Easter Gift Pets and Backyard Chickens
By Dr. Bruce Little
April brings with it each year the Easter season, a time when many people fall victim to the marketing ploys of feed stores, pet shops, hatcheries, and other retail outlets, that present baby chickens, ducklings, rabbits, and other animals as Easter gifts to children, spouses, and other loved ones. This year it is possible to purchase baby chicks that are dyed in pastel colors if you are of that persuasion. I believe it is improper for a person to purchase one of these animals as an Easter present unless extensive planning for responsible pet ownership is first put in place. Cute little baby chicks, ducklings and bunnies grow into adult chickens, ducks, and rabbits, and require a basic level of animal husbandry skills to provide the minimum required care and nutritional levels to these “pets”. The most common issues that veterinarians see with these exotic pets involves poor husbandry and nutritional deficiencies. That is why veterinarians recommend annual health examinations, not just sick patient examinations. Owning a pet is a privilege, but the benefits of pet ownership come with responsibilities. Don’t purchase a live animal of any kind without analyzing the situation regarding the time commitment, costs for preventive healthcare and food, energy required by all family members, living environment and willingness to provide responsible management for the animal. Keep only the type and number of pets for which you can provide appropriate food, water, shelter, health care and companionship daily. Pet ownership requires a substantial investment in time and money to provide preventive health care, such as vaccinations, parasite control, grooming, and feeding. You must budget for potential emergencies that will probably come at some point in time. Obey all local ordinances including licensing, odor control, and noise control. You should plan to place your pet with another family member or rescue organization if you find you can no longer provide care for it. Do not simply turn it loose along a lonely road and expose it to various predators or expose it to being hit by a car. Consult with your veterinarian regarding the health and well-being of your pet and rely on the veterinarian and her staff to guide you on responsible pet ownership. It will make life much easier for you and your family including the pets.
Backyard chickens became a fad around the turn of the Century. McMurray Hatchery of Webster City, Iowa reports they sold more than 3 million chicks in 2016, most of them by mail order. And Back Yard Chickens, in its Community Forum, claims 436,000 members with interest in backyard chickens at this time. Finally, a U. S. Department of Agriculture study of urban chicken ownership found at least 3 percent of households with more than one acre of property owned chickens. Los Angeles had the most with 5.5 percent of those residents owning chickens. Oh yes, people have always had chickens in their back yard like many of us who grew up in rural communities where we kept chickens as both laying hens and broilers for meat production. I can recall one of my duties as a young boy in the Midwest whose job every day was to gather the eggs. Fortunately, I had several siblings who took care of the feeding chores and the occasional “ringing-of-their-neck” for killing the broilers for slaughter for a Sunday meal. It is illegal in some municipal jurisdictions to raise chickens today for slaughter. However, many communities consider it legal to raise chickens for egg production. The first thing you should do if you are contemplating purchasing a flock of laying hens is to check with the state and local authorities in the community in which you live. Many state and municipal governments will allow it under strict licensing if you adhere to a rather extensive set of rules and regulations. So, the first thing you should do is contact both your State Department of Agriculture, State College Extension Veterinarian, and city and county government officials to see if it is legal for you to keep egg-laying hens in your community. And always check with your neighbors to see if they can buy-in to having a flock of chickens just over the fence from their swimming pool and children’s playground.
Whether you desire to purchase a few chickens for pets or to start an egg producing venture, the first thing you need to consider after finding out if it is legal in your community is to assess your property to see if you have space and the appropriate environment for the raising of backyard chickens. You must take into consideration the need for chicken housing that is constructed and maintained so that birds are protected from predators and environmental extremes. Protection from predators such as foxes, coyotes, cougars, mountain lions and the neighbor’s dog require that the hen house is covered with substantial materials when protecting your flock from natural predators. Your chickens will need shelter during nighttime and inclement weather that will keep them warm in the coldest days and nights, yet give them ample air circulation during the hottest days. Chickens can withstand considerable cold; however, they don’t do as well and may cease to lay eggs during the hottest days of summer. You must also provide a nesting space that is bedded with material such as straw or wood shavings, and a continuous source of fresh water. The daytime roaming area or pasture will require a fenced-in area with the fencing buried at least one foot below ground level and must be covered to prevent predators from entering by digging under or climbing over the top of the fence. Chickens will spend most of their time during daylight hours scavenging and digging in the pasture area eating worms, insects, or seeds that might blow into their secured home.
