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Backyard Chicken Trend Fading

Mary Britton Clouse, left, and Burt Clouse, of Chicken Run Rescue, hold some of the 20 chickens they keep at their North Minneapolis home, July 25, 2013. (Bruce Bisping/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

Mary Britton Clouse, left, and Burt Clouse, of Chicken Run Rescue, hold some of the 20 chickens they keep at their North Minneapolis home, July 25, 2013. (Bruce Bisping/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

Minneapolis — With cold weather approaching, a lot of chicken owners in places like Minneapolis are seeking new homes for their birds.

“Winter is difficult,” said Mandy Meyer of New Prague, Minn., who advertised her daughter’s chickens on Craigslist last week.

Coops require more cleaning in winter, plus there’s extra shoveling, heating and making sure the birds have fresh, unfrozen water. Now that her daughter is heading off to college, Meyer is hoping to downsize the flock of 16 hens and one rooster, “Cluck Gable.”

But she won’t sell them for meat, she said. “If I can’t find someone who wants ’em, I’ll just hang on to ’em.”

Not all chicken-keepers hang onto their surplus poultry until they can find good homes, however. The recent boom in backyard chickens, fueled by the local food movement, has produced a boomlet of unwanted birds that swells at this time of year.

“The numbers escalate in August as back-to-school mentality sets in, then increase as the fall progresses and explode when the cold weather actually hits,” said Mary Britton Clouse, founder of Chicken Run Rescue, a home-based shelter program in Minneapolis.

Chicken Run has seen its numbers increase dramatically in recent years, coinciding with the rise in urban hipsters and locavore foodies who have been inspired to try their hand at small backyard poultry operations.

In 2001, Chicken Run rescued just six birds. Last year, Clouse and her husband, Bert, fielded almost 500 surrender requests for “urban farm animals,” mostly chickens, and rescued more than 30, many with “special needs,” such as chickens that lost feet to frostbite or reproductive cancers linked to constant egg-laying. Some of the rescues have been waiting for new homes for more than a year, she said. (In the meantime, they live in the couple’s backyard coop and, during the cold months, in their basement.)

“I knew this was going to happen,” Clouse said of the explosion in surrendered and abandoned chickens. “All the other sanctuaries and shelters have noticed an increase. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.”

Chicken Run takes requests from Minneapolis Animal Control, the Animal Humane Society and wildlife rehab clinics. Some of the birds come from cockfighting seizures, but many have been abandoned or neglected by owners who don’t understand what’s required or realize that chickens are “a long-term commitment,” according to Clouse.

Some new coop converts discover that keeping fowl is more work than they expected. Others give up their hens after they stop laying eggs — or after they get sick and require expensive medical care. And quite a few folks discover that the baby chick they bought to lay eggs is never going to.

“ ‘Whoops! I have a rooster.’ That’s a big one,” Clouse said.” People get chicks from hatcheries, and they mis-sex the birds. Or they throw in a baby rooster for extra body heat” during shipping.

Still, the popularity of backyard chickens shows no signs of abating.

More cities and suburbs now allow small coops, and other municipalities continue to debate whether chickens belong in residential neighborhoods.

And there’s a brisk chicken trade on Craigslist and other online forums.

Tim Schmit of Nowthen, Minn., typically sells his chickens via Craigslist in the fall and buys new ones in the spring. He hasn’t had trouble finding homes for his birds, he said. “People buy them.”

Al Bourgeois of St. Louis Park, aka “the Chicken Enthusiast,” has taught classes on urban chicken-keeping for four years. Over that time, his curriculum has evolved to include a cautionary section. “I cover all the reasons you should not get chickens,” he said, to deter those with unrealistic expectations. Such as?

“No. 1. They stop laying eggs after four or five years. But they live 10 to 12 years,” he said. “You will have an unproductive hen, and you need to be OK with that.”

“No. 2. It is some work,” he added. “If you want to make no effort at all, you shouldn’t have gotten chickens in the first place. I bet I have deterred some people.”

There are also some health risks, both to humans and the birds, associated with keeping chickens in urban areas, according to Alyssa Herreid, a graduate student in public health at the University of Minnesota, who has been surveying backyard chicken keepers in Minneapolis and St. Paul as part of her master’s project on disease transmission in urban poultry.

“My biggest finding is that a lot of people don’t know about diseases and are completely unconcerned,” she said. Most of them report getting their information via the Internet. “We need a better way to inform these backyard chicken keepers.”

Common avian health problems include respiratory problems, trauma injuries caused by dogs or wild animals, frostbite and reproductive problems. “Birds’ bodies aren’t designed to lay eggs daily for five to six years,” he said. Selective breeding has resulted in birds that produce eggs to the point of exhaustion and disease.

That’s one reason the Clouses don’t eat eggs and don’t believe chickens should be kept to produce eggs at all. “We don’t want anybody eating eggs. People think an endless supply of eggs is natural, but there’s nothing natural about it,” she said. “People are using (chickens) for food, but they don’t know or understand what impact that has on the animal.”

The Clouses recently started spaying their hens, and allow adoptions only to people who want chickens as companion animals. “Our rescues need homes, not jobs,” she said.