One evening in mid-February, Justin Van Kleeck found himself plodding through the forest alongside a rural road in Chatham County, net in hand, on the hunt.
His goal: to capture half a dozen roosters on the loose.
“Chickens are prey animals and they don’t like strangers very much, so if you walk up to them, they will run very fast away from you,” Van Kleeck said.
“I’ve spent five hours before, camping out trying to catch roosters,” he said. “In this case, it got to be dark and they roosted up in a tree. I caught them one by one, in the dark, with a net and my hands.”
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This was not an uncommon occurrence. Van Kleeck said he’s called upon to rescue abandoned roosters three or four times a month.
Van Kleeck and his wife run Triangle Chance For All, a farm animal rescue and sanctuary in Chatham County dedicated to removing livestock from the food chain and finding permanent homes where the animals can live as companions.
Van Kleeck has an affinity for chickens, but he worries the current popularity of backyard flocks comes with an unintended consequence, namely, a glut of unwanted roosters.
Orange County Animal Services Director Bob Marotto says it’s hard to pin down the number of chicken owners in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough. All allow small chicken flocks within town limits, but only Carrboro requires a permit. There are 29 active fowl permits in the town, with four more pending, Marotto said.
As the movement toward creating local, sustainable food systems has gained ground in recent years, many towns including Chapel Hill and Carrboro have changed their ordinances to make it easier to own fowl in city limits. These days, urban hens are welcome, but for the most part, their male counterparts are not.
Roosters are illegal to keep in Hillsborough, and while Chapel Hill and Carrboro are slightly more lenient, any noisy rooster in town is subject to Orange County’s public nuisance laws. Harboring a nuisance animal can trigger an escalating series of fines until the animal is removed.
Animal control officers haven’t responded to many complaints about backyard chickens since the towns eased their regulations, Marotto said, but they do pick up more abandoned birds in the unincorporated parts of Orange County.
“We do see more fowl, in particular roosters,” said Marotto. “It’s not unusual for them to come to us at-large, where they’re running about.”
Van Kleeck argues this is a direct result of what he sees as short-sighted municipal laws that permit backyard hens but don’t make allowances for roosters.
“People who get chicks in town, once they hear that crow, it’s no problem for them to hop in the car and just go find a patch of woods somewhere and dump them out,” he said.
“We work with a number of rescues around the state that work with chickens, and we are all just overwhelmed,” he said. “These are all roosters coming out of backyard-type situations, DIY homesteader folks. It’s not birds falling out of trucks or escaping from industrial sheds. These are all breeds being raised by people in their backyards.”
Many times, chicken owners bring home baby roosters by accident.
Once they crow, they’re screwed.
Justin Van Kleeck
Hatcheries that sell chicks through mail order or to feed stores may try to pull the male birds before shipping, but sexing chicks is not foolproof, and often roosters end up among the hens. It can be months before flock owners realize which is which.
“When they get older, instead of laying an egg, they crow,” said Van Kleeck. “Once they crow, they’re screwed.”
This time of year is of particular concern for animal advocates, as young fluffy chicks go on sale in local feed stores. Some will inevitably turn out to be roosters, and weeks from now, may end up at the animal shelter, or discarded on the roadside.
Van Kleeck works with Orange County Animal Services to find homes for abandoned roosters, but he says his network of livestock rescue groups is saturated with cast-off chickens. He and his wife care for 30 roosters at their farm, but there’s not much room for more.
Marotto acknowledges that the boom in backyard chickens has caused a rooster overpopulation problem. “That can and does happen when different kinds of animals become fashionable,” he said.
One sure way to avoid bringing home an unwanted rooster is to buy pullets, or immature hens, from a breeder, though they tend to cost more than newly hatched chicks.
Marotto urges local residents who are tempted to raise baby chicks this spring to plan ahead for the full life span of both hens and roosters. That could include finding a good home for a young rooster, or providing years of care for a hen who has aged out of egg production.
“We need to be responsible pet owners,” he said. “First and foremost, people need to consider if having fowl is something they want to do, and are able to do for a period of time. Impulsivity is not to be encouraged in the acquisition of any animal.”