The Science of Sustainability

Lessons from the Chicken Coop

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Backyard chickens (credit: Meredith Hall)Yesterday, I along with every other Oakland hipster visited the Eat Real Festival in Jack London Square. There were dozens of food carts—tacos, steamed buns, hot dogs, ice cream, the best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever eaten—and chickens. Yep. There was an urban homesteading exhibit, with animals and experts, and my friend Angela was smitten with the chickens. She wanted to take a few home. Think of all those fresh eggs! However, her husband Malcolm was against the idea—having grown up on a ranch in Mexico, he knew firsthand that chickens are a lot of work. But as I thought about the salmonella-laced headlines that have tumbled across my doorstep and my computer screen over the past few weeks, I thought having my own backyard chickens might not be a bad idea.

The recent salmonella outbreak has led to a recall of half a billion eggs, and has sickened thousands of people. (Check this FDA page to see if the eggs in your fridge are safe to eat.) Many of the contaminated eggs have been traced to two giant farms in Iowa. It is not entirely clear what caused the outbreak—and there may have been multiple sources. But at least some of the contaminated eggs were laid by hens that ate contaminated chicken feed. Rodents carrying salmonella had gotten into the feed. In large-scale egg farms, salmonella can spread easily. Backyard chickens can still be subject to salmonella, but at least if you’re in charge of the coop, you can be sure to take precautions to keep your birds healthy.

These precautions include keeping the habitat clean, making sure the food isn’t contaminated by rodents or other animals (reptiles carry salmonella too), and maybe even vaccinating your chickens. Vaccination is common in the UK and other parts of Europe (though in this country, the FDA has deemed it unnecessary). I have no idea if vaccines are available for backyard birds—but it might be a good idea.

Not being a bird owner myself, I wondered how a first-time chicken raiser could learn about keeping birds healthy. I read Oakland urban farmer Novella Carpenter’s book Farm City, and I couldn’t remember if her mail-order poultry had come with instructions. Then, I found out that the USDA recently started a public education campaign on backyard bird health. And, urban homesteaders swap chicken husbandry tips thanks to internet sites like Meetup. There are whole communities out there, dedicated to raising healthy birds.

Still, I am not ready build a coop on my back porch and fill it with chickens. But the salmonella outbreak and the poultry experts at the Eat Real Festival reminded me that farmers, with their great knowledge of how animals and diseases and the environment are all entwined, are the world’s original ecologists.

To learn more about eggs and the differences between supermarket eggs or farm fresh eggs, watch City Egg, Country Egg on QUEST.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Sustainable Food, Sustainable Health

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Jennifer Skene

About the Author ()

Jennifer Skene develops curriculum on climate change and ocean sciences at the Lawrence Hall of Science and teaches biology and science communication at Mills College and the University of California Berkeley. She has a degree in biology from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UC Berkeley. She started working with QUEST in 2008 as an intern. She has written for the Berkeley Science Review and the UC Museum of Paleontology’s Understanding Evolution and Understanding Science websites.