Bogus trend of the week: raising backyard chickens.

Media criticism.
May 14 2009 6:24 PM

Bogus Trend of the Week: Raising Backyard Chickens

The press lays dozens and dozens of eggs.

A chicken. Click image to expand.
A chicken

In all of God's sweet aviary there exists no bird more diabolical and ruthless than the egg-laying chicken. Despite the darkness of this clucking beast's heart, our nation's press has gone on a rampage insisting that more and more citizens everywhere in the United States are choosing to board and feed these creatures in their urban and suburban backyards so they can harvest the eggs.

It's a trend, the press claims. But we know better, don't we? To begin with, keeping chickens is a filthy, time-consuming, and expensive way to keep the pantry filled with eggs. And as this continuing feature has taught its loyal readership, too many of the "trends" reported by the press are actually bogus trends, hyped up by a reporter or her editors to get a lame story into print.

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Flaunty bogusity in this morning's(May 14) Washington Post Home section feature, "Hot Chicks: Legal or Not, Chickens Are the Chic New Backyard Addition," which claims to have discovered the "vanguard of a resurgent interest in backyard chicken keeping, especially in distinctly nonrural settings." But the closest the Post comes to actually counting chickens is reporting the press run of Backyard Poultry magazine, a bimonthly: It is 100,000. The Jan. 2 USA Today, whichreports a "growing number of city dwellers across the country choosing chickens as pets," measures the hen-keeping renaissance by enumerating the size of the BackYardChickens.com community: It is 19,000 worldwide.

For more all-feather, no-bone journalism, see the May 10 Chicago Tribune Magazine, where "Chicken Chic: The Backyard Bird Is Back in Style" claims that chicken keeping is a "craze," is "[w]ay in," and is "a fresh fad." The piece insists that "[m]any an ordinary citizen of many an ordinary neighborhood owns an actual chicken," but never assigns a number to the "many." This is thepaper's second example of crying chicken in recent months. The Dec. 15, 2008, Trib discovers "[s]igns of the burgeoning urban chick movement" in the mere publication of Backyard Poultry magazine, the existence of the urbanchickens.net blog, and the fact that a local workshop on raising your own birds sold out in 48 hours.

A bogus trend isn't a bogus trend unless the New York Times has signed on. The Dec. 7, 2008, Westchester Weekly section of the paper contributes "Chicken-Raising Trend Takes Hold in County." The well-to-do folks of that region have been sharing chicken-raising stories, the newspaper reports. It also publicizes the claim that a "growing number of people" are cultivating the birds as an easy way to connect with nature. Then, the story soberly acknowledges that "it is difficult to know just how many households are tapping into the chicken-raising trend." In other words, it's a trend for which there are no numbers. The May 9 Arizona Republic makes similar pumped-up claims about chicken mania in "Urban Chickens the Latest Healthful-Living Trend" before deflating the premise with the admission that it "is hard to know exactly how many people are raising urban chickens."

And so it continues throughout the land. "Urban Chicken Movement Taking Roost in KC Area" (May 11, Kansas City Star) compiles chicken-raising anecdotes and regulatory issues but never puts a number to the alleged trend. "Hot Chicks: More Raising Own Fowl" from the May 10 Providence Journal-Bulletin cites a growing demand for spring chicks but supplies no numbers. The Oregonian (May 14) backs the trend with a story that marvels at how quickly baby chicks are selling out all over town. But don't chick sellers manage their inventory to sell out quickly? If you're in the business of selling chicks, you don't want to over-order and end up with a bunch of unsold adolescent birds playing video games and smoking cigarettes in the store, right? An April 17 Associated Press story datelined Union, Mo., opens with an exciting scene-setter of 1,200 baby chicks peeping and cheeping at the Clearview Feed and Seed store. But the actual story—titled "More Suburbanites, Hobbyists Raise Chickens" on Nexis—undercuts the headline. "Mostly farm families wait to pick up the chicks," the story reports.

If backyard hen keeping is indeed a trend, it constitutes such a long-standing trend that it has ceased to be one. On March 29, 2002, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the "McMansion" coops some chicken owners were building for their birds. The April 5, 2004, Arizona Daily Star noted  the high attendance drawn by Kim Fox at her chicken-raising speeches in Tucson: "About 50 people attended her last discussion," the Daily Star reported. The Sept. 14, 2003, Seattle Times explored the world of the city's backyard chicken farmers. In the summer of 2003, both USA Today and Newsday profiled the author of Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces. "We sold 2,000 laying hens last year," the owner of a downtown Houston feed store told the Houston Chronicle for its March 30, 1993, edition. Dialing the Nexis machine back even earlier, we find a syndicated Martha Stewart piece in the April 23, 1986, San Diego Union-Tribune oddly titled "Home-Grown Eggs—Can't Beat 'Em."

Before you place your Web order for chicks, consider the wisdom shared by experienced chicken-owner Jean Moore with the Albuquerque Journal for its July 26, 2003, article about the art of raising egg-layers in the city.

"On the warmth and entertainment scale," Moore said, "they're better than a snake, but not as good as a cat."

******

Don't raise chickens to save money, advises theDec. 15, 2008, Chicago Tribune story "Chickens Earn Keep in Chicago Backyards: More Urbanites Have the Critters for Eggs—and Companionship." One chicken-lover says the coop, chicken wire, and feeders set him back $500. A 50-pound bag of organic feed costs $22. You have to secure the coop to keep out raccoons, dogs, and cats. A hawk or a teenager with a Wrist Rocket can waste a free-ranging chicken in a flash. Generally speaking, urban veterinarians don't know how to treat sick chickens. Hens don't start dropping eggs until about 20 weeks, the Denver Post reports, on average three hens will produce two eggs a day, and the birds reach their peak production at two years. There's no way around shoveling the chicken shit, and who the hell likes eggs, anyway? Twitter sounds like something a mutant chicken would say, right? Send poultry recipes via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word cluck in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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