Backyard Flocks Going Strong

Chicken season at Prarieland Feeds in Savoy is winding down, but they still have plenty of young chickens to go around to backyard flocks. 

Backyard chicken keeping with six birds or less is a trend that is showing no signs of slowing down.   Most municipalities have at least considered a chicken-keeping ordinance, if one is not already on the books.

Once considered purely farm livestock, chickens have entered the realm of pets these days.  Pets that lay eggs, that is – which to backyard chicken keepers, are better than the store bought cartons.

“Chickens are no different than another other pet,”  said  chicken keeper and manager at Prairieland Feeds in Savoy Kris Benz. “I love having them.”  She gets help with her flock of six chickens in Wapella from her 2 and 5-year-old daughters, who feed and collect eggs for the family.

The new kinds of birds are multipurpose, she said.  There are breeds that are specifically bred to be docile and lay eggs as well as being a meat bird for families. 
“We call them ‘farm chickens,’” Benz explained. “These are family friendly chickens.  They are very easy to socialize.” 

They each have a personality, she said. “They are smart.  They come running to you if you have something for them.  We like to throw them treats, like grub worms from the garden.”  The juveniles act like teenagers, she said.  “They are like kids running around outside.”

She pointed out some very active juvenile Buff Orpingtons, which is one of the most docile breeds, she said   One of her favorites, they can be tamed and held, and like to interact with people.  The tan-feathered chickens will lay brown eggs. 

The most docile bird is almost a miniature, called a Bantam Cochin.  It’s called the Queen’s bird because Queen Elizabeth always carried one around with her, Benz said.

Chickens have been in the news as comfort animals for nursing homes, and even to help children on the autism spectrum.

Backyard flocks are often made up of different breeds that get along well with each other, laying a multicolored spectrum of eggs.  The “Easter egg” birds, which lay blue colored eggs, sell out fast in the spring, she said.

A backyard flock of six chickens will produce up to 180-200 eggs per year, and if artificial light is used, will lay all year round – no rooster needed.   Three hens will easily supply a household of four enough eggs that some can be sold, with the proper permitting, of course.  “It costs about $1.29 for a carton of eggs,” Benz said, “and they have excellent nutritional value, with beautiful marigold colored yolks.”  It costs around $50 a month to keep a flock of six chickens.

Chickens usually lay for around four years, but can live to be quite old.  The record is 19 years, Benz said.   When it is time for a chicken to leave the flock, there are alternatives besides the stew pot.  Zoos, such as Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington and wild animal sanctuaries like to feed chickens to the big cats, which helps their feed bills.

Benz said she cans her chicken meat, which she said makes it very tender.

One of the tasks at Prarieland Feeds is to educate their customers on how to take care of the nutrition of birds not only that are laying but those that are no longer producing eggs.   Also included is information about managing waste, which is often composted.

It’s important to wash hands after handling chickens and to wash the eggs after they are gathered.  Chickens can carry salmonella, a potentially dangerous bacteria that can make people very ill.  Benz pointed out that it is more a problem in large flocks than for backyard chickens, but it is still wise to take precautions.

The backyard flock trend has influenced other organizations, like 4H and FFA, whose chicken programs have gotten much bigger because of the popularity of small flocks, Benz said.

Not much data exists on how many people are keeping urban chickens.  A study by the USDA in 2010 of four major cities reported that less than 1percent of houses had chickens, but 4 percent planned to have them in the next five years.

In southern Champaign county, Champaign and Urbana allow chickens.  Last year, Savoy decided not to allow chickens in the village.   Tolono is still working on a chicken ordinance. 

Even if muncipalities may allow chickens, in subdivisions around the county, most Home Owners Assocations don’t allow backyard flocks.

 

Backyard chicken enthusiasts should check the ordinances in their area for specific regulations.

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