Kicked from the coop: Urban farmers ditching chickens

Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary Director Terry Cummings poses with one of her many roosters. (WTOP/Alicia Lozano)

POOLESVILLE, Md. – Just a few miles from where River Road ends in Poolesville, Md., a second life begins for animals that have been discarded, abandoned and left to die.

Perched on 400 acres of luscious farm land, Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary houses hundreds of animals, including horses, cows, sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks and groundhogs.

About 50 to 60 chickens have found refuge in the sanctuary, too. Most of them were tossed aside by owners who either grew tired of caring for them or merely decided against housing them, says Poplar Spring Director Terry Cummings.

“This has become a problem for many sanctuaries and animal shelters across the country as this backyard chicken fad becomes more popular,” she says. “It is very unfortunate for the chickens.”

Poplar Spring recently took in five chicks from a group of 24 that had been thrown out on the side of the road in Alexandria, Va. They were discovered in their shipping crate and were only a few days old, Cummings says.

Arlington County has experienced a rise in abandoned roosters and hens since 2011 when Prince William County, Va., approved a measure allowing backyard poultry, reports. Since the ordinance went into effect, shelters throughout the region have received more discarded chickens every year.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington took in four chickens in 2013. Because it does not adopt chickens out to the public, the shelter works with sanctuaries and private farms to find homes for poultry, a spokeswoman says.

The Prince William County Animal Shelter, which also takes in chickens from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, received 23 chickens in 2011, reports. That number jumped to 33 in 2012, and is already at 29 in 2013.

Some of those chickens go to sanctuaries like Poplar Spring. Those that can’t find homes are euthanized.

“Many areas with legalized hen keeping are experiencing more and more of these birds coming in when they’re no longer wanted,” says Paul Shapiro with the Humane Society of the United States.

“You can imagine – you get some chicks, they are very cute, but it’s not as though you can throw them out in the yard and not take care of them.”

Chickens are much more complicated and fragile than most people think, he says. They require predator protection, socialization with others of their kind and regular feeding, cleaning and grooming. And because chickens have become so domesticated over the years, they rarely survive on their own, Cummings adds.

“Chickens are not lawn ornaments,” Shapiro says. “They are individual animals with personalities. They have likes, they have dislikes, they have needs.”

Those that make it to this sanctuary lead a life of relative calm, Cummings says. They are not sold or slaughtered for human consumption. Their eggs are collected in a basket and left in the outskirts of the farm for foxes or raccoons. Once the chickens arrive at Poplar Spring, they are residents for life.

“They have a lot of space to roam around, have a lot of grassy areas, they can go into the woods,” Cummings says. “They really like scratching and pecking and dust bathing. They can do all those things here.”

By law, Arlington residents can raise chickens in an enclosure at least 100 feet from property lines. In Montgomery County, Md., a hen house must be 5 feet from a property line and 15 feet from a residence, according to BackyardChickens.

Takoma Park, Md., has embraced the backyard chicken trend and become a bastion for urban farming.

Despite the growing trend, Montgomery County has not experienced an influx of unwanted poultry, an official says.

“We don’t have an issue here … with them being abandoned,” says Paul Hibbler, deputy director of the Montgomery County Police Animal Services Division.

“People are chicken-friendly, but also very responsible.”

For those that might be interested in raising their own poultry, Shapiro says it’s important to remember that “these animals can be a decade-long commitment.” Healthy chickens usually live to be about 8 to 10 years old.

Other tips from the Human Society:

  • Adopt adult chickens. Many people discard chickens after discovering they are roosters, not hens. Waiting until they have fully matured will prevent unwanted males.
  • Remember that chickens are very sensitive to hot and cold. Enclosures should be both insulated and well-ventilated.
  • Provide predator protection. House pets such as dogs and cats can be just as dangerous to chickens as foxes and opossums.
  • If you’re planning on taking a vacation, make sure to have backup care available. Chickens require daily maintenance.

The Humane Society has a complete list of tips on raising chickens.

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