage breeds. But mostly, our fear was if we met their demand and got rid of the roosters, that then there would still be more complaints since we had already been informed the problem was geese not roosters. (the further proof that the problem was the geese, besides the neighbor’s statement to us, was the fact that we had peacefully kept chickens and roosters for 17 months with no problem, but as soon as the geese had grown up, and began to honk,  we immediately had an issue). So, we did nothing.  At this point, we had 75-100 remaining birds rather than the previous 200.

A couple of weeks later, on May 24, 2016, my landlord received a letter. It said that we were disobeying the law and that all chickens had to be removed from the property by June 10. I made some phone calls and tried to reach our Town Supervisor by phone, sure that he would understand I needed the birds for my health. In fact, by this time, after years of declining health,  I had finally been properly diagnosed with neuro lyme, babesia, anaplasma, rocky mountain spotted fever and bartonella. My Physician had written me a letter stating that I was being treated for several tick borne diseases and had not been bitten by another tick since getting chickens. He advised that I be allowed to keep my chickens for my health.

My partner and I went back up the hill to the neighbors house. The neighbor denied calling the town, but the building inspector later admitted that was who it was. We reminded them we needed the birds for ticks. he said the birds “had not been a problem, but it was getting to the time of year where it was a problem.” We asked if he still had our number, explained we had less birds than we did a year ago, and again said we would be happy to put our roosters and geese up anytime they needed us to. He said the number was still on their fridge. We went home, feeling defeated. They had the number the entire time but had never once called us. Yet they called the town again?

My calls to the supervisor resulted in a phone call back instead, from the building inspector. I informed him of the letter from my physician and asked about a zoning variance. (all of our other neighbors actually like the chickens and have repeatedly offered to fill out paperwork for a variance.) The building inspector was quite adamant that the only way for me to even ask for one was to attend a board meeting that night and ask for the paperwork.  So I called in sick to work, and spent the afternoon frantically gathering any paperwork I thought might help. My entire family went to the meeting. Where we were informed that a meeting was not at all the place to get such papers, that we had to come to town hall during regular business hours for that. I was obviously confused since I had confirmed on the phone with the building inspector multiple times that he was saying I could only get papers at that night’s meeting. A nice gentleman who was on one of the zoning boards told me to come back the next day for the variance paperwork, and if anyone gave me a hard time, I should tell them he said so.

So the next day, I tramped down to the office and was again told there was no such thing as a variance for chickens when I requested the papers. I couldn’t take the wild goose chase anymore. I went to the Supervisor’s office, and explained to his secretary I had a very big concern and needed to speak to him. I waited a bit and was eventually let into his office. I had a lengthy meeting with the Supervisor and two different building inspectors. I tried to give him my letter from my Doctor stating I should be allowed to keep the chickens for my health. I also had a thick stack of blood work to prove how many tick borne diseases I had gotten before I had chickens to eat the ticks. He didn’t want any of my paperwork. By the end of the meeting, the Supervisor looked me in the eye and told me I should go home and not worry. I was told not to get anymore chickens. But that as long as I didn’t get anymore, I wouldn’t have a problem. He said that they would be re-writing town law soon and that the new law would let more people keep chickens.

I did as instructed and believed his assurances. I went home and didn’t worry. I took care of my existing birds, didn’t hatch any new ones, and tried to treat my considerable infections. A few months later I went on IV antibiotics for several months, and I did not have any energy through my illness and treatment to check on what the town was doing about the chicken law. I assumed everything was fine. In fact, we not only complied with the no more chicken rule, we trimmed our flock as much as we could. We got rid of the loudest of our 3 geese, reduced our roosters from 3 or 4 to just 2, and reduced our hen population to the point where we almost had to worry about seeing ticks again, because we almost didn’t have enough.

We had almost another entire year of peace.
We should have known it couldn’t be that easy.

On April 24th as I was taking my giant stack of morning medicine and getting ready to start my day, Suddenly there was a pounding knock on our door. It was the Building Inspector who had been here previously and the Town Supervisor himself who had told me not to worry almost a year before. The Supervisor told me that now that he had to come out of his office, this was a big problem and now we had to do something about it. (I thought that was an interesting perspective since I had held up my own end of the deal and then some. (I had less birds rather than just the requested same amount). We had not heard a word from anyone in almost a year.

We were not very nicely informed that the new law was not yet passed, but that when it is passed, we would only be allowed to have 15 hens, no ducks, geese or other waterfowl, and absolutely no roosters. We were told they had been patient long enough and that we needed to get rid of all but 15 hens.

I reminded them I needed the birds for medical reasons. I asked if they’d like to see the note from my Doctor. I reminded them that in predator country like ours, there is no way to keep 15 hens without a rooster to protect them. Let alone that you can’t just replace birds like ours, but have to invest in a good pair of parents and raise them yourself. I told them they don’t realize what they are doing by not allowing people to sufficiently protect themselves from tick borne disease when we live in an endemic area with risks like a 67% chance an adult deer tick in the Hudson Valley is carrying Lyme disease, that 40% of Hudson Valley deer ticks are carrying babesia, and that at least 6% are carrying the untreatable, transmitted in just 15 minutes Powassan virus.

