Chickens are coming home to roost in local towns

Recently, the Mancos Town Board decided not to regulate chickens within town limits. Hens and roosters are not subject to any regulation – which is just fine with 41 percent of 103 residents who answered a town survey about chickens.

But the board’s decision remains controversial, since 40 percent of people answering the survey said the birds need to be controlled.

Chickens in a Dolores backyard. By Janelli Miller

Chickens in a Dolores backyard. By Janelli Miller

In Mancos you can hear the sounds of roosters crowing, which is part of what some residents feel is the town’s “Wild West” appeal and heritage. Others however, believe strongly that the hens need to be regulated and roosters need to be banned.

Backyard chicken-keeping is sweeping the nation, and the Four Corners region is no exception. More residents, living both in and out of town limits, are keeping the birds and eating their eggs.

A research project conducted in 2007 by Mother Earth News compared eggs from free-range hens raised on pasture to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs.

According to the findings, the free-range eggs contained one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, twice as many omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta-carotene.

As prices of all commodities rise, raising chickens in the backyard can result in more nutritious eggs for less cost. But this trend towards backyard chickens has led to town boards having to negotiate the ins and outs of regulating them.

In February of this year, the city of Cortez passed Ordinance 1175, which replaces City Code section 5-20 prohibiting poultry or fowl within the city. Now in Cortez residents may keep six chickens within a fenced backyard; they must have a predator-resistant henhouse. The henhouse has to be kept clean, and has to be set back 10 feet from all property lines.

No roosters are allowed, and residents must keep the “chicken enclosures” impeccable – no “offensive odors, excessive dust or waste” – and they must not be a “nuisance, safety hazard” or cause health problems. There are penalties for violation of the regulations, including impoundment of the birds and fines.

In Dolores, chickens are allowed and have been regulated since 2011, when a group of citizens approached the town board asking to be allowed to keep the birds. This was the second effort to get chickens in town, since the first time the question was brought to the town board, it was rejected. But in 2011 the prohibition on fowl was repealed and replaced with an ordinance amending the town code to allow for the keeping of chicken hens.

In fact, when Cortez decided to regulate chickens, officials used the same ordinance as was in place in Dolores.

According to Ann Swope, administrative clerk in Dolores, the reason that Cortez and Dolores have similar ordinances is because the two municipalities have the same lawyer, Mike Green. (Ridgway also has the same ordinance.) So far in Dolores, there appear to be no problems with the birds.

In Mancos, some residents remain unhappy with the town board’s decision not to regulate the fowl. One resident said: “The purpose of an ordinance was and is to promote chicken-keeping in ways that are healthy for our community.”

This raises the question: is it unhealthy to keep chickens within town limits? What is the relationship between health and keeping chickens?

The CDC’s recommendations regarding raising chickens include directions on how to wash eggs in order to prevent salmonella, a bacterium present in the intestines of chickens and other animals that causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, and can make some people seriously ill.

Sheldon Zwicker, who has been involved with raising his own birds and also worked in the commercial industry, thinks it’s just fine to have hens in the backyard. Although current regulations are designed to ensure that the chickens don’t spread diseases, Zwicker said if you take care of the eggs, and refrigerate them right away, it doesn’t matter if they’re washed or not.

Zwicker said he’s never seen a salmonella infection or heard of any health problems arising from keeping chickens locally. “There is a natural light oil covering to protect the egg. Just keep them refrigerated and keep fresh eggs and then, washed or not, there’s no risk.”

All the local regulations limit the number of chickens to six and prohibit roosters. They also clearly specify that chicken enclosures need to be set back from property lines – 8 feet in Dolores and 10 feet in Cortez. They must also be kept clean.

According to Zwicker, however, “Clean to a chicken is a lot different than clean to a human.” He said how often you change the litter depends on the number and density of birds, and recommends build-up litter, a process where you place clean straw upon the old. “Just add fresh litter on top and you can build up a lot of immunities, strictly from inoculation.” The chickens get exposed to any disease agents there may be and develop resistance to the germs, he said, leading to healthier birds.

In the commercial operation where he worked, the build-up litter could be 18 inches deep over a period of 14-16 months. Of course, backyard chicken keepers may want to replace the build-up litter a bit more frequently, since it depends, again, upon the number of hens kept and the size of the henhouse. But apparently, you can keep healthy happy hens in town and have nutritious and safe eggs.

Around the area, one school of thought says regulation of chickens isn’t necessary, and the towns should stay out of it. Some chicken-keepers believe anyone who has a problem with their birds should contact them directly so that neighbors can work things out among themselves.

A limiting factor on the number of people who may care for the fowl long-term is the fact that they require lots of care. The henhouse needs to be cleaned regularly, because chickens are dirty. Zwicker agreed, saying that if you’re going to be lazy you shouldn’t keep chickens.

The issue of roosters crowing is, of course, different from health concerns. Most complaints about chickens are due to aggressive and noisy roosters. Some people say a crowing rooster is no worse than a barking dog; others find the sound, particularly in the early morning, highly annoying.

Under existing regulations, only residents of Mancos can still hear roosters in town. In Cortez and Dolores, roosters are prohibited.

In both Cortez and Dolores, regulations state that if there are complaints then the municipal judge has authority to issue a warrant, and repeat offenders can have increased penalties imposed, including removal of the chickens entirely.

Roosters can cause trouble besides noise. Some roosters will attack and peck at humans, which is scary, especially for children.

Zwicker said roosters are territorial, and are especially troublesome when a hen with chicks is present. He said if you have a rooster you are just feeding an extra bird. “These laying breeds don’t need a rooster – they even do better without a rooster. They’re more likely to go broody with a rooster anyway.”

Another concern about having chickens in town is that they might attract predators. “The worst thing for backyard poultry is dogs, fenced or not,” said Zwicker. He has lost birds to coyotes, coons, ringtail cats, bobcats, weasels and a mountain lion, and still thinks dogs are the main predator.

It appears that folks in Cortez and Dolores are comfortable with the presence of hens. There are no reported health hazards, complaints or new predators in town.

However, in Mancos, “where the Old West meets the New,” you can still wake up to a rooster crowing. It remains to be seen how the controversy as to whether chickens should be regulated will be resolved there.

From May 2013. Read similar stories about .