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Coming home to roost

Thinking about raising backyard chickens? You’ll need to do some research first

Photo: Thurtell/iStockphoto

Typically a rural staple, chickens are now found in more urban settings and, in one case, on the terrace of a $1.2 million Manhattan apartment in New York City.

The exact number of people participating in the backyard chicken trend isn’t clear, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 5 percent of American households could own chickens by the end of 2018. That’s up from 0.8 percent in 2013.

Reasons range from the desire for fresh eggs to wanting a unique, fun pet.

“We enjoy their company,” said Kathy Shea Mormino, author and owner of “They’re engaging, entertaining and all those things. I think those are real surprises to most of us who just got into chickens for the eggs.”

Are you ready to raise chickens?

If you’re thinking of raising chickens, thorough research and preparation is needed, experts say. Your initial homework should focus on local ordinances. For example, your neighbor may own chickens, but that doesn’t mean it’s legal, Mormino said. She also pointed out that some zoning regulations are “permissive use,” meaning that unless they don’t explicitly state that you’re allowed to have chickens on your property, it’s illegal. Some municipalities may limit the number of chickens or prohibit roosters.

The next step is making sure you have enough room. Wayne Martin, an alternative livestock systems educator at the University of Minnesota Extension, said you need at least 3 to 5 square feet per bird in the coop and at least 10 square feet per bird in the run – an enclosed area that protects chickens as they move freely outside during the day.

It’s important to understand that raising chickens is a commitment, experts also say. That includes building their shelter and getting the proper equipment. All the necessities should be ready before the chickens arrive.

“It’s very tempting to walk into a feed store, see little fluffy chicks, and think to yourself, ‘How hard can it be?’, get a few and figure it out later. But you really want to have the chicken coop, the plan and the research done before you dive in,” Mormino said.

As with all pets, owners need to provide chickens with fresh water and food daily, and clean up after them. Coops and pens should be cleaned out weekly to maintain sanitation and odor control, the U of M Extension states. Owners also should count on collecting eggs daily to prevent them from getting cracked or dirty.

It’s important to note that hens – usually beginning at 5 to 6 months old – have a peak egg production of about two years, often laying one egg per day, according to the U of M Extension. That means that during a large portion of their lives, egg production is relatively intermittent or non-existent.

“It is a responsibility to take on these birds,” Martin said. “[People] really need to sit down and have a family discussion if this is what they really want to do. They’ve got to be taken care of every day, twice a day. Who is going to be doing that? … All of those kinds of labor issues need to be discussed beforehand.”

Selecting the right breeds also is important. According to the American Poultry Association, 64 breeds and 462 varieties of chicken are recognized. You want to look for more family-friendly chickens, Martin said, avoiding those that are high-strung. The climate in your region also should determine the breeds you select.

Of course, you’ll need a veterinarian who is well-versed in chickens – which is not always easy to find, Mormino said – and someone trustworthy to look after your flock when you’re out of town.

Avoiding salmonella when raising chickens

Chickens and their eggs can harbor salmonella naturally. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that salmonella was linked to backyard poultry for a record 1,120 cases in 48 states in 2017, including 249 hospitalizations and one death.

The CDC also reported 10 separate multistate outbreaks of salmonella involving people who “had contact with live poultry in backyard flocks.”

Dr. Megin Nichols, a CDC veterinarian and outbreak investigator, said it’s important to wash your hands after encounters with anything associated with chickens or eggs. You can use hand sanitizers unless your hands are “visibly soiled,” Nichols said.

The U of M Extension recommends establishing a “line of separation” between the chickens’ area and everything else on the property. You also should create a footbath that contains a bleach solution or use a spray bottle on your shoes every time you cross the line of separation.

The CDC advises using a dedicated pair of shoes – and keeping them outside – and Martin suggests having a brush available to remove excess dirt or other material. The U of M Extension encourages dedicating tools such as shovels or rakes to the coop area, and to avoid using them in the garden, where the potential to spread germs to vegetables and/or fruits exists.

Nichols said people, especially children, should avoid snuggling or kissing the birds – even cute, fluffy chicks. Poultry also should stay outside the house, and, if you’re buying chickens from a hatchery, make sure it participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan salmonella monitoring program.

“We’re really hoping that people can get some information about how to keep their families and flocks healthy, and put those precautions in place,” Nichols said. “Hopefully, in the future we’ll see these numbers of illnesses go down.”

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