Domestic Poultry

Backyard birds: Valley urban chicken farmers find eggs, joy

Posted 7/2/22

More Arizonans now fancy themselves hobbyist farmers and egg producers as they embrace residential chicken farming...

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Domestic Poultry

Backyard birds: Valley urban chicken farmers find eggs, joy

In this April 2020 file photo, Orlando Cazarez, right, builds his family a chicken coop, as his daughter Eli-za, left, looks on, so they can start having their own on-site eggs to become more self sufficient due to the coronavirus pandemic in Laveen.
In this April 2020 file photo, Orlando Cazarez, right, builds his family a chicken coop, as his daughter Eli-za, left, looks on, so they can start having their own on-site eggs to become more self sufficient due to the coronavirus pandemic in Laveen.
Ross D. Franklin/The Associated Press
Posted

More Arizonans now fancy themselves hobbyist farmers and egg producers as they embrace residential chicken farming on the small scale across the state.

Once such hobbyist is Ken Reinstein, a marketing communications expert who said his family kept chickens in the backyard of their Scottsdale home and found the effort rewarding.

The biggest surprise, he said, was how quirky and individual the domesticated fowl can be.

“Chickens have personality,” Reinstein explained. “I don’t quite want to give them status of a dog, but they have personalities, and they are actually kind of loving and will interact with you.”

Insurance underwriter Marisa Gostony Fedeli said her family also enjoyed their experiences raising domestic poultry at their Phoenix home.

“We started with 10 chickens and had different ones for about 9 years,” Fedeli said. “The most rewarding thing was how sweet they are. They come running when they see you outside.” 

In Arizona, as in many states, raising chickens at home is a legal but closely regulated endeavor that has gained in popularity.

“Raising poultry at home can be more than a hobby. Birds, like other pets, teach responsibility; they also teach about agriculture and provide food. The trend for backyard birds, especially in cities, is growing,” according to information published at the Arizona Department of Agriculture’s website.

Arizona’s growing flock of chicken fans follows national trends that saw interest spike after the onset of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, according to analysis by AG Daily, an online resource for domestic agriculturalists.

“One reason backyard chickens became especially popular and thriving during the pandemic is because they encourage self-sufficiency and help establish a sense of responsibility. Backyard-chicken owners are able to rely less on grocery stores and food production plants and more on themselves in terms of sources of food,” according to a June 2020 article.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture stated more than 70% of Arizona’s domestic chicken raisers are keeping 10 or fewer birds.

Security and safety

To succeed at keeping chickens at home, would-be domestic farmers must first provide a safe, cool place for their birds to thrive.

“There’s a lot of upkeep to it. You’ve got to invest in a good home for them,” Reinstein said. “We did let ours run free quite a bit during the daytime, but at night you have to put them away and keep them safe. The geography we live in has a lot of predators, and we lost some chickens to snakes.”

But it only took a little ingenuity and sweat to improve their setup, he said.

“We had chickens that were there one day and we went out the next, they were just gone,” he said. “Something got under our chicken coop and got at them. So, we had to snake-proof the thing with cinder blocks. In addition, there’s also coyotes and bobcats and all the standard predators. It’s not a cheap hobby.”

Nearly as much work is needed to keep the birds from escaping their confines as in keeping the predators from getting in, according to Reinstein.

He said for those considering the hobby, the popular stop-motion cartoon film from “Chicken Run” (2000) offers a surprisingly accurate glimpse into some of the security challenges.

“It’s crazy how accurate the ‘Chicken Run’ movie is,” Reinstein said. “It’s just an animated, goofy movie about chickens who talk, but they got a lot of things right.”

While real-life chickens don’t speak or typically build aircraft as witnessed in the Mel Gibson-led comedy, elements of the depiction resonated with his own experience raising them at home.

“They’re always on the hunt, they’re always trying to scheme, and they’re just funny animals,” Reinstein added.

After first seeing a coop for sale at Costco, he said local Facebook groups offered a lot of useful advice for setting up his backyard operation.

Some Facebook groups comprised of local urban poultry hobbyists include Arizona Backyard Chickens, Backyard Chickens–Chandler/Gilbert Arizona, Arizona Chicken Raisers and Arizona Backyard Chickens Only.

Dangerously dry heat

Chickens, like most of us, are sensitive to the merciless Arizona sun, Fedeli warned.

