Pet Connection: The upside and downside to chicken ownership

About three years ago, my wife and I “happened” upon some chickens. A family friend had gotten caught up in the recent rage of urban chicken acquisition and had obtained six chickens. They had forgotten to obtain any housing for them, so we offered to help out and take three of the birds.

We read up on chicken husbandry, built a coop and drove over to bring home our new flock in cat carriers. Here’s the upside to chicken ownership:

•  Great, fresh eggs, every day (on average, each chicken lays one egg per day).

• No need to buy eggs anymore – a cost savings, and we know our chickens are humanely treated.

•  Fun for the kids to watch (us, too – chickens are hilarious goofballs).

•  Easy disposal of our kitchen waste – they eat everything (as long as it’s not moldy or an avocado; avocados are chicken kryptonite). With two 2-year-olds at home, we have lots of leftover “I won’t eat that!” food.

Now, here’s the downside:

•  They are noisy: They squabble and fight like junior-high girls at the Filene’s Basement shoe sale rack. Sometimes, I have to go out back and shout a loud: “SHHHHHHHH! If you don’t shut up, I am calling The Colonel!”

•  Poo. Everywhere. There’s no way to potty train a chicken, and there’s no such thing as a chicken diaper. We let them out for some fresh air and bug-eating, and they poo. A lot. Everywhere.

• Although ours have tested negative for salmonella, I do worry about our family’s exposure to it, given the large amount of poo around. (More on this below.)

•  We will never, ever have nice landscaping. In their obsessive quest to find the juicy bugs and worms, they dig up everything. Then, for good measure, they poo on it. Chickens have become a feathery emblem of the “new naturism” – if you fancy yourself a self-sustaining, eco-minded person, a wee flock is de rigueur these days. And, like many fads, the initial rose-tinted joy soon fades to reality.

Chickens can carry salmonella and a few other bacterial baddies. These can do a number on your GI tract and really put a hurting on you if you’re very young, very old or have weakened immunity. If you get it, you’ll be hugging the commode for a few days, or worse. We constantly clean up after them, and even then I feel like we always have some poo lying about. Washing hands after handling them or the eggs is a must.

Here is some CDC information on safe home chicken ownership: Another great source of information and support is the community at Backyard Chickens: Egg handling is important, too. There is a healthy debate about washing the eggs: Some say it removes an invisible slime layer that keeps bacteria out, while some say to wash them. Since we eat them as soon as we collect them, we don’t wash our eggs (unless they are really dirty), but just wipe them off.

Here is a link to safe egg-handling information: The life of a chicken owner is easy, delicious and fun. It’s a great way to lessen your eco-footprint and teach your kids where their food comes from. But you don’t want to get halfway into it and say to yourself, “What the CLUCK were we thinking?” With a little prep, reading and precaution, you, too, can safely enjoy all the benefits of having your own flock!

The buzz

• An Australian beekeeper trained his black Labrador retriever, Bazz, to sniff out hives infected with a bee-killing bacterium called American foulbrood. But there was just one problem: Bazz kept getting stung. To protect him, owner Josh Kennett designed the ultimate in dogwear: a beekeeping suit.

After a long process of trial and error, he came up with a design that covers Bazz from head to tail, including protective sneakers and a covered, cone-like headpiece. You might say it’s the bee’s knees. Getting Bazz to actually wear the gear took some time and training, but now he’s back on the job.

•  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the Brewers’ cute new mascot, Hank, will soon be moving into “Hank House” at Miller Park. The dog’s cozy digs? A roomy one-bedroom Cape Cod-style doghouse that will move around the ballpark throughout the season. Hank became a star after wandering into the Brewers’ spring training camp in Arizona in February. He now has a line of T-shirts, and a Hank bobblehead debuts in September. A portion of the proceeds of Hank merchandise will benefit the Wisconsin Humane Society.

– Kim Campbell Thornton