Backyard Chickens: The Do’s and Dont’s to Keep Your Family Safe

Living sustainably has become more important to many people since the beginning of quarantine and the food shortages brought about by COVID-19. Suddenly, with more time on their hands and less food in the stores, people began looking for ways to ensure food sources by growing their own. One of these endeavors is the growing trend of raising backyard chickens.  

An article by CBS News in 2019 estimated that about eight percent of U.S. households owned chickens in 2018. That number may be much larger now. “We’ve never seen anything like this and I’ve been here since 1964,” Nancy Smith, of Cackle Hatchery in Missouri, told NPR for an article published in April of this year, “We are swamped with orders. We can’t answer all the phone calls, and we are booked out several weeks on most breeds.”   

The Sad Side of Backyard Chickens 

Unfortunately, many people purchasing birds to raise in their backyard don’t do the research they need to before buying their flock. A news article by NBC News reported that at least 400-500 chickens are abandoned every year to the Farm Sanctuary. Often people don’t realize the costs involved and the proper handling techniques to keep themselves and their families safe.  

The CDC associated four main diseases with the keeping of backyard poultry; avian influenza (bird flu,) Campylobacteriosis, E. coli (though not E.coli 0157 which is commonly associated with livestock,) and Salmonella. The recommended handling instructions for poultry seem like common sense, but many people either choose not to follow them or are unaware of the practices.  

The CDC recommends washing hands with soap after touching poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam. While many people love their chickens like pets, the CDC advises against snuggling or kissing backyard poultry, or allowing chickens inside the house.  

Handling eggs must be done just as carefully. The CDC recommends cleaning the coop and nests regularly, and throwing away any eggs with a cracked shell, as bacteria can enter the egg through cracks. They recommend against washing fresh eggs, as the shell is porous and colder water can pull bacteria into the egg 

The Chicken Expert 

Another great way to prevent illness in people is to prevent illness in your poultry. James Hermes, poultry expert and professor of Animal Sciences at Oregon State University, outlines what is necessary for raising healthy birds.  

“First, you have to get the right kind of birds for what you want.” Hermes says, “Do you want pretty birds or do you want egg producers? If you want eggs, be sure to get something with the word ‘production’ in the name.”  

When you’ve decided what type of birds you want, Hermes suggests ordering by mail or buying from a local hatchery, not from a farm or feed store. The main reason is that it prevents the chicks from being exposed to more diseases. There is a local hatchery in Tangent, Jenks Hatchery. 

“Buying vaccinated birds will solve a lot of problems,” Hermes says, “Specifically, in preventing the birds from getting Marek’s disease.”  

Bird Illnesses to Watch For 

According to the University of Maryland Extension, Marek’s disease is one of the most common poultry diseases in the world. It is caused by Alphaherpesvirinae, a herpes virus, and is highly contagious. It can occur in chicks as young as 3-4 weeks of age, but is very common between 12-30 weeks. The website says “Once the virus is introduced into a chicken flock, infection spreads quickly from bird to bird and infected chickens continue to shed the virus, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle of infection. There is no effective treatment for the disease and infected birds never recover.”  

Luckily, Marek’s Disease is not transferable to humans, however, the ramifications of this disease on a flock can be devastating. As long as it is present, the virus will pass through inhalation of the dander of infected birds, and the damage to healthy birds is catastrophic. Mareks can cause tumors, paralysis, and death in chicken.  

When starting out with baby chicks, Hermes says the most common mistake is that people do not make the enclosure warm enough. You can tell if it’s too cold by watching the chicks. If all of the chicks are cuddled up under the light, they are cold. If some are under the light and others have moved off to do other things, they are warm.   

For at least the first six weeks, Hermes recommends feeding a medicated feed, primarily to help prevent Coccidiosis.  Coccidiosis is caused by protozoan parasites and according to PennState Extension, “Coccidiosis may be one of the most common diseases affecting small flocks around the world, causing loss in performance and even mortality.” Again, Hermes stresses that buying vaccinated chicks will help with this issue too, as will keeping the chicken’s enclosure clean and dry.  

While there are some types of Coccidia that affect humans, we cannot contract coccidiosis from chickens, according to an article published by the University of California; “While there are species of coccidia that can infect people the species of Coccida that infect chickens are not infective to people.” 

After six weeks, the chicks will be ready to move from starter feed to regular chicken feed, and most breeds will reach egg laying maturity around six months old. Feeding them layer feed instead of chick starter feed will allow them to start building up calcium in their body which will help them to lay eggs.  

Hermes says “If they don’t get calcium in their feed, when it’s time to lay they will begin to pull that calcium from their bones.” Of course, that’s not good for the chickens.  

Hermes says that appropriate feeding for chickens should include 80 percent prepared diets, like a layer feed or other complete feed. Supplements are not necessary, but can be given, and include things like meal worms, insects, meat scraps, and maggots. “There are lots of recipes online for growing your own ‘clean’ maggots.” Hermes says, laughing.   

Finally, if you want to give your chickens table scraps, such as watermelon or corn on the cob, Hermes recommends treating those things like candy for the birds. “Generally, whatever they will clean up in 15 minutes is enough, after that, pick up the leftovers.”  

Finally, to encourage your hens to lay consistently all year round, Hermes suggests giving them 16 hours of daylight every day. The light helps the hens keep on a consistent egg laying cycle and is easy to achieve with a timer that turns a light in the coop on at 6 a.m. and off at 10 p.m. This will encourage egg laying even in the depths of our dark Oregon Januarys.  

To prevent diseases in your flock, Hermes says to do your best to keep your birds isolated. While Coop Tours have become popular, Hermes recommends against them, as they can spread disease from one flock of chickens to another. Don’t allow people with chickens of their own to handle your birds, and do you best to reduce wild bird and rodent populations from moving in. Clean the nest boxes once a week, and make sure that the only water source available is fresh clean water from a waterer 

“Chickens are lazy, and they won’t take the time to walk to their waterer for a drink if there’s a puddle nearby.” Hermes says. Drinking from a muddy puddle increases the bird’s risk of contracting coccidiosis.  

Chickens in Corvallis 

Owning chickens can be a rewarding and fun hobby, but for the sake of the birds and your family, it’s important to do your research and be well-versed in chicken husbandry before bringing your birds home.  

For regulations regarding chickens, visit your local municipal code. In Corvallis, there is no limit for how many chickens you can own, provided they remain on your property. While not specifically mentioned for Corvallis, roosters will probably violate local noise ordinances.  

For more information about keeping poultry you can visit the CDC website or your local extension office. In the case of Corvallis, that would be the Benton County Extension Service 

By Kyra Young