Urban Homesteaders Leave Trail of Chicken Tears

Chickens may not have big, sad eyes, but it's still a shame to see them homeless.

Here’s a depressing new facet of the urban homesteading trend — foster chickens

Turns out some people are as short-sighted about keeping chickens as they are about caring for traditional pets.  Some farm animal rescue organizations are receiving 10 calls a week from people eager to unload their hens and roosters.   This reminds me of how, a few months after the release of “101 Dalmations,” animal shelters received an uncommonly high number of Dalmation puppies who’d been impulsively purchased merely because they were darling Disney dogs.  

Now, there is nothing wrong with Hollywood producing endearing family films about cute dogs, nor is there anything wrong with all the recent books, magazines, and websites devoted to the joys of chicken-keeping.   But can’t we pleeeease just be a bit more level-headed and realistic when it comes to animal ownership? 

Chickens, like Dalmations, are not for everybody. And while I’ve no doubt they can bring great joy to the garden owner, a chicken is not like that cool new heuchera you spot at the garden center, that novelty purchase that you simply toss on the compost heap with a c’est la vie  if it doesn’t thrive in your garden.  Backyard chickens should not be viewed as garden ornaments or — like the Prius — some kind of eco-urban status symbol. 

While it may not be desirable, it’s also not tragic to neglect your garden plants sometimes.  You, the gardener, may be angry or even heartbroken over the loss of that Sasanqua Camellia, but in the end, a neglected camellia is not the same as a neglected and unwanted dog, cat, or farm animal. 

There is really no such thing as a low-maintenance pet.  They all require daily attention, and most likely, your affection.   They need to be fed and exercised and kept clean every single day.  Sooner or later they get old and sick and will probably cost you some money, maybe a lot of money.  So I hope that, in the midst of chicken mania, we will all please be wary about purchasing or adopting any life form with a heart and/or brain — even if  it’s a pea-sized brain.

27 thoughts on “Urban Homesteaders Leave Trail of Chicken Tears

  1. Very well said. I will be interested to see how the push for back yard chickens plays out in Arlington County. The WaPo had an article on the subject a few days ago.

  2. Here, here! I think for the first ten years we had chickens, they were all adoptees. One time we got a box of 25 chicks directly from the post office – the person who had ordered them just didn’t want them anymore. And the house we’re in now? It came with six hens, a rooster, and a duck. It is simply amazing how many people think they’re just throwaways.

      • Almost a decade back, a friend rescued two orphaned wood duck chicks (the mother and another duckling had been hit by a car), and we took them to a bird rescue center south of Dallas. The center was full of birds that couldn’t be released back in the wild, including a roadrunner brought in with two broken legs (he’d charged an oncoming car, which sounds crazy until the first time you see it for yourself), a turkey buzzard that had damaged his wings in a storm, and a whole load of peacocks. One of the two most depressing things seen there was the collection of birds dumped off at the center after holidays. The gigantic tom turkey was doing very well, but the center had a big collection of ducks brought in when the big fad was in “colored” ducklings fresh out of the egg. To accomplish this, they were dyed in embryo by injecting the egg with various dyes, and maybe one egg out of ten wouldn’t rot or become infected by the process. The ones that failed were the lucky ones, because the dye also tended to leave the ducklings lame or deformed, and the sort of people who buy those “permanent dyed” ducklings definitely wouldn’t care about what happened to them after they were no longer cute and fluffy.

        The other depressing thing? The rescue center had a collection of ne-nes. If you’ve never seen a ne-ne, it’s the state bird of Hawaii: it’s an endemic goose that lives on lava flats, so it no longer has webs on its toes. The ne-ne in Hawaii is endangered, but that didn’t keep some rich jerk in Highland Park from deciding that he had to have a flock, and damn the price. The birds were intercepted at DFW Airport by Customs (the smuggler got jail time, while the Highland Parker called his Senator and had the whole thing go away), but they couldn’t be sent back to Hawaii for fear of their bringing back diseases that could wipe out the Hawaiian populations. So far as I know, they still live there, unable to be allowed to fly off and unable to go home. (I’ll have to admit that I didn’t feel too sorry, but that’s only because of their personalities. I like geese a lot, and I’ve even made friends with a few Canadian geese, but ne-nes have the worst traits of Canadian geese jammed up to 11. I’m sure that there are a few ne-nes out there that are friendly, but they weren’t part of this gaggle, and I’m perfectly happy letting the rest live out their lives on the lava flats around Mauna Loa. If any try to climb into bed with me, though, there WILL be words.)

        • Paul, That story about the dyed ducks is possibly the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard of. It made me sadder than the movie “The Elephant Man” which is saying a lot. I’m going to freshen myself up now and pretend that I haven’t just been reading further examples of The Worst Elements of Humanity.

          Now, go post something funny and light-hearted IMMEDIATELY.

        • How about I just share that the rescue center gave me a lot of hope after all? Heck, they even have a rescued llama that was dropped off there very early one morning. Normally, I’m not a fan of llamas, but this one was so sweet and so careful around us little folk that I would have adopted her on the spot. Let me tell you, people talk about how dogs can work their eyes to make you melt. Dogs have NOTHING on a determined llama.

    • Fish are somewhat low-maintenance but I absolutely despise cleaning our aquarium! I actually hate it more than cleaning out litter boxes or picking up dog poo. But if you let an aquarium get dirty they really look terrible….

      • If there’s some good news, it’s that your filthy aquarium water grows some great plants. I have a 55-gallon community tank in the dining room, and conduct monthly water changes. It’s absolutely amazing how well roses grow when getting a monthly drink of water and mulm (that’s the official name for the collected gunk in the gravel).

