The Growing Problem of Abandoned Chickens

Raising Chickens

Story at-a-glance -

  • Backyard chicken farming in cities and suburbs is a growing trend… and with it has come the problem of “poultry abandonment.”
  • When chickens get to be 2 to 3 years of age, their best egg-producing days are behind them. Unfortunately, many city-dwelling chicken farmers decide to simply dump aging hens in local parks or rural areas to fend for themselves.
  • The problem of abandoned chickens is further burdening local animal shelters, and chicken rescue groups have seen a steep rise in calls about discarded poultry.
  • Backyard chicken farming in urban and suburban settings presents a number of challenges many people aren’t prepared for, including the costs associated with raising healthy chickens, and the problem of “surprise roosters.”

By Dr. Becker

Raising chickens in urban settings and suburbia has become a trendy hobby in recent years. And while some city dwellers understand the responsibilities of keeping chickens, many others do not. As a result, the shameful practice of “poultry abandonment” is also becoming a trend.

Calls to One Chicken Rescue Group Have Increased 80 Percent in 12 Years

The problem seems to arise when laying hens can no longer produce eggs. Chickens begin laying eggs at four to six months of age and are most productive for about two years. The number of eggs laid drops off precipitously after that, but the hens can live a dozen years or longer.

Rather than doing what many farmers do, which is to turn the birds into food for their table, or alternatively, providing a retirement home for their older hens, city folks are opting to simply dump the birds in parks and rural settings, leaving them to fend for themselves.

As a result, shelter workers are increasingly being called upon to collect abandoned poultry, especially as the colder months arrive and it’s no longer “fun” to tend to backyard chickens. According to Mary Britton Clouse of the Chicken Run Rescue in Minneapolis:

“The numbers are exploding. We had hoped that the fad had peaked and maybe we were going to get a little bit of a break here, but we haven’t.”

Back in 2001, Clouse took six calls about discarded chickens. Last year, she took nearly 500 calls from people seeking homes for abandoned birds. That’s an increase of over 80 percent in a dozen years.

Urban Chicken Keeping Has Been on the Rise Since the Mid-2000s

Many city and suburban dwellers who keep chickens do so because they want eggs from free-range, hormone-free hens.

Clouse believes the situation got really bad around 2007, and her organization along with others began asking cities to either ban urban chicken farming, or pay to regulate and inspect backyard operations and enforce animal cruelty laws. Nothing really came of their efforts, and the problem continues to grow.

According to Clouse:

“What you’ve got are all these people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They’re sticking these birds in boxes the size of battery cages in their backyard.”

Backyard Chicken Farming Is Full of Challenges

In addition to the question of what to do with hens who grow too old to produce eggs, there are several other challenges involved in raising chickens.

Keeping poultry isn’t an inexpensive endeavor. The cost of providing food, predator-proof shelter, litter and veterinary care adds up – especially when chickens acquire parasites, which is common.

Also common to backyard operations are uninvited rodent guests that pop in to sample the chicken feed.

And then there is the problem of roosters. It’s quite difficult to determine the sex of baby chickens, and about one in 20 is a rooster. “Surprise roosters” are also routinely abandoned by urban chicken farmers because keeping them is often against the law due to their noisy crowing.

How Many City Dwellers Actually Keep… and Abandon… Chickens?

According to a report published by the USDA in April of last year, a survey of four major metropolitan areas turned up very few urban chicken operations. In Miami, 1.7 percent of residents raised chickens, and in Los Angeles, it was 1.2 percent. In Denver and New York, the number was less than one percent.

Some analysts believe that in cities where chickens are allowed by law, there are actually very few people keeping flocks. And University of Wisconsin poultry specialist Ron Kean believes the issue of abandoned chickens is often overstated by animal rights activists.

Whatever the actual figures are, here’s hoping current and future urban chicken farmers will start doing a better job of taking care of retiring hens when their egg producing days over.

If you’re interested in learning more about backyard chicken farming, you can view YouTube videos on the subject:

  • Backyard Chickens 101 (about 45 minutes in length), presented by Jay Douthit of the University of Maryland
  • Urban Farming Chickens 101 (about 52 minutes in length), presented by Dr. Robert A. Kluson of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

+ Sources and References