Friday, October 24, 2014

Cocks on the Block

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So, which came first: the chicken or the neighborhood?

In a not-so-quiet neighborhood of Phoenix, near 32nd Street north of Thomas, you will find an age-old joke come alive: chickens crossing the road.
Aside from getting to the other side, they’re seeking shade beneath shrubbery, scurrying away from curious cats and inspecting gardens for insect treats, all the while creating a cacophony of crows and clucks so loud, I had vivid flashbacks of childhood days spent at my grandparents’ Minnesota farm.
“This is crazy,” I half-shouted to one of the residents of the chicken neighborhood, as roosters cock-a-doodle-dooed through our interview. But 61-year-old Andy Trombetta was unfazed. “They don’t bother me,” he says with a smile. Trombetta’s been in the neighborhood for 40 years. As far as he knows, the chickens have been residents for even longer.
Decades ago, the neighborhood was home to a few small, independent farms, one of which had chickens. As the farms were torn down to build homes, the chickens, apparently, decided to stay. “Every once in a while, after we moved in 1972, we’d see a few chickens run across the yard,” Trombetta says. The residents fed them – the Trombettas included. What started as a handful of chickens quickly turned into a population. “It got to where I couldn’t go out to the car because there were 75 chickens outside.”
This isn’t the only Phoenix neighborhood with a poultry problem. Last year, wire services reported “a flock of about five chickens” in a South Phoenix district – far fewer birds, but no less an animal-control conundrum.

The City of Phoenix held a meeting some 15 years ago to deal with the fowl superfluity after at least one neighbor complained. The City’s proposed solution: Deploy the Boy Scouts to create chicken traps. But the neighbors weren’t interested because the chickens had begun to earn their keep, feasting on scorpions, black widows and other crawlies. “Not one of us has ever had a bug problem, and we never have to get an exterminator,” Trombetta says. He and his neighbors stenciled signs that read, “Leave the chickens alone!” and hung them around the ’hood. The issue was dropped. The feral birds stayed.
Still, the chickens haven’t won everyone over. One such fowl-faultfinder, who requested anonymity, moved to the area just over a year ago and calls the chickens “a real nuisance.” He says he knew before moving in that chickens lived a few blocks over, but he thought he was far enough away from their territory. Not so.
“There’s chicken feces all over our driveway, they’re crowing right outside our window, we find feathers and eggs in the backyard.” He says the noise is the biggest annoyance, especially when the birds get frisky. “They mate in the trees in an alley near the house.” He says he’s complained to the City, but with no known owner of the chickens, it’s hard to hold someone responsible. “The City said they’d look into it,” the neighbor says.
Paul Crohurst, area supervisor for the City of Phoenix Neighborhood Services Department, says while there are rules about who can keep chickens in their backyard as pets, “As far as a law that they’re illegal to run around, we don’t have one.”

The rule-skirting chickens gave Mike Younger, 57, no pause when he moved to the neighborhood 13 years ago. “I think its sort of neat,” he says, pointing out fuzzy chicks following a hen across his lawn. “We’ve always got people stopping, taking pictures. I don’t feed them, but the mailman does. [The chickens] all run out when the mail truck comes.”
And how do the chickens fare vs. traffic? “Every once in a while, a car or a coyote will take out a few,” Trombetta says. Or a dog might not be able to resist the temptation of a free snack. Survival of the fittest, if you will. “If all survived, you’d just get overwhelmed,” Younger says.
And what about potential newcomers to the area? Contrary to popular belief, roosters don’t crow only at sunrise: It’s an all-day sound effect. Trombetta bottom-lines it: “They’ve got to be deaf, dumb and blind not to know the chickens are here.”
Flu the Coop?
Wild chickens running amuck naturally raises questions about disease transmission. Salmonella is a possibility, speculates Dr. Ted Noon, assistant state veterinarian with the State Agriculture Department. He says he can’t say for sure what the risk is in the case of these Phoenix feral chickens, as they’ve never been tested. In the case of avian influenza, Noon says, “There has never been a positive in the state.”
Sharman Hickman is a third generation egg farmer at Hickman Farms in Buckeye. Hearing about the chicken neighborhood in Phoenix, she said she wasn’t surprised they weren’t in a rush to go anywhere. “If there’s enough to eat, chickens will stay. If they’re acclimated to the heat extremes, as well as can fight off predators, there’s no reason for them to leave.”
Where contagious disease is concerned, she thinks the chickens pose a minimal threat. If they lay eggs and residents decide to eat them, the eggs should be OK as long as they’re thoroughly cooked. But Hickman herself isn’t a free-range egg advocate. “I like to know what [the chickens] have been eating. Sometimes they eat their own fecal matter.” And the, uh, matter is what can spread disease. Then again, she says, “Master gardeners do use it as fertilizer.” She just recommends washing your hands thoroughly if you come in contact with it.

 

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