Popularity of raising backyard chickens growing

By 
M.P. Regan
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
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A trio of chickens hang out in their pen in back of the Dillon residence of Kathy and Dennis Jones while some of the Jones’s grandkids take flight on their trampoline by the house. M.P. Regan photo

More and more area people are “chickening in”—flocking to the increasingly popular practice of raising chickens on their residential properties.

“We’ve actually had to extend our time for selling chicks by two weeks because so many people have been buying them,” said Tawni Schmauch of the local Murdoch’s on North Montana Street in Dillon that sells chicks every spring.

“They sell really, really quickly,” added Schmauch, of the run on chickens that tends to happen when people hear that Murdoch’s has received a new shipment of young birds that more and more people are buying and raising for added food security during uncertain times, as well as for fun and friendship.

“We just enjoy having them,” said Dillon resident Kathy Jones of the chickens that she and her husband, Dennis, have been raising in their yard for more than 30 years.

“We enjoy watching them, listening to them—and we definitely enjoy the eggs,” added Jones, whose husband said their eight chickens produce more than enough eggs to fulfill the couple’s dietary needs in that category.

“We get about five or six eggs a day,” said Dennis, like Kathy a longtime employee with the local post office.

“They definitely taste much better than the eggs you tend to get at the grocery store,” asserted area chicken owner Virgilie Wheeler, who says that between her chickens, and garden and greenhouse on her property just outside of Dillon, she is able to generate most of the nutrition she requires.

“And depending on what kind of chickens you have, the eggs also tend to be a lot larger,” added Wheeler, whose garden plant growth gets powered in part by manure from her chickens.

But Wheeler and other chicken owners regard the birds not just as a source of healthy food, but also as a source for entertainment and fine-feathered friendship.

“I really like their companionship,” said Wheeler, who began raising chickens six years ago after the passing of her husband.

“I go outside and they all come running and start talking to me. They know me and they know my sister. They will circle around me and hang around me,” said the lifelong area resident whose hens number around 200, with a pair of rooster companions.

“I just have to be careful not to trip over them,” said Wheeler, who keeps three different breeds of chickens on her property.

All those hens generate a lot of food, according to Wheeler, who from her chickens last week netted nearly 500 eggs—some of which she gives away and some of which she sells through the local Town & Country.

Though she advises people not get into raising chickens on their properties for profit, with the cost of purchasing chicks, feeding them, housing them in pens that need to be heated in winter and caring for them in others ways bound to eat up almost all, if not more, of the income they generate—even before factoring in the time it requires to tend to them.

“Don’t expect to make money. It’s more of a hobby,” said Wheeler of residential chicken rearing.

“It takes a lot of patience,” continued Wheeler.

“And if f you don’t like chickens, forget it,” advised Wheeler, who said chickens can take care of themselves around most critters they don’t like—including cats and dogs, and humans after their eggs

“They can be pretty tough. They will peck you and leave bruises when you try to get their eggs,” said Wheeler.

Chickens and other backyard poultry species come with potential health hazards beyond minor hand injuries, according to the national Center for Disease Control (CDC), which linked 70 outbreaks of salmonella this century to backyard poultry, with 2019 proving the worst year on record to date, with cases in 49 in U.S. states involving more than 1100 people, over 200 hospitalizations and a pair of deaths.

“People can get sick with salmonella infections from touching backyard poultry and the places where they live and roam. Backyard poultry can carry salmonella germs but look healthy and clean and show no signs of illness,” according to the October 2019 CDC report which included a number of suggestions for safely interacting with backyard poultry, including: keeping live poultry outdoors at all times, along with the shoes you wear when around them; thoroughly washing your hands afterwards; and keeping children under the age of five from handling backyard poultry.

Concerns over the safety and aesthetics of backyard chickens inspired some to try to keep it from legally living in Dillon during the lengthy debates over the issue before Dillon City Council and its Health & Welfare Committee in 2016. But a strong lobbying effort from the city’s dedicated flock of chicken owners persuaded city officials to ultimately okay chicken ownership in Dillon.

But local chicken owners must still abide by a number of city requirements and restrictions, including keeping chicken healthy and well fed and their vaccinations up to date; getting licenses each year for their chickens; not owning roosters or any other species of fowl besides chickens; providing their chickens with a covered, heated, neat, well-ventilated, predator-proof chicken house and adjacent, movable enclosure spacious enough to allow for the free movement of the chickens, each of which require a minimum of two square feet of chicken house not located within 20 feet of “any structure inhabited by someone other than the chicken owner, custodian, or keeper” or within five feet of any property line.

Backyard chickens are also only allowed on specific types of properties that need to be of sufficient size, per stipulations in Title 17 of city code, which also includes numerous provisions about chicken ownership in its Title 6.

A copy of all the city ordinances pertaining to backyard chickens can be obtained at Dillon City Hall, 125 N. Idaho St. or from the city’s website at www.dillonmt.org.