I recently read an article about the consequences of the waning “back-yard chicken” movement. To me, it’s rather sad, and I have to say that I saw it coming. A few years ago, urban and suburban folks, lured by romantic images of farm life, the “local foods” craze, and in pursuit of fresh eggs, decided that it would be a good idea to keep chickens in their residential back yards. A few municipalities in our area debated allowing chickens in non-agricultural areas. Those against the idea brought up practical reasons why poultry should be limited to farms, such as noise (often very early) from roosters crowing, the problem of waste disposal, associated human health risks, and the hazard the birds can cause when not confined by proper fencing.

Those in favor prevailed in some cases, and ordinances were passed allowing poultry in non-agricultural areas. Designer coops were erected and exotic breeds of poultry purchased. The trend went along for a while, but now as reality sets in, unwanted chickens are being turned in to pet shelters, and specialty rescue organizations are being formed. Especially now, as cold weather approaches, many owners are seeking new homes for their birds. Winter means additional expenses and chores: heating coops, providing fresh, unfrozen water, extra feed, and more frequent shoveling and cleaning of the coops. Many first time chicken owners are unprepared for, or grow tired of, the winter requirements.

Another factor in winter is the lack of natural light. Hens very often will quit laying eggs as the days grow shorter. Artificial lighting can be manipulated to keep the hens laying eggs but that requires electric service and a timer. Hens will quit laying when they are 2 to 4 years old, but can live 10 to 12 years, which brings up another problem: what to do when the “pet” chicken is no longer productive. In commercial settings, these birds are used for meat, i.e. stewing hens. Many city people form pet-like attachments to their birds and can’t bear to part with them, or are simply unprepared for the long-term commitment. It’s one more reason why poultry shelters, like “Chicken Run Rescue” have come into existence. In the article that I read by Kim Palmer in the November 8 edition of The Beacon, Mary Britton Clouse, founder of the rescue, says that last year she had nearly 500 surrender requests. “All the other sanctuaries and shelters have noticed an increase. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion”, she says of the abandoned and neglected chickens that she sees.

There are also health risks to both humans and poultry associated with keeping the birds in urban areas, that most new owners are completely unaware of. Most of them do little or no research, and report getting their information from the Internet. There are some capitalizing on the trend, like Al Bourgeois of suburban Minneapolis, aka “The Chicken Enthusiast” who, according to the article, has taught classes on urban chicken-keeping for the past four years. His curriculum includes a pragmatic “cautionary section” to “deter those with unrealistic expections”. Unfortunately, there are too many who ignore the warnings and proceed with their pursuit.

My fear is that the number of unwanted birds will continue to grow until the fad completely flames out. The reported neglect and abandonments is not fair to the birds. There’s a reason why livestock are raised on farms. Let’s leave the farm animals on farms, and in the care of farmers.

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog challenge or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!