What the flock? Suburban chickens rule the roost

Written by: Jasmine Santalla

We are in the middle of a chicken craze. Residents of towns across the state have taken to backyard poultry production.

Several factors seem to be contributing to the foul frenzy. First, there has been an upswing in do-it-yourself (DIY) culture. White collar workers are looking for ways to slow down, feel useful, and find some connection to a time when people followed the rhythms of the seasons.

There are other major motivators as well, such as a growing desire for cleaner eating and increased awareness of the animal cruelty that is common in mass poultry production.

But people wouldn’t be interested if chicken rearing was too complex for an average citizen to master.

Bud Wood, owner of Murray McMurray Hatchery, a poultry supplier based in Webster City Iowa, told The VOICE: “Chickens can fit into a backyard garden very well.”

Murray McMurray has been around for 100 years and for much of that time was a catalog business, but it’s now the Amazon of eggs. The company uses special shipping to send eggs and even chicks right to your home. Their website offers all kinds of informational resources for those starting their first coops.

Matthew O’Boyle, from Pennington, became interested in raising chickens when he watched his cousins do it on their farm, however, he was initially nervous when he thought his home would not be enough space.

“I thought [having enough space] would be a barrier stopping us from getting chickens but as always, I stumbled upon the Internet. There were thousands of articles, videos, tutorials, and blogs about raising backyard chickens…”

According to the Murray McMurray blog, “roost space depends largely on the size of your chickens — how tall, wide and long they are, from beak to tail.” But for people starting out who are looking to keep six small to medium sized birds, each needs about a square foot of space in their roost and the minimum yard area needed for roaming is about 6’ x 15’. Some city dwellers are able to make this work in narrow spaces behind brownstones or in overgrown alleys. Suburban homes often have a few more options.

According to O’Boyle there are legal requirements for a chicken to be considered “free range,” such as giving them six hours outside to roam free, however, he offers his birds more than what the minimum requires.

“For my flock of three chickens, I have about a 125 square feet for them to free range in. They free range from about 6:45 in the morning until it starts to get dark depending on the season,” O’Boyle said.

Rules and regulations for backyard chicken farming are specific to the town you live in. There are legal requirements for raising and producing chickens if you plan to sell them, but you are not required to have any sort of permit or license to raise your own.

“The chickens must be a certain distance away from any house in my neighborhood. We are also not allowed to have roosters in our flock because of the noise and aggression that they cause,” O’Boyle said.

Another concern for keeping any live animals is ensuring their health.

According to Bud Wood of Murray McMurray, “We are a member  of the USDA, National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) so all of our stock has been tested for diseases and have been cleared for sale in that way.”

Beyond the original health of the chicks Murray McMurray blog discusses how to reduce flock stress to maintain productivity, and deal with issues like Marek’s disease and other parasites.

Above all else, O’Boyle wanted to raise his own chickens in order to know that the eggs he ate come from healthy chickens.

“It’s sad to see many of the commercial free range chickens who are loaded with hormones to produce the most amount of eggs possible. They can have as little as a hole just for neck access to the outside which can qualify as their exposure to sunlight,” O’Boyle said.

Restaurant owners are shying away from such practices. Local restaurants like Agricola in Princeton and Eno Terra in Kingston purchase their eggs and other produce from local farms like Terhune’s and Cherry Grove in Lawrenceville.

If all this is starting to make you think of getting a few hens, be aware that certain types of birds are available during certain seasons. This month is a fine time to get a Feather Footed Fancy, a Cornish Roaster, or even a Chukar Redleg Partridge (although watch out for those partridges if you live in Maine, because you’ll need a special permit from Fish and Wildlife before you can “import” the birds through the mail).

Why would you ever buy a Feather Footed Fancy? Bud Wood says chicken fanciers enroll their birds into events such as the Midwest Poultry Federation or The Master’s Cup, held in Murray McMurray’s hometown of Webster City, Iowa, open to breeders and non-breeders alike.

O’Boyle says “I had used the argument of fresh, free range eggs as the original justification to get them but they have now become a huge interest and hobby of mine.”

Local 4-H clubs which teach children leadership skills through hands-on programs, many of which involve raising and caring for animals, also have competitions for chickens.

If you want to see some fancy chickens, Sussex County Poultry Fanciers spring show is May 20.

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Jasmine Santalla

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