Backyard Chickens: Can they make you sick?

Raising backyard chickens is a great way to get local, organic food—until they make you sick, that is.

By Emily Main

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can you get sick from back yard chickens?But as this case shows, some backyard chicks can fly the coop with a belly full of bacteria without the hatchery knowing. Salmonella, which lives in the intestines of birds, doesn't affect the health of the poultry, just that of the humans who own them. Children and adults with compromised immune systems are most susceptible to the bacteria, as evidenced by the fact that most of the infected people in these outbreaks were under the age of 5. In one case, the child who was sickened was 3 months old and likely came into contact with a baby chick that was given to the family as an Easter pet. The CDC also reported that some people became ill after handling the birds at animal feed stores then not washing their hands before eating. "We need to treat chicks and poultry like livestock rather than pets," Foreman says. "Don't let kids cuddle them, and don't keep them inside. And make sure kids wash their hands afterwards."

If you're considering a backyard flock, here are a few things to keep in mind:

• Know your hatchery. Look for a local hatchery that you can visit to see the conditions in which the baby chicks are born and raised. Check out Mother Earth News' Directory of Hatcheries to find one near you. The good news is that hatcheries that supply backyard flock owners usually don't supply factory farms, Foreman says, but it's always a good idea to ask about that sort of thing. Some factory-farm suppliers de-beak their birds before shipment, but backyard birds need a full beak to forage for bugs and seeds. Also ask about antibiotic use, she says (ideally, there will be none), but just be aware that some backyard chicken hatcheries do vaccinate the birds against nerve and respiratory diseases.

• Free bird(s)! You can bypass the hatchery by asking friends or other flock owners for baby chicks when their flocks get too large to handle. (You might even be helping them out.) "My flocks have almost become self-sufficient," Foreman says. You may have less variety to choose from with regard to breeds, but if your primary concern is fresh eggs, any breed can serve that purpose. Search for backyard flock owners near you at Eggzy.net.

Download free plans for a Moveable Chicken Coop.

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