Lots of Cluck
Yielding fresh eggs and pest control, chicken coops roost in backyards.
Throughout major cities across the US, it’s quite common to find dogs and cats. Increasingly, though, these metropolitan pets are getting unexpected neighbors down the street—chickens are roosting in more and more urban backyards.
“I like chickens because they are the easiest of pets next to a goldfish; there aren't many downsides to them,” says Katy Skinner, who started the online site www.TheCityChicken.com about 12 years ago and raised chickens in Portland, Oregon, before relocating to Yacolt, Washington. She keeps six hens, some of which have colorful breed names such as Blue Wyandotte and Rhode Island White.
Residing just outside Boston in Somerville, Massachusetts, Janet Montgomery keeps three hens in her backyard, all Red Stars, a hybrid breed known for excellent egg production and cold hardiness. She notes that the birds require only 10 to 15 minutes of daily care and another 10 minutes every few days for coop cleaning. “They have sweet, quirky personalities and are a riot to watch as they scratch around the yard,” Montgomery says.
Of course, people don’t seek out these feathered friends for cuddly companionship. The primary incentive for raising chickens is what they literally bring to the table—fresh eggs. As anyone who has bought eggs from a farm or farmer’s market knows, nothing compares to truly fresh eggs, which can be speckled, have a blue or green hue and be of different sizes. According to the USDA, eggs sold in grocery stores are still considered “fresh” up to an alarming 45 days after they were packed. And, as opposed to the pale-yellow yolks of store-bought eggs, fresh eggs often have a deep-yellow/
orange yolk and a much richer flavor. Studies have also shown that the eggs of chickens not kept on factory farms may be higher in vitamins and omega-3 fats and lower in cholesterol and saturated fat.
Owen Taylor is the training and urban livestock coordinator at Just Food (www.justfood.org) in New York City, which focuses on sustainable urban agriculture. Just Food runs the City Chicken Project, which teaches gardeners how to raise chickens.
“Backyard chickens live healthier lives—they can scratch in the soil for critters and greenery, and they can eat your food scraps,” Taylor says. “This gives them a more balanced diet and translates into a better-tasting, healthier egg. This also means that they get exercise and are kept entertained.
Chickens in cages are prone to disease and cannibalism, which is why factory-farmed chickens are given more antibiotics and have their beaks cut. Eggs from your backyard flock come from happy, healthy hens and are better for you.” There is no clear consensus about chicken lifespans, but hens that are given proper care can live more than 10 years, while the lives of factory-farmed chickens are often measured in weeks, not years.
Raising chickens is part of the local food movement. “I like the satisfaction of food coming from our backyard instead of the grocery store,” says Montgomery.
Feathered Pest Control
Hens eat insects that harm plants, and their droppings are highly beneficial. “Chicken poop enriches our compost, so our garden is super-productive,” Montgomery says. “If you keep chickens, you use a lot fewer fossil fuels to make your omelet,” Taylor adds. And those scraps that chickens consume represent waste that never makes it to the landfill.
Like all pets and livestock, chickens need shelter. Coops can vary widely in size and design, but always feature an enclosed or semi-enclosed area for nesting and a larger run fittingly covered by chicken wire. Montgomery says her coop is fairly small, at about 4’ x 3’ x 5’. She also lets the hens run loose in her fenced-in yard at times.
A popular variation on the coop is a “chicken tractor,” which leaves the ground open for grazing and scratching. The structure is commonly mounted on wheels or light enough to move. Its mobility benefits the birds and the grass underneath them.
Cities all have their own regulations regarding chickens, but the seemingly universal noise-abatement edict is “no roosters!” (Without roosters, hens lay unfertilized eggs.) However, hens can sometimes be noisy, too, particularly when they're alarmed or finished laying eggs. In many urban areas, chickens are considered pets and allowed in numbers of three or less. In New York City, “it is illegal for your chickens to make too much noise, to smell too much or to attract flies and vermin,” Taylor says. “So hens are not illegal, irresponsible chicken keepers are.”
The same general rules apply in Somerville, but Montgomery emphasizes that anyone considering getting hens should check with the city first to see if it's legal to keep them as pets. One effective way to preempt possible conflicts: “Sharing eggs with the neighbors can help prevent complaints,” says Montgomery.
“Keeping chickens brings your food source closer to home, and, in places where it is difficult to find fresh food, this becomes very important,” says Taylor. To which Skinner adds, “I promise keeping a few hens will be easier than keeping a dog, especially after the initial learning curve and setup.” By raising your own chickens, you are not only providing better lives for your hens compared with their
factory-farmed sisters but you are also improving your own life.