Backyard Hens: Concerns And Challenges
Despite a growing interest in keeping backyard hens, very little is actually known about already existing populations, and the state of welfare such birds face. Some research exists on backyard birds and the recent resurgence of the practice, but much of it has focused on who the people getting backyard chickens are, and why they choose to live with hens.
Most backyard bird-keepers have been found to be highly educated women with household incomes of over $100,000 USD a year; when asked why they keep chickens, 95% of respondents said they were for “food for home use,” referring to the consumption of the hens’ eggs, while 63% also marked them as “gardening partners” and “pets” (5%). In general, people report being satisfied with the experience, stemming from a feeling that they provide better care for their chickens compared to those seen on commercial farms. Interestingly, researchers also noticed a tendency to regard the birds as companion animals in the long run, despite having acquired them as a food source.
This study sought to outline the welfare concerns faced by backyard chickens, and provide some possible solutions through a review of the current literature on the topic.
When it comes to the actual welfare risk factors that these chickens face, they are myriad and varied.
Attacks by avian predators and carnivorous mammals (owls, hawks, and wolves, for example) are named as one of the greatest causes of mortality for backyard hens. Many of these chickens have some space to roam, but very little is actually known about how much space non-commercial and free-range chickens need to be happy, while still being kept safe from predators.
Meanwhile, most keepers feed these chickens a mix of commercial feed and kitchen scraps. Some research has shown that about 10% of necropsied backyard birds had died of metabolic disease and toxicoses, and more than half died of fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome, an illness strongly associated with obesity. Other nutrition-related causes of death include vitamin E, riboflavin, mineral, and vitamin D deficiencies.
Backyard chickens also fall victim to a higher diversity of parasites than what is routinely observed in commercial flocks, too. Although disease is obviously a major concern, hen keeper awareness appears to be highly variable, contributing to the problem. Comparing two survey-based studies, one found that 59% reported their flocks experienced no health-related conditions over the course of a year, while the other found that more than the half had observed signs of disease in the past 6 months.
Indeed, across 1300 backyard hens tested, more than half of the deaths were found to have been caused by infections. Apparently, Marek’s disease could be the leading viral infectious agent and Escherichia coli the leading bacterium. The researchers found this surprising, as both can be prevented or their risks minimized via proper management and biosecurity – practices that minimize the risk of contamination and disease spread. Vaccines exist for the former, while E. coli is best combated through adequate sanitation and reduced transmission between flocks.
Among the birds’ social interactions, aggression and injuries caused by pecking were the most common behavioral issues. Another common behavioral problem reported by keepers is that of egg eating, although it’s rather an issue of annoyance for the keepers. Researchers urge for more work in identifying the actual rates and causes of aggression among backyard hens.
Challenges For People With Chickens
Due to the widespread poor biosecurity practices among backyard hen keepers, public health concerns and food safety risks may arise in urban areas. Zoonotic diseases such as Mycoplasma, Salmonella and Campylobacter were shown to be present in backyard flocks. While the incidences of these microorganisms are relatively rare, the lack of precautions taken to prevent the spread is alarming for both chickens and humans.
25% of households reported snuggling with and eating near chickens, highlighting a potential risk for zoonotic transmission. Meanwhile, the bacteria Salmonella pullorum, responsible for illness among chickens, was shown to be widespread in 10 of 11 tested Californian flocks, indicating high risks for the well-being of outgoing chickens.
Another recently uncovered area of health concern for hens and humans alike is lead poisoning. Urban and suburban backyard chickens have been shown to have increased exposure to lead via paints in and contaminated soils. Birds deposit lead into their eggs, which then poses a real threat to public health, especially to children who may be given eggs. The researchers here strongly advise having chicken eggs and blood samples tested for lead. People with chickens should also educate themselves about the signs of lead toxicity in birds.
Another increasingly relevant issue is the disposal of “unwanted” birds. As most urban U.S. centers prohibit backyard slaughter, and euthanasia is often not an option due to limited knowledge and access to qualified veterinary specialists, city animal shelters have seen an increase in relinquished backyard hens. For their part, they also often have neither the resources nor knowledgeable staff to properly care for the birds. Providing proper care for these unwanted animals and reducing instances of releases to the wild is of utmost importance for improving their welfare.
Taken together, the surveys in the review indicate that most keepers want more information on topics related to health, biosecurity, and euthanasia. Despite this, less that a fifth of all respondents view veterinarians as a reliable source of said information. They explain this by noting that companion animal vets are not trained in avian medicine, while avian specialists typically work for the commercial sector and do not provide service for non-commercial clients. The results also indicate that despite wide availability of diagnostic laboratories providing necropsy services for backyard flock keepers, only 2-14% of respondents made use of such resources to determine causes of death within their flocks.
Due to increasing backyard chicken populations worldwide, animal advocates will surely find this information, highlighting the risks and areas of concern for the birds and humans alike, beneficial in their work. Although some hen keepers show clear signs of care for the animals — some of whom even attain companion status — hens who stop laying eggs can nonetheless end up discarded, indicating an area of rising concern.