Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 |
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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)
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. In response, communities in Minnesota adopted backyard-flock-friendly ordinances.
Hopkins passed an ordinance — after initial rebuffing — in August 2020. International Falls voted down an ordinance. Mankato is still mulling one. But Thief River Falls, in the heart of the commercial turkey belt, asks for just $25, viewing an educational video and passing a University of Minnesota-administered test.
The work has rousted Abby Schuft, a poultry educator with University of Minnesota Extension. In addition to working with the commercial industry, Schuft educates would-be buyers about the logistics of owning a backyard flock.
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. In Minnesota, those birds need warmth much of the year. And roosters? Many cities don’t even allow them. (Minneapolis actually does, but you’ll need written consent from at least 80% of your neighbors within 100 feet your property, since the cockerel might subject them to some sunrise cock-a-doodle-doos.)
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. 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.
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 — and report any concerns to a statewide hotline (833-454-0156).
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).
Different breeds have different temperaments and egg color, if that matters to you. But a good start is to go for heavier breeds that are better-equipped to handle Minnesota’s cold winters, like Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Ameraucana and Orpington.
Lastly, you’ll also need to check state and local ordinances for compliance.
City of Minneapolis officials, for example, say there are 280 fowl permits right now, with another 70-plus in processing. Last year, the city took in 35 complaints of chickens making noise, emanating unpleasant smells or running around loose. Folks in town also need to pay at least $30 for a one-year permit for six or fewer hens. It’s $105 to keep a rooster, but he’s really only necessary if you want to make chicks or are prepared to harvest eggs every day before they can develop into fetuses.
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.
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