None of these very true facts mattered to them in the least.
The building inspector  asked me why I want to live where there are so many ticks if I am so susceptible to Lyme disease. I thought that a ridiculous question on the face of it. Nobody is “Susceptible”. I reminded him that I had lived in this area my entire life and been completely healthy before moving to this house where I was bitten by so many ticks in my sleep that I got at least 5 tick borne diseases before getting chickens and having no ticks for years. He had no response.

My partner, understandably angry told them that this was private property and they needed to leave. He told them he’d shoot the roosters and extra hens before they even left the driveway so that we would be in compliance.

They left.

My landlord received another notice stating that they would now be held responsible for our compliance and would be brought to court on May 15th if we were not in compliance. We haven’t seen or heard from anyone again as of yet.

Don’t worry, we didn’t shoot any birds. We are now in compliance. We had around 75 birds  a year ago when the Supervisor told me they’d be fine as long as I didn’t get more. To get in compliance with the 15 hens only, we re-homed our two geese, six ducks, two roosters and 9 hens. It was heartbreaking. They were all born and raised here in our incubators. Thankfully, several amazing friends helped out by taking them so we would not worry and know they had good homes. We were in compliance by April  24th. I am not a math wizard, but this I can do. 15+2+6+2+9=34. Much less than the 75 we were told to maintain one year before.

Already, in just a few short weeks, the ticks are coming back. Without roosters, our girls are at the mercy of a local fox who picks them off from the brushy surrounding woods while they are out in our yard doing their tick hunting and munching. The 15 we were allowed to keep will not last long. They need roosters to corral them and protect them. 15 chickens is not enough to keep up with the constant influx of ticks. I found one crawling the wall again the other day, and we have all been finding them on us again. My partner was bit last week, without even going outside. I feel like my 15 remaining hens were sentenced by the town to become fox food. This breaks my heart. Last week, we lost one of the school chickens that my preschooler friends raised that I had cared for for almost 4 years. 2 of the original 6 school chickens that started my flock (and likely saved my life by eating all those ticks)still remained when the town made us get rid of most of our birds. Now there is only one of those. To find nothing but a few scattered feathers of a friend you had spent almost 4 years raising because I can’t keep a rooster in what has always been farm country and is an epicenter for tick borne disease is very disheartening.

RIP Wrecka

I don’t know how to fix this problem. But I know the town’s decision to not allow people a reasonable, and still sustainable flock of tick eating birds is unconscionable and certainly not in the best interest of public health. If they have science to support their position, in this matter, I would like to see it. I would be happy to show them the science to support my position anytime.

I hope to find a way to take my argument further and rally for some sort of larger change on this front. Especially in endemic areas. There will be upcoming posts on the science of chickens as tick eaters and the science and ecology of the tick borne environment in my area soon. please bear with me as I still have Lyme in my brain. and writing is a struggle.

The CDC estimates there were 380,000 new cases of Lyme disease in 2015. Almost an entire half of all cases (that’s nearly 190,000 cases) came from just 3 states: New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Public Health and town and city officials are making a big mistake by not allowing people safe and effective options against these epidemics.

I live in a rural area with a population density of just 98.6 people per square mile in an endemic area in New York, according to the 2010 Census.  I contracted 5 tick borne diseases here, and should be allowed to protect myself with a more reasonable amount of poultry to sustain a flock and keep me safe.

These days, I take a flashlight to bed. And I search the walls and ceiling of my bedroom and the bathroom next door before I can even think of falling asleep. And we race to try and trap the fox before he eats the rest of our beautiful hens. What sort of life is it if you don’t even feel safe in your own home?
Just a few weeks ago, I had enough chickens to never worry about seeing a tick in or around my home.

This shouldn’t be allowed.
If this story has moved you, please share. And check back for more on the science of it all, or on our other learning experiences we’ve had while owning free range chickens for biological tick control.

Or better yet, contact your local town or city office, your congressmen, your senators, any lawmakers you feel are appropriate. Tell them you are concerned about the tick born disease epidemic and want to make sure people in your own tick infested area are allowed to keep chickens, even if you don’t want to keep them yourself.

Most of my neighbors love my birds, because they feel birds belong here in our rural farm country, but also because they know that any chickens in your neighborhood will help you control your own ticks. If the chicken next door eats 600 ticks on their own property in one day, then that is 600 ticks that can’t hitch a ride on the next critter that comes along, get into your yard, and bite you or your family. Tell them you feel chicken keeping is important. and restricting them is wrong. Make yourselves heard.

I know my family thanks you for it. And my chickens too!

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