Cheep thrills

25 Jul 2021

Straits Times, 25 Jul 2021, Cheep thrills
On weekday afternoons, when her husband and children are at work, housewife Anne Ang sits by her balcony with her poodle, Mallow, by her side.

Before them, a brood of six silkie chickens bob about in cages, like an adorable screensaver in real time.

With their heads a ball of plumage and eyes obscured by fluffy feathers, these are no broilers - a term for chickens raised for meat production.

Silkies, along with other breeds such as gentle cochin bantams and tiny seramas, are among a host of ornamental chickens that have become popular pets over the past year or so.

Owners such as Madam Ang, 50, are attracted to their docile nature, which she likens to that of rabbits. She lives in a condominium near Yishun and has been keeping silkie chickens since 2018, when such pets were less common.

Facebook group Backyard Chickens Singapore, which caters to fowl owners, for instance, grew from about 500 members in 2017 to 3,400 now. They post about their pets and seek advice on everything from buying coops to chicken care.

Although the adorable, oddball appearance of these chickens has won many fans over the years, enthusiasts say the pandemic boosted their recent popularity.

Work-from-home arrangements freed up time and energy to care for a pet and, for many, created the desire for a new feathered friend.

Veterinarian Nicholas Woo, founder of Advanced VetCare Veterinary Centre, says his clinic used to see about a chicken a year since it was founded in 2017.

After last year's circuit breaker, it now sees about five to 10 chicken patients each month, a "significant increase".

"Silkies are cute creatures and very gentle, which makes them good for children," says the father of three.

Those living in Housing Board flats are not allowed to keep chickens at home.

One man was charged last year for keeping 25 chickens in his Pasir Ris flat, maintaining an unlicensed farm and distributing the fowl from his home.

But owners of private residences, including condominiums and landed properties, can keep a maximum of 10 chickens at home within bird-proof cages or enclosures. This is to prevent the chickens from coming into contact with other birds and animals.

Wild birds such as pigeons and mynahs, for instance, can transmit diseases such as bird flu, fungal infections or parasites, says Dr Woo.

Mr Noel Tan, 23, who has been keeping silkies since 2017, says an enclosed aviary also provides a secure environment for the "prey animals".

Even in urban Singapore, snakes, cats, monkeys and rats pose a threat.

"Being on the bottom of the food chain means you have to provide a safe environment for the birds," says Mr Tan, who studies engineering systems and design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

He lives in a landed property in Simei with his parents and two siblings, and has 10 silkie chickens at home, along with a dog, two rabbits and a tank of fish.

Caring for his flock has led Mr Tan to start online business Clucking Good in 2018, which supplies products such as feed, vitamins and supplements meant for ornamental chickens.

Despite their affectionate nature, these birds can be a handful.

Some roosters crow day and night, antagonising family members and neighbours. Chickens are also not toilet-trained.

"They are poop machines and need to be kept clean," says Dr Woo.

To do so, Madam Ang washes her balcony every day, which she admits is "hard work".

The birds must be fed and given fresh water daily, and showered once a month to prevent them from becoming smelly, she says. She spends between $100 and $150 a month on their upkeep, including food and bedding.

One owner, however, believes he has found a low-cost, less laborious solution to keeping chickens at home.

Microbiologist Jeremy Beckman, 35, keeps three cochin bantams in his River Valley condominium, after adopting them from an urban farm in March this year.

He feeds them food scraps and treats the deep bedding system with microbes from his household's compost that helps to rapidly break down chicken waste.

This eliminates the smell as well as enriches the soil in his balcony planter with nutrients. In turn, the soil allows healthy growth of his plants, including kaffir lime.

It is his attempt to combine modern science with traditional farming methods, where human food scraps are used as animal feed, instead of being turned into compost immediately, as is usually done in urban farming.

"This fully utilises food resources and is more efficient. Chickens, pigs and dogs have always played an integral part in managing household food waste. The key is to do it safely and responsibly," says Mr Beckman, who has a master's degree in organic farming and food production systems from Newcastle University in Britain.

The father of two sons aged six and three, who also lives with his parents, adds: "Nobody believes you can keep chickens on a balcony and not have them smell bad. I wanted to show that it could be done."

On a rainy morning when The Sunday Times visited his apartment, the hens looked healthy and the area was almost odour-free.

Beyond keeping poultry at home, Mr Beckman also houses two ducks and a chicken, which he also adopted from the urban farm, in an unused section of his condominium grounds that he converted into a community garden.

It has indeed brought residents together. Children love the birds, he says, and families take along food scraps to feed them.

His sons, too, have formed a "real emotional attachment" with the chickens.

"It is good for them to understand how to take care of animals, and to treat them with respect," says Mr Beckman, who is a Singaporean.

Many others, however, put off by the noise and labour, opt to let their chickens go when they prove too difficult to handle.

Some pass them on to farms or look for suitable adopters within the chicken community.

Others abandon them in the wild, where domesticated birds lack the instincts to survive.

To counter this, Mr Tan and fellow chicken owner Simon Ong, 55, co-founded Chicken Adoption Rescue SG last June, a shelter-cum-rehoming platform for birds.

They did this after noticing more social media posts about chickens being abandoned, or owners giving up their birds for adoption. These include expatriates forced to leave Singapore due to the pandemic.

On the weekday afternoon when The Sunday Times visited the shelter, five roosters had been abandoned there without warning.

As volunteers do not go there every day, Mr Tan says the birds could have starved to death or been dehydrated.

The shelter, located within a fish farm in Pasir Ris, can house up to 20 birds and has provided a temporary home for all sorts of fowl, including turkeys, geese, ducks and pigeons.

It does not charge an adoption fee, but asks that adopters donate the equivalent of $30 in supplies such as food and medication.

Mr Ong, who runs a metal fabrication company, says this is to deter people from adopting the birds to cull for meat, and to convey the financial responsibility of keeping a pet.

The shelter has found new homes for about 250 birds in the past year, with most being adopted in less than a week.

Hens, which crow less and can lay eggs, are more sought after than roosters.

Still, enthusiasts caution against taking up this new hobby lightly. With a lifespan of up to 10 years, chickens can be a long commitment.

Ensuring family members are on board, and having a plan to deal with inconveniences - such as sound insulation to reduce the noise of crowing - can go a long way in keeping the peace, says Mr Tan.

He adds: "Go in with your eyes open, understand the various breeds and do not overcommit just because the chickens are cute."