Elaborate coops, treats and dress-up outfits: Inside the world of pampered poultry
When it came time to decorate the new Amish-built house on her 26-acre property near Lansing, Michigan, Danielle Raad went all out.
She painted the interior walls a lustrous eggshell blue, and spent hours hand-stenciling one with an intricate pattern. She lined rooms with handmade art, including her own work and that of her kids. She brought in vintage objects such as a chandelier and a painted shelf. Her mother added items covered in decoupaged roses.
Raad put her father in charge of prettying up the outside, which features barn-red siding, white picket fencing, flower boxes and a scarecrow.
Eventually Raad, 35, had the house just right, and it was ready to be occupied. But two years later, she still hasn't spent the night in it – and she doesn't plan to.
It was for her chickens.
"We just decided that if we're going to do it, we're going to do it all the way," Raad says. She originally planned a flock of 10 chickens for her backyard hen house. She now keeps 23.
Call them the most pampered chickens in central Michigan. In addition to a home that is more HGTV than Animal Planet, Raad's hens (and a few roosters) get top-notch health care from a local veterinarian and a well-balanced diet. Their living quarters are sprayed regularly with a soothing mix of essential oils including lavender, tea tree and eucalyptus.
"They're spoiled," Raad suggests.
Hers are not the only feathery fowl living the high life. The backyard chicken movement that has taken hold across America in recent years is entering a new phase: Owners are pampering the birds as if they were, you know, dogs or something.
Chicken keepers are building ever more elaborate and comfortable coops, plying their feathered friends with gourmet treats and dressing them up in designer outfits.
Some even are bringing the birds into their own homes.
"Some of these chickens live better than we do," Steph Merkle jokes, sort of. She's been following the trend from her perch atop Backyard Poultry, a magazine that caters to the chickeny set.
Not everyone is on board. Some chicken-keeping purists find the over-the-top pampering a bit silly. And public health officials are warning poultry fans that getting too cozy with the little cluckers isn't a great idea.
But Americans have begun treating their fowl more like pets than livestock. And just as with our beloved cats and dogs, nothing is too much for our little Foghorn Leghorns.
"We're seeing coops with chandeliers, artwork, painted ladder roosting bars and hand-made curtains for nesting boxes," Merkle says.
"It's sort of like a Martha Stewart thing. People are trying to have the most beautiful coop."
It's a far cry – or should we say crow – from just a few years ago.
The backyard chicken movement evolved out of the modern homesteading movement, which prizes self-reliance and self-sufficiency in food production. Early adopters were in it mostly for the eggs and, yes, the meat.
Backyard Poultry itself was a spin-off from modern homesteading magazine Countryside & Small Stock Journal, which Merkle also oversees. When Backyard Poultry launched in 2006, Merkle notes, it was full of graphic tutorials on butchering and plucking. Images of chickens with their heads cut off were not unusual.
But then a funny thing happened out back: One by one, the little balls of fluff began winning our hearts. Soon they weren't just anonymous livestock headed for the dinner table. They were members of the family.
"People began naming their chickens," Merkle says. "It's hard to eat an animal that has a name."
Now Backyard Poultry runs spreads on how to grow herbal treats for your chickens in winter and ways to keep them happy when you go on vacation without them.
The stories on preparing your chickens for a meal have all but disappeared.
Lisa Steele was an early bird to the movement. The Bangor, Maine, woman has watched it take flight.
"It's changed a lot over the past 10 years," she says.
Steele fell so hard for her own flock that she started a Facebook page devoted to it in 2011. A year later, she began blogging about backyard chickens, and by 2013, she had written her first book on the topic.
She's now a leading voice of the movement, with five books in print and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. She documents her chicken-raising life and offers tips for chicken owners at FreshEggsDaily.com.
"People ... wanted to raise their own food and be more comfortable about where it came from," Steele says. "But along the way they realized they do make good pets."
Steele is tapping into the chicken-pampering trend with her latest book: 101 Chicken Hacks from Fresh Eggs Daily: Tips, Tricks and Ideas for You and Your Hens. She offers advice on how to make homemade treats and snacks for your chickens and how to dress them up in tutus.
That's "where a lot of the interest lies," she says. "My chickens actually do have tutus. And I think they feel pretty when they wear them."
Chickens-as-pets has gotten a boost from social media, where chicken fans increasingly are competing to post the most glamorous chicken shots.