        • In my case, I just take the buckets (about five gallons at a time) and ladle them out onto the plants. There’s also no reason why you can’t just siphon it into smaller containers to minimize any potential mess. It’s already dechlorinated and loaded with nitrogen, so my old-fashioned Scottish frugality kicks in and I try not to waste a drop of it. Among other things, my dragonfruit cactus explode after getting a good dose in the spring, and it’s a lot easier on my succulents than a standard fertilizer.

  3. One of our neighbors had a flock of 6 chickens this year, which he let be “free range” birds. Free range, as in come into our yard and tear up the gardens. For awhile, they went back home at night, then they started roosting in one of our trees. My husband started taking the blower and blowing them away; for awhile they got the message. One day, the flock of 6 shrank to a flock of one. After two weeks, the one vanished. Think maybe our resident hawks may have contributed to their demise. While the fresh eggs were nice, if any more show up again, the shotgun is coming out (it’s legal in our part of Loudoun County). The damage those birds did to my gardens was incredible. I’ll stick with cats for my pets.

  4. Eggxactly Mary, we had Silkies until Little Rooster attacked the mail carrier, my ex offered solace to her and we lost the 2 acres in divorce court:) Just kidding, I love my silkies, they are pets. Take care, Ali

  5. Mary,
    Having extensive experience with chickens (actually catching a newly hatched egg in my hand through selling it fried out the drive through window!), I can tell you that you are absolutely correct that they need feeding and caring for on regular basis. I tried giving them baths, but that proved a bit more difficult than one would first assume. It was easier to herd cats! However, I gave that up as well since I could find no market for a herd of cats! So I let the cats wash the chickens and let the cats go free range. My life is much simpler now.

    I do appreciate your humor and perspectives. Keep’em coming/

  6. I can’t say I’m surprised. I am amazed at how many people are taking this on! I can’t imagine adding chickens to the mix, when I already have a spouse, house, job, cat, and a rather large garden to take care of (in addition to myself I might add). Aside from not wanting to take on the major responsibility of dealing with animals that sometimes kill each other (and not particularly liking handling birds), I have been a vegetarian for over 25 years, so it’s not like I would be prepared to kill the chickens when they stop laying. I wonder how many people consider what they will do when the chickens stop laying–and I am also in Arlington, so I wonder how that is built into the proposed laws.
    I’m all for responsible animal husbandry, and overall I think it is positive when people want to take charge of their food supply, but they need to think it through.

  7. Truthfully, I’ve been waiting for this for a while. It’s not just because of the regular cycle of fad pets that are handy accessories until the owner doesn’t want to deal with their upkeep. This happens regularly in the reptile trade: right now, Miami and Los Angeles are overrun with green iguanas that are the legacy of the big iguana boom of the late Nineties. You had a lot of people buying hatchling iguanas because they figured that they were cute, and suddenly discovered that ol’ James Osterberg turned into about six feet of very territorial and aggressive reptile. (Me, I’ve kept reptiles since I was two, and I regularly worked with big snakes and larger lizards. The worst reptile bite I ever saw was on a friend in Portland who raised Nile monitors, one of the most treacherous and dangerous non-venomous herps in the trade. He wasn’t bitten by one of his many Niles: he needed almost 50 stitches to put his hand back together after getting shredded by his pet shop’s mascot iguana, who decided for no discernable reason to go after a customer.) I’ve been watching chickens and ducks become the new hipster plaything, which is fine and good until they get tired of feeding and cleaning up after them and wander off to chase the latest bright shiny object.

    I WILL say, though, that you missed the real fun about fifteen years ago. Through the late Eighties and early Nineties, the big more-money-than-brains pseudoagricultural fad was in emus. Yes, the second-largest bird on the planet. It started out legitimately, with a few people raising emus as a possible alternative to ostriches, and compared to ostriches, they are easier to raise. They aren’t as aggressive, the meat is tastier, and they handle being in larger flocks without big territorial displays (especially ones that can get a keeper injured or killed). Before you know it, though, the market went crazy because people weren’t raising emus to eat. They were raising emus solely to sell more emus to new people getting in on the bubble, and the first half of the Nineties was a prime time to sell off emu pairs for as much as $30,000. They found buyers, too, all of whom were too afraid of selling them for slaughter because they might make more money by selling them to speculators.

    As with all bubbles, this one blew up at the end of 1997. The market was saturated, the new buyers weren’t coming in because they were spending their money on dotcom stocks, and the price for a breeding pair dropped from $30k to $30 within a month. One of our less salutory stories in Texas involved the doctor living west of Fort Worth who watched a multi-million-dollar investment crash and burn, grabbed a golf club, and killed every last emu on his ranch: that’s when we all discovered that Texas didn’t have an animal cruelty law at the time. A lot of others simply let the emus loose to fend for themselves, and you had all sorts of emu sightings throughout Texas for about two months. I say “two months” because my father-in-law owns a ranch in West Texas, and I asked him about whether or not emus would go feral out on his land. He said “We had a couple of them out here from where they’d hopped the fence from other places, and they were around for about two months. The coyotes ate real well.”

      • And now you understand why I terrorize my wife with threats of getting a crocodile monitor. She points out, quite correctly, that we’re talking about a 13-foot, 75-pound carnivorous lizard that regularly hunts its hunters in New Guinea, and I just show her pictures of them in full attack display and ask “How could you say ‘no’ to that cute widdle face?” (Of course, I was always the odd kid. I still bawl my eyes out at the end of “Alien”, when the best character besides the cat gets blown out the airlock.)

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