The idea of raising backyard chickens sounded pretty nifty to a lot of people, once upon a time. They could have fresh eggs and feel good about not contributing to the horrifying life of battery caged hens.
It was actually kind of fun, having a teeny tiny farm in the back yard. For a while. Then, for a lot of people, reality set in. Backyard chickens need care and they’re only egg layers for a while, not forever. Oops.
“People don’t know what they’re doing,” Mary Britton Clouse, owner of Minneapolis rescue organization Chicken Run Rescue told NBC News. “And you’ve got this whole culture of people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing teaching every other idiot out there.”
According to Clouse, Chicken Run Rescue took in about 50 abandoned chickens in 2001. They got almost 500 in 2012.
Of course, not everyone with backyard chickens abandons them. We’re talking here about a certain subset of people who really didn’t think this idea through very well. Some critics point to “urban hipsters” who were caught up in the locavore movement and then (oh, snap!) found chicken raising to be actual, hard work.
Keeping backyard chickens is no walk in the park:
Costs: Startup costs for a good coop, security, maintenance, cleaning supplies, insulation, cooling systems and so on can climb to $4,000. Annual costs for things like permits, nutritional supplements, bedding, food, utilities and more are about $280 per bird. Hens also need veterinary care that can cost $300 per bird per year.
Maintenance: Chicken coops need to be kept clean and livable. Chicken poop must be removed. The litter must be replaced. Watering equipment has to be cleansed regularly. Feed bins must be refilled. Every so often, just about everything in the coop needs to be disassembled and sanitized.
How many people who are motivated to “save money” by raising chickens for the eggs are likely to want to spend this time and money caring for their birds?
In addition to all this work, there are two specific problems causing the chicken dumping phenomenon – one involving roosters, the other involving hens.
The Rooster Problem
In a growing number of neighborhoods, it’s legal to keep egg-laying hens, but roosters are prohibited. They’re just too darn loud. That cock-a-doodle-dooing is just too much for neighbors to take.
Unfortunately, when people order chicks over the Internet (yes, that’s a thing now), they often get both boys and girls because it can be hard to tell which is which at that age. Sometimes, according to Chicken Run Rescue’s web site, male chicks are intentionally included in these shipments as “live packing material” that the buyer can dispose of in any way he or she chooses.
When the boys grow old enough to crow, often they’re sent packing to the nearest shelter or they become Sunday dinner. No one knows what else to do with them.
The Hen Problem
Would-be urban farmers don’t always understand that chickens don’t lay eggs through their entire life span. For the most part, a hen’s egg laying period peaks at around 18 months of age. They lay eggs for about two years.
Compare that to the normal healthy chicken life span of between 12 and 14 years. How many frugal money saving backyard farmers want chickens as pets for eight or nine years after the eggs have stopped coming? Not so many, apparently.
“They’re put on Craigslist all the time when they don’t lay any more,” according to Coston. “They’re dumped all the time.”
Rescue an Abandoned Chicken
What happens to all these unwanted chickens? For the right type of person, they can can be adopted and will turn into wonderful companions.
“Oh, my god, they’re amazing,” said Coston. She says chickens are smart and funny, with their own personalities. “We have some of the sweetest ones here [at Farm Sanctuary]. They just sit beside you and they let you pet them. And they’re big and dumpy.”
Who wouldn’t want a smart, funny, big, dumpy friend?
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