Backyard chickens! They’re everywhere these days—including the local animal shelter, according to a story published yesterday by NBC News. While hens can be relied on to lay an egg most every day—and what a selling point!—they also chatter up a storm, scratch and peck at everything, cover most available surfaces with droppings, and will eventually become unproductive (egg-wise) and die.
Apparently, some would-be urban chicken ranchers are finding all of the non-egg-related elements a bit too much to deal with and are abandoning the flock. According to the NBC story, “Hundreds of chickens, sometimes dozens at a time, are being abandoned each year at the nation’s shelters from California to New York.” At Chicken Run Rescue in Minneapolis, the number of birds taken in has risen sharply in the past few years, “from fewer than 50 in 2001 to nearly 500 in 2012.”
When the impulse to raise your own food takes the form of a window box of herbs or a raised-bed full of tomatoes, neglect results in the sad, drooping and eventually dead plants. A shame, but not an ethically problematic one. But with chickens? If you can’t hack it, birds can get sick, hurt and die. And that all might happen even if you’re able to maintain the upkeep—especially the dying part, which will come after a lengthy spell of not laying eggs.
If you read cookbooks from the era when keeping chickens was a far less urban, bourgeois affair, the recipes will quickly disabuse you of the notion that all chicken dishes can be made with all chickens. Roasting a bird? You want something small, young and tender—a literal spring chicken. For braises, stews and soups—dishes where otherwise tough meat is simmered into yielding submission—the flavorful meat of long-worked, older birds can not only be used, but is preferable. The soup pot was oftentimes the final resting place of a long-serving laying hen.
But that solution to the backyard chicken “problem” would involve slitting some throats, an activity that’s met with understandable amounts of trepidation and concern—both for moral and food-safety reasons.
My uncle keeps laying hens in the backyard of his Oakland house, and his flock is down from three to two after a chicken died of natural causes. When I told him I was considering building a coop in my yard, he said that the eggs he and my aunt get from their hens are incomparable, but he’s not planning to replace the fallen member; he may end up letting time thin the flock out of existence altogether. Because it’s a lot of work and responsibility, caring for chickens. But is he going to abandon the two remaining chickens or surrender them to the animal shelter? Of course not. Just as he’s a responsible dog owner, he’s committed to caring for his chickens too—like many people who keep chickens, either on a rural farm or in an urban backyard.
But the NBC story seems to discount people like my uncle, and it may even tread into some fowl fear mongering. In addition to some light (expected) hipster bashing, the article reports, “People entranced by a ‘misplaced rural nostalgia’ are buying chickens from the same hatcheries that supply the nation’s largest poultry producers,” according to Britton Clouse of Chicken Run Rescue.
And these misguided hipster farmers aren’t just portrayed as raising the same white-feathered breed you’d find in an CAFO henhouse—what of the Silky Bantams, Rhode Island Reds and Araucanas? NBC reporter JoNel Aleccia writes, “backyard farmers often use enhanced feed, light or other tools to prompt hens to lay constantly.”
So the bucolic vision of urban hipsters with “misplaced rural nostalgia” is one of the ag-industrial complex? And here I thought the impetus to raise your own chickens was to move away from practices like manipulating laying cycles with artificial lights.