Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Immune Systems of Chickens

Immune Systems of a Baby Chicks and Chickens 
by Xenia Stavrinides

As a Physio-Organic specialist, farmer and rancher, I choose not vaccinate any of my livestock. This works for me, my operation, the livestock, our customers, farm members and our farming methods. This is not to say that these methods work for everyone, everywhere; because that is not the case. I believe there is enough room in this glorious world to apply a multitude of different farming and ranching methods. 

If you disagree with my opinions, that's alright, we can always agree, to disagree. If I have made any research related mistakes, scientific or biology mistakes in the following, please let me know.

Thanks for following the Rainbow Ranch Farms blog. 


Birds are different from most mammals (modern mammals). Some of the earliest mammals laid eggs, and a few, such as the monotremes still do. Unlike common mammals of today that derive beneficial bacteria and antibodies from the birthing canal, and the benefits of antibodies from consumed colostrum which is inherit in the breast milk; a baby chick derives most everything it needs in-ovum. A baby chick does not ​build its own immune system in time to fight bad organism invasion ​during the the first 7-10 days of life; even though the baby chick received antibodies from the mother hen via the egg.  Each bird is also different depending on specific species and subspecies, and this can make it challenging to categorize the needs of "chickens" in a blanket, generalized format (although the bare basics are similar).

The antibodies received via the egg are specific for all of the disease causing organisms that the mother has encountered​, been exposed to, or has been vaccinated against. Although most of these antibodies are short lived, they are known to survive long enough to provide a short term, natural immune-defen​s​e for the baby chick (first few days of life)​, while through environmental exposure and proper consumption of necessary nutrients, the baby chick is developing its own immune system.

A baby chicks ability to build a superior immune system depends on many factors. The climate, terrain, foraging materials, environmental exposure, fodder sources, even weather conditions.. among many other varying circumstances.
Through observation and careful study, I have observed the natural behaviors of many different breeds, species and sub species of chickens, game birds and jungle fowl and each express different characteristics and methods of brooding and raising their young.

Making a choice, not to vaccinate day-old baby chicks, requires planning, dedication, along with the commitment to understanding biological designs of your chickens,  and knowing the needs of the specific bird. Raising birds without vaccinating should be based on the knowledge and understanding regarding the lineage and history of the mother hen that laid the hatching eggs. Especially if the chickens are intended for long-term back yard pets, breeding, preservation of strong, healthy blood lines, cleaning up decaying organic matter, fertilizer, providing fresh, organic eggs, and eventually, maybe a wholesome homemade chicken dinner and chicken stock too.

It is important that the baby chicks, are hatched from a known and trusted lineage (breeding line). The mother hen must have an excellent immune system. Birds from poor lineage and poor ancestry, especially those breeds which are derived from extensive over breeding often are susceptible to ​many viruses, fungi, protozoan parasites, toxins, bacteria, avian leukosis, moniliasis, mycoplasmosis, cancer​ as well as ​many other ailments.

All too often back yard poultry growers source chicks from hatcheries, and depending on which hatcheries they are sourced from, this means that the baby chicks are from eggs which were laid by several different hens.

A commitment to organic chickens, poultry and eggs, may lead to the consideration of refraining from excess vaccines in your diet. The first step to a vaccine-free poultry flock is to source chickens and chicks  from a reputable, trustworthy source. Otherwise you could be compromising your philosophy, ethics and even your health or the health of others.  

About Avian Diseases 
As a disease organism enters the body of a bird, it is saturated by a phagocytic-type cell (macrophage). The macrophage delivers (transports) the disease organism, introducing it to the B-lymphocytes (B-cells). These cells are produced in the embryo within the sac (yolk), liver and the bone marrow. (continued below list)

Some Diseases That Can Affect Chickens (From Wikipedia)

Aspergillosis fungi                                                                           Avian influenza bird flu virus

Histomoniasis blackhead disease protozoal parasite                    Botulism toxin

Cage layer fatigue mineral deficiencies, lack of exercise               Campylobacteriosis tissue injury in the gut

Coccidiosis parasites                                                                       Colds virus

Crop bound improper feeding                                                     Dermanyssus gallinae red mite parasite

Egg bound oversized egg                                                                Erysipelas bacteria

Fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome high-energy food                        Fowl cholera bacteria

Penn State                                                                                        Fowl pox virus

Fowl typhoid bacteria                                               Gallid herpesvirus 1 or infectious laryngotracheitis virus

Gapeworm Syngamus trachea worms                                          Infectious bronchitis virus

Infectious bursal disease Gumboro virus                                       Infectious coryza bacteria

Lymphoid leukosis avian leukosis virus                                          Marek's disease virus

Moniliasis yeast infection or thrush fungi                                        Mycoplasmas bacteria-like organisms

Newcastle disease virus                                                                 Necrotic enteritis bacteria

Omphalitis mushy chick disease umbilical cord stump            Peritonitis infection in abdomen from egg yolk

Prolapse                                                                                          Psittacosis bacteria

Pullorum salmonella bacteria                                                          Scaly leg parasites

Squamous cell carcinoma cancer                                                   Tibial dyschondroplasia speed growing

Toxoplasmosis protozoal parasite                                                    Ulcerative enteritis bacteria

Ulcerative pododermatitis bumblefoot bacteria

The B-cells move to the bursa of Fabricius (BF/lymphoid organ) (15 days incubation). When an antigen is introduced, the bursa of Fabricius programs those cells to attach to the antigen. The programmed cells travel to the spleen, through the blood,  into the bone marrow, cecal tonsils, Harderian gland and the thymus.