“Make sure they have a secure, safe spot with plenty of access to shade and cool water and enjoy,” she said. “Every morning we let them out of their coop so they can scratch and hunt around. They get fresh water several times a day, especially in the heat of the summer. They get frozen watermelon and veggies. The biggest challenge is keeping the pigeons and doves out.”

The University of Arizona’s Division of Agriculture, Life & Veterinary Sciences & Cooperative Extension recommends a variety of options to keep birds cool during summer months.

“Chickens should always have access to fresh, clean, cool water, especially in the summer heat. Provide multiple water sources located in shady, cool areas if possible to encourage hens to drink,” they recommend. “Add ice cubes, ice blocks, or frozen water bottles if needed to keep water cool. Low sided dishes or pans will allow hot chickens to wade in and cool their feet.”

A simple mister attached to a garden hose can provide relief through evaporative cooling if set up along with ample shade for the birds, they said.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture offers the following tips for chicken safekeeping:

  • Find a local veterinarian to help you keep your flock healthy;
  • Research the type of feed recommended for the breed;
  • Make sure the feed is not moldy and birds are fed regularly
  • Make sure they have access to fresh, clean water 24 hours a day
  • Protect birds from extreme temperatures
  • Check birds for eggs several times a day and collect eggs often
  • Watch the birds regularly and move those that appear sick away from other chickens

HOA and local rules

Fedeli said her family kept about 10 birds successfully for nine years, but they recently gave them up because it became difficult to manage them along with other pets she watches at her property.

“We re-homed them because we no longer have a safe space for them,” Fedeli explained. “Our dogs coexisted with them no problem, but with other dog-sitting dogs, they weren’t safe. We lost several to client dogs and to the heat last summer.”

Reinstein said his family also recently gave their birds away after learning local rules forbid them.

“We had them for a couple years,” he said. “Scottsdale allows chickens in residential areas, but we learned our HOA did not.”

Although now a member of his HOA board, he said he was mistaken when he first got the chickens and believed the association’s rules would allow them, Reinstein recalled.

“This is the honest to goodness truth,” he said. “We actually looked at the CC&Rs and my wife and I both misread them. So, we actually thought we were OK in having them, as long as we didn’t have roosters.”

But when a nearby house sold, the family’s modest coop got noticed and the HOA asked them to get rid of the birds.

“But it was fun while it lasted,” Reinstein said. “We were all sad to lose our chickens, because they became part of them family.”

He recommended anyone contemplating the hobby read state, city and HOA rules carefully and ask questions before investing.

‘Nest run’ eggs

While it is legal to raise chickens in Arizona, it is also legal to keep, share and sell the eggs they lay.

These homegrown eggs are known as “nest run” eggs, and state law allows domestic growers to sell up to 750 dozen per year with no license.

But to do so, producers must first register online with the Department of Agriculture.

“Registering as a nest run producer is required by Arizona law. Although there is no license required, or payment of any fees, registering as a nest run producer allows the department and/or public health agencies to trace eggs back to the producer in the event of an egg borne disease outbreak,” according to the department.

Fedeli said store-bought eggs cannot compare to those her chickens produced at home.

“They can lay an egg a day. They aren’t always all laying at the same time and slow down in the winter and heat of the summer,” she said. “The yolk is creamier and richer. Plus, it was nice to give the extra eggs to neighbors and friends!”

Reinstein concurred.

“You go and buy a dozen eggs at the grocery store, and those could have been there for 45 days,” he said. “But there’s a huge difference to eggs that are a couple or three days old out of your own back yard. Freshly laid eggs taste so much better.”

And unlike store-bought eggs, which are washed with detergent prior to sale and must be kept refrigerated; nest run eggs are processed more gently and may not require chilling.

“If you just take them out of the coop, brush them off but don’t wash them off, they have a natural coating on them and you can just keep them on the counter at room temperature,” Reinstein said.

Avoiding illness

While raising birds can be fun, the practice can increase chances of some food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“An increasing number of people around the country are choosing to keep live poultry, such as chickens or ducks,” CDC officials stated. “Along with the benefits of backyard chickens and other poultry, it is important to consider the risk of illness, especially for children, which can result from handling live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam.”

To reduce the risk of salmonella infection from live poultry, CDC officials recommend:

  • Don’t let children under age 5 touch or handle live poultry without supervision;
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after touching live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam;
  • Avoid touching your mouth before washing your hands; use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available;
  • Adults should supervise handwashing for young children.

Learn more at cdc.gov.

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