With the increase of people choosing to keep barnyard chickens and other fowl, there has been an insurgence of packaged feed that provides a balanced nutritional diet for your birds. Check with your veterinarian for the proper brand of feed. Many times, the veterinarian for which you use for your dog and cat pets is not well informed about chicken feed, or backyard chickens in general. If this is the case with your veterinarian, ask them to refer you to an animal hospital that has a substantial exotic or barnyard chicken clientele so that you get the best of care for your birds. One safe place to communicate, many times by email, is the Extension Veterinarian in your local agriculture college or university.
Birds should be managed so that transmission of disease, parasitic infection, and vermin infestation are minimized. This may require a metal container to keep feed and supplement supplies in to keep them from attracting mice and rats, as well as a plethora of other scavenger animals. Rats and mice can bring in various diseases as well as lice, fleas, and ticks. Parasite control is imperative if you want to maximize egg production in your flock. Owners of backyard poultry must be aware of biosecurity measures, and be able to recognize and prevent the spread of disease, especially Salmonellae infections, avian influenza (bird flu) and Exotic Newcastle’s Disease. Some of these diseases are zoonotic, meaning they are transmissible from the birds to humans, and are nationally reportable chicken diseases and you are required by law to report them to the U. S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, individual states may require reporting of these and other diseases that may infect your flock. Consult your veterinarian at first notice if you suspect a disease has infected your birds. The source of these infections many times are migratory birds that do nothing more than fly over your property.
Chickens may be kept as pets; however, the federal government considers them as food for humans. Therefore, you must follow the laws regarding the use of antibiotics set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) if you decide to keep chickens in any environment for any purpose. Veterinarians are required to comply with the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA) regarding label and extra label drug use. Extra label drug use means the actual use or intended use of a drug in an animal in a manner that is not in accordance with the approved label on the drug. Consult your veterinarian before treating any chickens or other food producing animals or birds with medications.
It is important to choose the right breed of chicken for your set-up and geographic environment. This will help make it possible to reach your intended goal regarding egg laying expectations. The lifespan of a hen will depend on several factors including the environment and the degree that they are kept comfortable, healthy, and safe from predators. The breed and care of your flock will help determine the age to which your hens can live, some as long as 30 to 35 years. Some of the most popular breeds mature at 4 to 6 months of age, and will lay eggs for a period before they go through a molt when they stop laying eggs, only to start up again after they have their period of rest while not laying eggs. Like humans, hens have a pre-determined number of eggs, and will lay 1 to 5 eggs per week during the egg laying period of their lives. The color of the egg shell depends on the breed of hen, and the color ranges from white to deep brown. Breeds with white feathers and white ear lobes lay white eggs; and, breeds with red feathers and red ear lobes lay brown eggs. You can also purchase breeds of chickens that lay tinted eggs and even chocolate colored eggs. The color of the egg shell does not necessarily determine the quality of the egg for nutritional purposes. You do not need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs, unless you want the eggs to be fertilized to produce baby chicks. Some municipalities prohibit the keeping of backyard roosters, primarily due to noise control regulations.
Raising and keeping backyard chickens is an agricultural science unto itself, and takes substantial preparation to be successful. It is incumbent upon you to educate yourself before striking out on this backyard egg production venture. Talk to your veterinarian and your college extension service before and during your venture. And remember, chickens are living creatures and deserve proper care and handling to keep them safe from diseases, parasites, and predators. Good luck!
For more information go to:
Murray McMurray Hatchery at: www.mcmurrayhatchery.com
My Pet Chicken at: www.mypetchicken.com
Back Yard Chickens Community Forum at: www.backyardchickens.com