Destruction of the bursa of Fabricius in a chicken, especially at a young age,  by Gumboro (infectious bursal) disease or Marek’s disease will prevent the programming of B-cells for the duration of the birds life. Sadly, the afflicted chicken will not have the capability to respond to diseases or even vaccinations (live, attenuated, inactivated, subunit vaccines etc.) by producing specific antibodies.

Contrary to popular belief, antibodies do not have the capability to directly kill or destroy disease organisms. Antibodies perform specific functions, and their main function is to attach to the disease organisms and block their receptors. The disease organisms are then prevented from attaching to their target cell receptors in the chicken. For example, an infectious upper respiratory virus which has its receptors covered with antibodies will not be able to attach to the target cells lining the trachea or penetrate them. The attached antibodies also paralyze the disease organism which aids their destruction by macrophages.

It is imperative that when raising chicken flocks without the use of vaccines that the chicken flock is provided a nutrient dense food system that meets or exceeds their needs, in every nutritional capacity as well as with regard to preventative measures. Developing a plan to implement preventative measures;

When I raise tropical Jungle Fowl, I provide large deposits of decaying organic matter. I keep it moist and I work to reproduce the humidy without the use of plastics. I make certain that they are getting the right types of beneficial bacteria, good fungus and safe environmental exposure to ensure that they develop a strong immune system. These birds will need a good start using animal protein and animal fats from large grubs, bugs and even meat from a decaying animal, that they may uncover from beneath the composting and decomposing organic matter.

Helpful Tips:
Do not give artificial grit to ground-raised baby chicks/start on dirt instead of concrete, wire or grass
Avoid shellfish and oyster shell in your fodder system
Avoid the use of seeds that contain cyanide such as flax seeds
Avoid high fiber, oregano, rosemary and other potent products
Do not use any medicated sack-feeds
Avoid products that cause inflammation, such as corn
Avoid products with gluten (wheat, rye, barley, etc)
Avoid products containing arsenic (California rice, and similar)
NOTE: You would not give a newborn human a fillet mignon steak; would you?

My flocks are vaccine-free, disease-free, great breeders and the hens are excellent mothers. The poultry produced from our farms is nutrient dense and loaded in EFA's, vitamins, minerals and powerful wholesome proteins, and beneficial animal fats. We attribute this to the natural health of our flocks. This is not to say that we don't experience injuries, sometimes we do, and I treat any injured livestock by simple, holistic and natural methods, as needed.

On my farms and ranches, the hens and roosters do the majority of the hard work. They breed, raise the young chicks, brood,  and depending on the circumstances, we collect excess hatching eggs and fill the incubators. Once the baby chicks hatch (again depending on the circumstances), we either give the chicks to mothers or introduce the baby chicks to a brooder-run that includes broody hens too. 

credit: The avian immune system resembles that of mammals since both evolved from a common reptilian ancestor and have inherited many commonalities. Birds have lymphoid tissues, B cells, T cells, cytokines and chemokines like many other animals. In addition, they can also have tumours, immune deficiency and autoimmune diseases. (credit: Seto F (1981). “Early development of the avian immune system” Poult. Sci. 60(9) and link to wikipedia)

It is important to protect the baby chicks ability to build a strong immune system by providing the appropriate food sources, forage and companion birds. They need to be offered every opportunity you can provide them, to ensure optimum results for your happy, healthy flock. Lawn and pasture grasses are not suggested. Providing good soil and beneficial forage is best. If you can provide your chicks good soil, they will derive natural minerals to build their immune systems, animal based proteins and fats are best for their digestive systems, as well as natural grit from soil (dirt) to help grind their food. Grasses are fiber, and free range chickens require very little fiber. In fact too much phyto-based fiber can do your flock the injustice of losing weight, drop in egg production and even compromise their immune systems. 

I welcome your comments. 

References, Credits and Suggested Readings
ACPV                                                                                                              National Geographic
U.S. National Library of Medicine                                                                     Poultry Hub 
Microbiology                                                                                                     UCMP Amniota
Animal Diversity                                                                                                Mississippi State University
Department of Health and Human Services                                                       Mommy Potamus
Perdue Edu                                                                                                      Merck Veterinary Manual 
Science Daily                                                                        Garry Lab (The Big Picture Book of Viruses)
Smithsonian                                                                                                         UK Science Museum
Cornell Lab of Ornithology                                                                                  CIWF Advanced UK
NOAA                                                                                                               Bird Channel
BC Environment                                                                                                  Veterinary News
Animal Behavior                                                                                                  ILRI

Avian Biochemistry and Molecular Biology By Lewis Stevens    

The Mycoplasmas V2: Human and Animal Mycoplasmas edited by J Tully

Seto F (1981). “Early development of the avian immune system” Poult. Sci. 60(9)                                                                         

Clinical Anatomy and Physiology for Veterinary Technicians By Thomas P. Colville, Joanna M. Bassert


  1. We are a celiac family (and we are getting chickens in a week) so we are looking to make a feed that does not contain gluten. Would you be willing to share with me your gluten-free feed recipes? Thank you very much for the assistance.

  2. I am very interested in the recipe for gluten free feed recipes also.

  3. I appreciate this blog to share knowledge about this important topic. Here I found different segments and now I am going to use these new tips with new enthusiasm.
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