Instagrammers such as Kate Richards, whose @drinkingwithchickens page has nearly 50,000 followers, post highly staged, highly produced images showing their birds living the high life. One recent post showed two chickens lounging with cocktails (get it?) on a luxuriously pillowed sofa while a third chicken snapped their photo.
Celebrities are making it look cool.
Jennifer Garner recently posted video of herself on Instagram walking one of her chickens on a leash and sitting by it reading. Chris Pratt's most recent chicken-related post was a luscious shot of his chickens' brown and green eggs.
"Straight up livin' that #farmlife," the Guardian of the Galaxy wrote.
An industry is growing. Startups such as pamperyourpoultry.com sell chicken dresses and tutus, colorful, hand-sewn diapers for chickens (should you want to bring them into the house), and "saddles," which are like capes that go on a chicken's back.
Fowl Play Products sells swing sets for chickens. Happy Hen Treats has begun marketing a "Cake 'N Cluck" cake mix for those who "want to make chicken's birthday extra special."
In 2012, Scratch and Feed became the first feed manufacturer in America to make all Non-GMO Project Verified feed for chickens, and now all of its feeds, supplements and treats are Certified Organic, too.
Scratch and Peck offers "organic coop confetti," a colorful bouquet of aromatic, organic herbs and edible flowers that the company says will make your chicken's nesting area "a calm, fresh smelling, and restful place to lay their eggs."
Sewickly, Pennsylvania-based Coop Tender sells Internet-enabled automatic chicken coop doors that can be opened and closed from anywhere in the world via an app. Other firms tout new solar-powered lighting systems for coops, heating systems to keep chicken water from freezing, video camera systems that allow owners to check on their beloved birds remotely and motion-sensing alarm systems that protect chickens from predators.
The rural lifestyle retail giant Tractor Supply now hosts multi-week Chick Days events in both the spring and fall with live chicks for sale as well as an expanded lineup of coops, feeds and other accessories.
The company has added live chicks to its website year-round – 10 Rhode Island Red roosters go for $14.99; 10 hens cost $20 more – and expanded its online offerings of chicken treats and other products.
"The customer excitement is what drove us," says Tiffany Denter, a buyer on the Tractor Supply merchandising team that handles poultry supplies. "It's a trend that's definitely on the rise."
Fanciful coops are at the center of the movement. Social media increasingly is loaded with images of coops built to resemble western saloons, vintage cars, tractors, medieval castles, streamlined modern dwellings.
But just as fanciful are some of the chickens themselves. A trend-within-the-trend is a move toward ever more rare and unusual "designer" cross breeds – such as the Blue Easter Eggers developed and sold by My Pet Chicken, which have a blueish color and lay green eggs.
My Pet Chicken also sells proprietary Olive Eggers, which lay olive-shaded eggs, and the Blue Favaucana, which has a striking, blue hawk-like appearance and lays sage-green eggs.
My Pet Chicken CEO Traci Torres says the company this year can't keep the more unusual breeds in stock. Nearly its entire supply of Olive Eggers expected in-house through the end of 2019 has been presold, she says. Ditto for some other rare breeds.
Torres and her husband launched Monroe, Connecticut-based My Pet Chicken in 2006 after finding almost no online resources while starting up their own backyard chicken coop.
She says business has soared in recent years due in no small part to the poultry-as-pets trend. My Pet Chicken now has 30 employees and millions of dollars in sales.
The company sells thousands of chicken diapers. They're marketed for injured hens who need to recuperate indoors, and broody hens that are brought inside to "break" their broodiness. But many people are buying them to bring chickens indoors just to hang out.
"Some people have chickens sleep in bed with them," Torres says. "Of course, you have to be careful with germs just like with any animal."
Indeed, some think the move toward chickens going "full dog" is a little cuckoo.
FreshEggsDaily.com's Steele says she draws a hard line at letting flocks into the home. She notes the risk of bringing in poultry-borne pathogens such as salmonella.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been telling backyard chicken owners that the animals should stay out of the home – and it's best to refrain from kissing or snuggling them.
The CDC warns that children under 5, adults over 65 and people with weakened immune systems shouldn't be handling live poultry at all.
For households with people in those categories, CDC epidemiologist Megin Nichols says, "owning backyard poultry might not be the right choice."
Nichols, a veterinarian, oversees the agency's investigations of salmonella and E. Coli from exposure to animals and pet products.
She cites the risk of salmonella, a pathogen found in poultry that can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever, in some cases severe enough to lead to hospitalization.
