When you live in a city, you can’t control the noises you hear. There’s the usual traffic, maybe planes overhead, and the occasional dog barking. But for some living in cities like Oakland, there’s another sound that can wake them up in the morning.
That’s probably because they’re living next-door to an urban farmer. Allison Lindquist, the president of the East Bay SPCA, is one, herself.
“Urban farming has really started to take off in the last decade, and has picked up a lot of steam in the last four to five years,” Lindquist said.
While there is no official way to track how many city dwellers have picked up chickens as pets, there are some ways to gauge the popularity. Rob Ludlow created the website www.BackYardChickens.com in 2007. He said it began with 50 members, then started to grow exponentially year after year until it hit 200,000 members in spring of this year. Ludlow also said the site has one million unique site visits – every month.
But the apparent rise in backyard chickens begs the question, does more birds mean more problems?
“There is always a percentage of the population who gets in and feels they’re in over their head,” Lindquist said.
While local SPCA chapters and animal shelters told NBC Bay Area they don’t track the number of surrendered birds, they’ve acknowledged the biggest problem is roosters, which are illegal in most cities including Oakland.
Kim Sturla, executive director and co-founder of Animal Place, a non-profit animal sanctuary based in Vacaville, said the problem of deserted birds has grown out of control, especially with roosters.
“Five years ago, I pretty much got no calls on roosters,” Sturla told NBC Bay Area over Skype. “And now, five years later we’re getting dozens of them a month.”
The problem is being reported by animal groups across the country, Hooves and Paws Animal Rescue, an Iowa-based non-profit, said it has 50 chickens rescued from shelters, private owners and feed/pet stores and routinely gets requests from Northern California, including the Bay Area.
“Most urban farmers receive their chicks directly from hatcheries or through feed or pet stores. Sadly, these chicks are shipped through the USPS during their first days of life. Many of those chicks become ill or die,” said Michele Padilla, a spokesperson for Hooves and Paws in an email to NBC Bay Area.
It’s not just roosters that are dumped, according to these groups. A hen’s egg production slows after about three years. The concern is where those chickens may go when they reach that point.
“I do know a couple of folks, also responsible urban farmers, who have a few chickens,” said Lindquist. “And when those chickens reach end of peak laying, they plan on humanely butchering them for food.”
But urban farmers, or “homesteaders,” said that’s the exception in the Bay Area. For the Benson Family, whose backyard sits under Highway 24 in Oakland, the three chickens in their coop don’t lay eggs regularly anymore, but they all have names. And that means they’re part of the family.
“I don’t eat anything that has a name, I’m sorry I just can’t!” said Mary-Alice Benson.
Her husband, Rick, grew up with a connection to the rural life – his dad was a farmer. “[Chickens] really do require daily interaction,” he said. “If they run out of water, they’ll be dead in 12 hours.”
Mary-Alice added, “I don’t think a lot of times people are prepared for the responsibility that goes along with owning any pet.”
And that’s what City Slicker Farms is devoted to. Sitting in the middle of a West Oakland intersection, surrounded by corner stores and liquor stores, the main City Slicker Farms site boasts a large section of green. The non-profit grows vegetables and raises chickens, with the goal of providing access to fresh foods that people in the neighborhood may not usually enjoy.
“That’s why City Slicker Farms and other places like this exist,” explained Barbara Finnin, executive director. “So we can help with education because it actually does take work to raise a chicken. You have to have a proper home.”
Lindquist believes the time to prepare is now. The boom in urban farms in the Bay Area seemed to take off a few years ago. Hens that started laying eggs then, could be slowing down now. She wants to get out ahead of what could become a big problem.
“It’s a reality with any trend. As it continues to grow, we need to have our eyes wide open and be ready for that.”