No one bats an eyelash seeing Diana rolling around in a pile of dirt — it’s kind of her thing.
It seems unsanitary, but she’s got a good reason to do it and so do her sisters. A shower’s no good for them and getting chickens to sit still in a bathtub is harder than getting roosters to stop crowing. Instead, they rub dirt on themselves to get rid of germs and unintentionally make their owners smile.
Stepping back with a laugh to give Diana some space, her owner, Zoe Salter, 9, warns it’s best to let her do her thing. Diana’s a little older than her three sisters and needs some privacy.
“My favorite part of having chickens is getting the eggs and watching them grow up,” she said.
Two-dozen eggs a week and plenty of chasing to herd them into their coop fills the Salter family’s time, and they couldn’t be happier.
The Salters are among 26 families in State College who’ve taken advantage of a decade-old ordinance allowing residents to raise chickens in their backyards, according to State College zoning officer John Wilson. They’re part of a trend across the country that’s hit small towns as well as big cities. In Centre County, backyard chickens are allowed in townships and boroughs, such as Benner, Boggs, Gregg, Howard, Patton, Snow Shoe, Spring, Millheim and Centre Hall.
Terrill Salter, Zoe’s mom, said they’ve kept chickens in State College for years, and she and her husband, Ben, were happy the borough had an ordinance allowing backyard chickens when they bought their house on Hamilton Avenue.
Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe said while he’s no expert on chickens, there has to be a balancing act to make sure chicken owners and people who just eat chicken are happy. That’s why there are local ordinances, which regulate everything from the numbers of chickens permitted to cleanup.
In State College, for example, only four hens are allowed on a single property, and, in order to reduce potential noise, roosters aren’t allowed on properties smaller than 10 acres. In Spring Township, only properties with more than 10 acres are allowed to have chickens.
Wilson said State College doesn’t conduct regular inspections once a resident registers a coop, but it instead acts if complaints are filed by neighbors. One issue he’s seen a few times is runaway chickens. But besides that, he said, the birds have been hassle-free.
State College senior planner Anne Messner said borough officials took advantage of the resources of Penn State’s Poultry Science Department when they put together the chicken ordinance in 2008.
She said experts concluded that regulating the number of chickens permitted in backyard coops would control potential problems, such as avian flu.
Emily Lhamon, a Penn State’s poultry extension educator, said that while many people want chickens purely for their eggs, others keep chickens for other reasons.
“There are some people who go overboard and knit sweaters for their chickens,” she said.
Keeping chickens as pets, she said, is a growing trend, similar to people who keep rabbits as pets. Some people even put leashes on their chickens and walk them like dogs, she said.
Salter said she and her family members don’t dress them up or put them on leashes, but they do play with them.
“It’s fun to look out and see the kids running around with them … and it’s good for them to learn how to handle animals,” she said.
In addition to having fun, the family gets about two-dozen eggs a week from their four hens.
“I think four is a good number, and I can tell my kids we can’t get anymore,” Salter joked.
Michele Gray also own chickens in the borough and disagrees with Salter on that point.
“I think there are too few chickens,” Gray said, adding the only thing she’d change about the ordinance is allowing more.
Her mother, who lives in Ferguson Township, has six chickens and Gray said that number is manageable. For Gray and her family, though, the chickens are really more like pets, she said. They hang out in the house, sit with the family and even beg for food like their canine counterparts.
For people who may have a hard time believing some owners dress up their chickens, they should check out the $100,000 chicken coop in the Christmas catalog of Neiman Marcus. The coop comes equipped with all the essentials — a library for human visitors, a living room for “nighttime roosting” and, of course, a chandelier in the main area for the chickens to admire.
The Salters’ 9-foot-by-6-foot coop is a little less flashy, but it gets the job done, they said. Built by the family a few years ago, it has branches for the hens to perch on, a separate sleeping area and a section for the hens to lay their eggs.
Having a secure coop is also essential. Salter said a few of their first chickens met an untimely end at the paws of some hungry predators.
Salter said no one in her family has gotten sick from having chickens and she doesn’t know anyone in State College who has.
“We make sure they wash their hands and we clean the cage once a week,” she said.
Wilson and Lhamon agreed that there can be risks, but regular cleanup and personal hygiene can prevent anyone from getting salmonella from backyard hens.
“Since we’ve had chickens we’ve seen a lot less ticks,” she said, noting the family used to pull ticks off themselves and their pets constantly. She also said her family sees fewer mosquitoes and other bugs.
Besides messing up their garden, Gray said the chickens have been nothing but a benefit.
She joked that perhaps chickens could play a bigger role in the community.
“Putting them in parks to take care of ticks in public places could be a good idea,” Gray said, adding, “they don’t have to shelter them or feed them.”
James Turchick is a Penn State journalism student.