Karen Coman hopes her children will soon have their own chicken coop in their South Bend backyard. “It will teach them how to live sustainable lives where they are contributing to their own food production,” she explains
But are chickens in South Bend really a twenty-first century idea? That depends on who you ask.
Last November, voters in St. Joseph, Michigan recently decided against a proposed ordinance that would have permitted residents to keep a limited number of hens at home. During a recent stroll downtown, we asked a few of them why. “I would be concerned about what my neighbors would think,” said Kelly Kulich. “They would probably worry about the smell and the noise,” she said. Bob Lutz expressed even more hesitation, wondering whether chickens would become prey for dogs. “I’m not sure about the sanitary aspects of it, either,” he said.
Coman is no stranger to these objections. She’s been working for nearly three years now to get the city of South Bend to change the city ordinances to allow chickens within the city. Under the ordinance she proposes, residents would be allowed to keep up to six birds, hens only, in a fully-enclosed coop no closer than 15 feet to the property line. She’s met a lot of people who react to the notion with raised eyebrows and wrinkled noses, and hopes that city leaders will take enough time to find out whether the fears are well-founded. “If people would be a little bit more open and check it out a little bit, they might be a little bit more accepting,” she says.
We liked that part about checking it out… so we did. To get the facts from people who know, we went to Indianapolis, which has no restrictions on backyard birds.
We first met Anne Collins at her home in the prestigious Meridian-Kessler neighborhood, where Anne’s three-year-old daughter Morgan helps tend to the family’s three hens.
“The first time we got an egg, Morgan was so excited, she wanted to take it in and make scrambled eggs,” Anne says. “And she ate the first one because it was her chicken that laid it. Just seeing them see the process I think is what is most important. And she especially gets it.”
We also met Brian McCutcheon at his home less than a mile away and watched while he gave the hens their evening meal, and took his morning meal in return. “This way my son will not grow up so distanced from how food hits his table,” McCutcheon says.
We could have spent several hours each with Brian and Anne, both of whom were happy to share their experiences as backyard chickens owners. But we had a different agenda: we wanted to talk to their neighbors.
Anna and Andy Mallon live next door to the Collins family, and their opinions couldn’t be more direct. “None,” says Anna, when asked for the negative impacts of living next door to chickens. “None. At this point I've experienced nothing negative. It's just been a fun, different thing that's going on in our neighborhood.”
Frank and Erin Wessels live next door to McCutcheon’s coop, and have never had any complaints. “No. I've never smelled anything,” says Frank. “And they don't have a rooster, so they're not loud. They make a little noise occasionally, but you never hear it inside.”
The sentiment in this upscale neighborhood seems to be positive: keeping, or living next door to, small, well-kept flocks poses few problems.
In some cases, it may even have perks. “Free food,” laughs Frank. “Occasionally they bring eggs over.” Erin also loves the free eggs, but also notes that a chicken coop is a conversation piece that brings neighbors together. “Running into your neighbors, having a conversation, it's kind of a nice thing,” she says.
Nice thing or not, we decided to dig deeper into a bigger question: what are the health risks?
“Poultry can carry salmonella,” cautions Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinary epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “The poultry might appear to be healthy and clean. You can't look at them and tell that they are shedding this bacteria.”
Since 1990, about 35 salmonella outbreaks have been reported from contact with birds from mail-order hatcheries. That represents less than two outbreaks per year, on average, nationwide. To put that number in perspective, over 150 outbreaks of infectious diseases have been reported from animal contact in public settings like petting zoos or state fairs since 1996.
Experts say it’s the contact that’s key. If your neighbors have chickens, there’s little risk to you - as long as you're in your yard, and they're in theirs.
“If the chicken owner is housing them properly, keeping them penned, keeping them off their neighbor's property,” says Dr. Barton Behravesh, “the risk of illness to the neighbors would be minimal as long as there is no direct interaction.”
Bob Yoder, the Purdue Extension Educator for Marshall County, concurs about how salmonella is - or is not - contracted from urban flocks. “That's coming in contact directly with the bird. It's not an airborne disease issue,” he explains. “So if that bird stays in the proper facility, away from the neighbors yards, I'm not so concerned about that issue.”
The experts we spoke to agree that there’s a simple rule of thumb: Treat backyard chickens just like the raw chicken in your refrigerator.
In other words, wash your hands.
“After you handle the [birds], clean up their cages come and do those chores associated with those animals,” says Yoder, “you need to be sure to wash your hands properly.”
As for bird flu? Yoder says it’s not an issue. “In Asia, they literally lived with the birds, and that [disease] has not made it to our country. So that's not a concern at all with me.”
Yoder sees urban chickens as a great way to teach kids responsibility, and likes the idea as long as people aren’t trying to turn their homes into poultry production facilities. “Quite honestly I see [urban chickens] more as a pet,” Yoder says. “A few birds, you get a few eggs to enjoy, but you need to treat them as a pet from a sanitation standpoint, and a number standpoint.
His verdict? “A very limited number of birds could be a positive experience.”