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Want to flock to chickens? Here’s what you need to know if planning birds for backyard

By Christopher Vondracek, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Published: June 10, 2023, 6:03am
3 Photos
The backyard chicken renaissance lifted off the ground -- awkwardly, slightly, like a prairie chicken flapping into a tree -- during the early days of the pandemic.
The backyard chicken renaissance lifted off the ground -- awkwardly, slightly, like a prairie chicken flapping into a tree -- during the early days of the pandemic. (Dreamstime/TNS) (Photos by iStock.com) Photo Gallery

MINNEAPOLIS — Only once did the chickens fly — or fence-hop — into Nancy Engberg’s neighbor’s yard in north Minneapolis.

And no, it wasn’t just to cross the road to get to the other side.

“I watched them go over,” Engberg said, describing a mildly alarming incident early in her tenure tending to an urban coop. “Otherwise, they were pretty happy at home.”

But other tasks awaited Engberg when she purchased her backyard flock of hens more than a decade ago. Even today — after national egg prices soared in December to more than $4 a dozen, prompting more people to consider becoming poulterers — Engberg warns it’s not for the casually interested. It’s not just a matter of throwing up a coop and purchasing chicks from Fleet Farm to source DIY eggs, the experienced flock owner said.

“This really is a hobby for animal lovers,” said Engberg, who works for Minneapolis Animal Care and Control by day. “Feed costs money. The initial outlay for the coop and things … it’s not easy.”

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, so long as you’re prepared to stick out this journey into aviculture. Here are some tips to help your flock take flight.

Set your eggs-pectations

The backyard chicken renaissance lifted off the ground — awkwardly, slightly, like a prairie chicken flapping into a tree — during the early days of the pandemic. Food supply lines tapered to a trickle. Anxieties abounded about the origin of meat to milk to eggs.

Abby Schuft, a poultry educator with University of Minnesota Extension, educates would-be buyers about the logistics of owning a backyard flock.

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This often involves dampening expectations.

“If you don’t take care of your dog and do the minimum maintenance, like a rabies shot or a kennel cough vaccine, there’s going to be a risk,” Schuft said. “It’s the same with birds.”

Would-be bird owners might dream of waking to roosters and gathering golden-brown eggs with orange yokes. But Schuft said to buttress such aspirations against reality. Those birds need warmth much of the year.

Most importantly, Schuft said, backyard birds deserve freedom from hunger, thirst, discomfort, injury, disease and distress. Flock-minders should also allow birds to express normal behaviors.

But there are concerns for the bird-owner, too.

Around-the-cluck care

Birds can also be vectors for disease. In 2021, the Minnesota Department of Health counted 56 persons across the state infected with salmonella associated with live poultry. (Washington’s Department of Health is investigating 13 cases of salmonella linked to backyard poultry, including a case in Cowlitz County.) And birds can also transfer disease to other birds.

Earlier this month, the first case of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, which devastated commercial turkey operations in Minnesota last year, came from a domesticated, backyard flock of roughly 100 birds in Le Sueur County near the Minnesota River. (Washington has tracked outbreaks across 16 counties.)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found most cases of bird flu transmit to domesticated flocks from wild, migratory birds. While commercial operations often rigorously test birds, experts say the backyard flocks — which naturally live outdoors and might mingle with other birds — need vigilance, too, to prevent the spread of fatal viruses.

Schuft hypothesizes while backyard flocks were susceptible to HPAI between 2014 and 2015, those owners had more experience keeping birds isolated from their wild counterparts.

“In 2022, all of a sudden, this whole new audience has been (caught unaware) that their birds are going to be compromised and are at risk now,” Schuft said. “They’re not fully understanding the risk of the migratory bird.”

Owners should keep areas clean and avoid sharing equipment with neighbors. They should also watch for odd behavior in their birds — such as tremors or paralyzed wings. (Report concerns about your backyard flock to the Washington State Department of Agriculture at 1-800-606-3056.)

The financial peck-ture

So, to recap: If farm-fresh eggs and feathered friends still sound appealing, you’ll need a coop (a couple hundred bucks), some nutritionally balanced food (about $30 per 50-pound bag) and then the chicks (usually a couple dollars per, though it depends on the breed and the hatchery).

Lastly, you’ll also need to check state and local ordinances for compliance. (Residents of Clark County’s cities and unincorporated areas can own backyard chickens, but specifics vary. Some jurisdictions, like Vancouver and Battle Ground, don’t allow roosters. Others, like Camas and Yacolt, limit the size of flocks.)

For the first few years, a hen will lay eggs frequently (maybe six a week). But for the remainder of that bird’s life, the egg production will slow down. And those birds need care for their duration, sometimes a decade or more.

Find your wings

The labors of bird-owning didn’t necessarily dim Engberg’s affection for her flock. For years, she cared for her birds, which laid eggs Engberg gifted to friends and neighbors. After her last bird died in 2021, she saw an opportunity to stretch her own wings.

“I want to travel,” Engberg said, explaining why she no longer owns a backyard flock.

Vacationing was tough to do all those years, when a flock of domesticated birds needed her attention from her backyard.

Or at least on one occasion, her neighbor’s side of the fence.

The Columbian contributed to this story.