The number of outbreaks of salmonella associated with backyard chickens has risen in recent years with backyard chicken ownership. The CDC linked 10 outbreaks of the illness nationwide last year to backyard chickens, up from 4 in 2015. There was an average of 3.8 outbreaks a year associated with backyard chickens over the preceding decade.
The CDC recorded 1,120 cases of salmonella associated with backyard chickens in 2017, up from 895 in 2016. But for every case of salmonella reported to the agency, Nichols says, studies show 29 more go unreported. She says the actual number of Americans getting sick as a result of backyard chickens in 2017 was probably closer to 30,000.
Salmonella related to backyard chickens still accounted for just a tiny portion of the 1.2 million cases the CDC estimates in America each year.
Still, at least one public health researcher is suggesting municipalities tighten rules surrounding backyard chickens.
Catherine Brinkley, a veterinarian and urban planner at the University of California, Davis, studied poultry ordinances in Colorado and found that more municipalities had passed or modified poultry ordinances in the past 5 years than in the preceding 100. But most of the ordinances were aimed at limiting nuisances such as rooster noise, not safeguarding public health.
In a paper published this year in the Journal of Community Health, Brinkley said ordinances "inadequately address both human and animal health and welfare concerns. Provisions governing animal slaughter and routine veterinary care are rare, presenting a concern for monitoring and intervening in public health crises."
Brinkley suggested municipalities regulate vaccinations, manure management and general animal welfare for backyard chickens as they do for commercial chicken farms.
Nichols says backyard chicken owners can greatly reduce the chance of salmonella infection by taking just a few simple precautions.
In addition to keeping chickens out of the house and resisting the urge to snuggle them, they can wash their hands after contact and set aside a pair of shoes specifically for chicken care. Those shoes then should never be worn in the house.
Nichols says the agency sees cases in which "people wear their shoes or boots into the chicken coop to collect eggs and then wear them into the house across the carpet where the baby is crawling," transferring salmonella to the child.
Young children are the vulnerable link in salmonella among backyard chickens, Nichols says. Children under five account for "far and away" the largest percentage of all salmonella cases associated with backyard chickens, she says, which is why the CDC advises keeping that age group away from flocks.
"We know these kids might not have the best hand-washing (skills), might not have supervised hand-washing and also are more likely to put their hands in their mouths," Nichols says.
Newcomers to backyard chickens account for another significant portion of salmonella cases, Nichols says: "It may be they're unaware of the risks," and ways to mitigate them.
The good news, Nichols says, is that the CDC's outreach efforts over the past year, which include working with hatcheries and retail outlets that cater to backyard chicken owners, appear to be having an impact.
As of September, the agency had recorded 334 cases of salmonella attributable to backyard chickens for the year – a sharp drop from 2017 levels.
Nichols says the CDC doesn't want to discourage people from keeping chickens, which she calls "a really fun, rewarding experience."
"It's really a great opportunity for people to learn a little bit more about agriculture in their backyard and to learn about where their food comes from," she says. "We want people to be able to own backyard poultry and still be able to keep their family healthy."
The chance for her kids to learn about agriculture and where their food comes from was a big reason Raad decided to add chickens and other animals to her property two years ago. She was raised around animals.
"I wanted my kids to grow up with that sort of rural country living," says Raad, who lives with her husband and two daughters, ages 11 and 9.
The Raads named their coop "The Breakfast Club," after both the 1980s movie and the eggs the chickens supply. Small paintings of "The Breakfast Club" movie characters by Raad's older daughter, Giselle, line one wall.
But the two-room structure also offers an eclectic mix of unrelated decorative items: Russian nesting dolls, a Hawaiian hula doll, a vintage horseshoe and an antique bird cage. The nesting boxes for the chickens are made from reclaimed barn wood and attached to an antique ladder.
"It's just an expression of our style," Raad says. "And my mom says I own a lot of stuff, and I needed somewhere to put it."
Raad says she definitely thinks of her chickens as pets, not livestock. She says she would never think of killing one to eat.
"They are all individuals. They all have different personalities. They all have a name."
Raad also has added goats and rabbits to her property over the past two years. She's recently started keeping honey bees and hatching monarch butterflies. She already had several miniature horses.
It's a classic case of what industry watchers say is a slippery slope.
"We like to joke that chickens are the gateway drug," says Merkle, of Backyard Poultry.
She got her first chickens six years ago. Now, she says, "we're getting bees in the spring and goats probably in the spring as well."
"Chickens is where we started. So be warned."