In cities and towns across America, there is one common topic being debated.

That subject is backyard chickens.

Oklahoma City is considering allowing people to raise chickens in residential areas, but it first wanted to know how its action might line up with its “peer cities.”  After all, Oklahoma City doesn’t want to be out there alone looking like a bunch of rednecks.

backyard-chickens.jpgWhen city staff came back with their report on Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and Tulsa, Oklahoma City elected officials learned that only Kansas City bans backyard chickens.

Just this month, cities from Holyoke, MA to Truckee, NV and many in between have been considering zoning code amendments to allow residences on lots as small as 5,000 square feet to raise a few chickens in their backyards.

The driving force behind the change takes many names.  Call it the self-sufficiency or sustainability movement.  Advocates show up at zoning hearings talking about their concern for healthy eggs.  They want to be sure they are eating “free range” and “organic”.

It is not at all unusual to have one city give backyard chickens the green light only to have another not far away continue to ban them.   Two Tennessee cities, Knoxville and Oak Ridge, are only the most recent examples.

And while most cities allow only a handful of backyard chickens, usually only hens, some are getting pretty liberal with their birds.  Ashville, MO for example allows up to 20 hens and rooster.

Opponents of backyard chickens tend to bring up concerns about odor, noise from the roosters, and the likelihood that poultry will attract coyotes and foxes to urban neighborhoods.

Some things are going largely unsaid in all these town hall debates over backyard birds.

Not since Hubert Hoover was president has the nation even thought about an era of prolonged high unemployment like this one.  Might backyard chickens be a coping mechanism?

Nor does food safety get brought up very often.  Small poultry farms know their chickens might have Salmonella or Campylobacter, and they know what to do about it.  Will uninformed city folk mean backyard chickens will spread disease?

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Altanta has also been tracking all these zoning changes to allow backyard chickens and CDC has some advice for all the newly liberated city folk.

“It’s common for chickens, ducks, and other poultry to carry Salmonella, which is a type of germ that naturally lives in the intestines of poultry and many other animals and is shed in their droppings or feces, ” CDC says.  “Even organically fed poultry can have Salmonella. While it usually doesn’t make the birds sick, Salmonella can cause serious illness when it is passed to people.”

Here’s what urban people can do to reduce their risks while raising backyard chickens, according to CDC:

-Do not let children younger than 5 years of age handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry without supervision.

-Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after touching live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam.

-Avoid touching your mouth before washing your hands. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available.

-Adults should supervise hand washing for young children.

-Wash hands after removing soiled clothes and shoes.

-Do not eat or drink in the area where the birds live or roam.

-Do not let live poultry inside the house or in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored, such as kitchens, pantries, or outdoor patios.

-If you have free-roaming live poultry, assume where they live and roam is contaminated.

-Clean equipment and materials associated with raising or caring for live poultry, such as cages or feed or water containers, outside the house, not inside.

Salmonella can make people sick with diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and/or abdominal cramps. Sometimes, people can become so sick from a Salmonella infection that they have to go to the hospital.

Infants, elderly persons, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely than others to develop severe illness.

When severe infection occurs, Salmonella may spread from the intestines to the bloodstream, and then to other body sites and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics.