Urban chicken problems come home to roost

On any given day, more than 80 roosters can be seen running roughshod on a suburban street just north of downtown.

To the south, in Curtis Park, a backyard chicken owner spent hours last week searching for two wayward chickens that leaped out of her backyard.

And officials at the city’s animal shelter say area chicken owners are not licensing their chickens, which costs the city money every time it must deal with a chicken-related animal control call.

These issues are among the fallout of a 2011 city ordinance that made it possible for Sacramentans to keep up to three hens in their backyard. That ordinance is part of a national trend where urban backyard chicken ownership has become popular.

The impact has been rising costs for city shelters and has resulted in the releasing of roosters into the cityscape – or their slaughter – when owners realize that the young bird they own is a male. One chicken rescue organization – Chicken Run Rescue – in Minneapolis took in 500 urban chickens in 2012.

Also of concern is that chickens can harbor diseases like salmonella.

In Sacramento, most owners of backyard chickens are not licensing their birds or getting permits for coops as required by the ordinance, said Gina Knepp, animal care manager at the city’s Front Street shelter. Chickens require a dedicated coop where birds can be safe from the elements and predators in the evening, and ample yard space to range during the day.

In 2012, 142 permits were issued for coops and 445 hen licenses were purchased, said Knepp. But she believes that the backyard chicken population is much larger.

“We’re not seeing a lot of compliance with chickens,” said Knepp. Rooster ownership is illegal. The city levies a $100 fine for keeping an unlicensed chicken.

The city licensing fees are $10 a year per chicken, which help defray the costs incurred when animal control investigates complaints about noise or excessive bird numbers. There is also a $15 annual coop fee.

The loss of that revenue stream means the shelter cannot adequately deal with growing populations of abandoned roosters and hens.

A large population that lives near the American River Parkway on the 500 block of Columbus Avenue is “a good example of what happens when someone dumps a few hens,” she said.

On that block, the clarion call of roosters is the order of the day. Several food bowls are strewn in an open lot on the street, suggesting their presence is welcome.

“This has been a chronic problem for years. No one claims ownership, but people feed them,” said Knepp.

“We’ve been out netting birds but the problem continues to grow. There is some open space between the houses and large trees for roosting,” Knepp said. “We can’t exactly go out and shoot them, and netting is time-consuming and not an efficient use of our animal control officer time.”

Abandoned chickens can also be found elsewhere, including Fair Oaks park, said Dave Dickinson, director of animal care for the Sacramento County Animal Shelter.

“When people get tired of their chickens, they take them out there and think it’s OK to abandon them there,” said Dickinson. “There are as many as 100 birds in the area.”

Commercial chicken farmers try to get rid of hens when they have reached a certain age – usually by the time they are 18 months old – when their egg-laying productivity drops. Some farmers allow their hens and rooster to go to rescue organizations.

A Butte County farmer will allow Animal Place, a regional rescue, to take 1,800 hens when he closes his egg farm . Local organizations like the Sacramento SPCA are helping Animal Place find new homes for the birds and has agreed to take an initial delivery of 20 hens, said Rick Johnson, CEO of the Sacramento SPCA. The shelter currently has 72 chickens awaiting adoption.

UC Davis professor Asli Mete urges caution for would-be chicken owners. Chickens often carry salmonella and other diseases that can spread to humans or pets. Healthy backyard chickens that interact with wild birds can contract diseases from them.

Humans can get salmonella by handling birds or their eggs, as well as from cooking eggs that have the bacterium, she said.

“Chickens can carry salmonella without showing any (signs of) disease,” said Mete, professor of clinical pathology. She recommends that people wash their hands every time they handle a bird.

Chicken owners with children or who live with elderly or people with suppressed immune systems should have their birds checked for the disease, said Mete.

Testing is available at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab at UC Davis, she said.

The lab studied the cause of death in backyard birds over the last five years. It examined 1,301 dead backyard chickens and found that a third of the deaths were due to viral diseases like Marek’s disease, which affects chickens and not humans. Bacterial infections accounted for 23 percent of backyard chicken deaths. The E. coli bacterium was the largest cause of bacterial death found in backyard chickens, the study said.

Curtis Park resident Mary Anne Moore is learning that keeping chickens is no care-free pursuit.

Caring for her two hens requires wing clipping and dusting the birds for mite prevention. The birds are rescues from a prior owner.

“It’s $200 for a vet to come out to your house and that is before he even looks at the birds,” said Moore. “So, you can easily end up with the world’s most expensive egg.”

Recently, Moore spent several days searching for the hens after they hopped a fence. Both chickens were found.

And she had to fence in the birds from the rest of the backyard. “If you let them free range, they will eat anything green,” she said.

“If you do not want to put some time and education into it, I’d say don’t do it,” Moore said.

Editor's note: This story has updated to clarify a reference to UC Davis professor Asli Mete.

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