In an October 23 article in the New York Times, Kim Severson writes about the "dark" side of the increased popularity of urban and suburban chicken keeping, from disease to abandonment to squabbles between neighbors.
October 23, 2009
When the Problems Come Home to Roost
By KIM SEVERSON
THE Bay Area is unmatched in its embrace of the urban backyard chicken trend. But raising chickens, which promises delicious, untainted eggs and instant membership in the local food movement, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Chickens, it turns out, have issues.
They get diseases with odd names, like pasty butt and the fowl plague. Rats and raccoons appear out of nowhere. Hens suddenly stop laying eggs or never produce them at all. Crowing roosters disturb neighbors.
The problems get worse. Unwanted urban chickens are showing up at local animal shelters. Even in the best of circumstances, chickens die at alarming rates.
“At first I named them but now I’ve stopped because it’s just too hard,” said Sharon Lane, who started with eight chickens in a coop fashioned from plywood and chicken wire in the front yard of her north Berkeley home. She’s down to three.
Ms. Lane, who is close friends with the restaurateur Alice Waters, wanted exceptional eggs, plain and simple. But her little flock has been plagued with mysterious diseases.
She has not taken them to the vet because of the high cost, but she goes to workshops and searches out cures on the Internet. She has even put garlic down their throats in hopes that the antibacterial qualities of the cloves might help.
“I’m discouraged but I’m determined to figure this out,” Ms. Lane said. “I still get more than I give.”
Most Bay Area communities allow at least a few hens, and sometimes even permit roosters. Some elementary schools and restaurants keep flocks. The Web site backyardchickens.com, which calls itself the largest community of chicken enthusiasts in the world, started here. Seminars on the proper and humane way to kill chickens are becoming popular.
But with increased chicken popularity comes a downside: abandonment. In one week earlier this month, eight were available for adoption at the Oakland shelter and five were awaiting homes at the San Francisco shelter. In Berkeley, someone dropped four chickens in the animal control night box with a note from their apologetic owner, said Kate O’Connor, the manager.
For some animal rights workers, the backyard chicken trend is as bad as the pot-bellied pig craze in the 1980s or puppy fever set off by the movie “101 Dalmatians.” In both cases, the pets proved more difficult to care for than many owners suspected.
“It’s a fad,” said Susie Coston, national shelter director for Farm Sanctuary, which rescues animals and sends them to live on farms in New York and California. “People are going to want it for a while and then not be so interested.”
She said that farm animal rescue groups field about 150 calls a month for birds, most of them involving chickens — especially roosters.
“We’re all inundated right now with roosters,” she said. “They dump them because they think they are getting hens and they’re not.”
Some chicken owners buy from large hatcheries, which determine the sex of the birds and kill large numbers of baby roosters, because most people want laying hens. But sexing a chicken is an inexact science. Sometimes backyard farmers end up with a rooster, which are illegal in most cities.
In Berkeley, which does allow roosters, Steve Frye is in the middle of a cockfight with Ace Dodsworth, who lives about four houses away and tends a flock of hens and roosters that his community household uses for eggs and meat.
“I’m not an antichicken guy whatsoever,” Mr. Frye said. “It’s a noise issue.”
During the worst of it, Mr. Frye said, the roosters woke him up 13 times in one month. He recently filed a complaint with the city.
Mr. Dodsworth believes a crowing rooster is a happy rooster, but he says he does his best to keep his roosters cooped to minimize noise. He has offered Mr. Frye eggs and dinner and said other neighbors don’t seem to mind the chickens. Down the street at Kate Klaire’s house, there are no roosters. But the elementary school teacher has other problems. She has been through three different flocks in four years.
She ticks through a list of all the ways her chickens have died. There was the breakout of Marek’s disease. Her dog got to one chicken before some rules of the roost were laid down. She suspects a fox or a coyote carried off several when she was away.
More upsetting were the two she found with their necks broken.
“I believe they were murdered,” she said, pointing to a chain link fence that appeared to have been bent by a human foot.
Like many of her fellow Bay Area backyard chicken owners, Ms. Klaire remains determined. The eggs are local, the composting contributions to the garden are significant and the chickens themselves are fascinating.
And for her, there has been one more benefit.
“Having chickens is a really great way of dealing with loss and death,” she said.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.