Just because you live in a city, don’t assume you can’t keep chickens. Many large and small cities across North America and Western Europe allow one to keep a few laying hens.
I have 2 chickens in my Chicago backyard. Keeping them is a rewarding experience with many benefits and little effort. If you have hens (female chickens) you’ll get eggs, even without a rooster (male chicken). Eating your own chicken’s eggs is a great pleasure. They’re as fresh as possible, the texture is more firm, and you know the chickens were treated humanely. Watching chickens as they scratch, peck, and strut can be quite fun.
Meet the chickens
My original three chickens came to me as pullets (immature hens) in August 2007. They are a hybrid breed known as good layers and are called variously Red Star, Red Sex Link (because as chicks the males and females have different colored feathers), Golden Comet, and many other names. They all started laying in September 2007.
In July 2008, I added 4 more chickens to my household: 2 Delawares and 2 Ameraucanas or “Easter Eggers”. All came as day old chicks and were brooded seperately from the hens for several weeks, then introduced to them (slowly!) when they were 8 weeks old.
I expected these younger chickens to begin laying by January 2009. Unfortunately, not all 4 would turn out to be laying hens. Both of the Ameraucanas were actually cockerals (immature roosters) as evidenced by certain physical characteristics, including daily crowing.
I found a new home for Chicky Lou, and eventually had to get rid of Marshall since his crowing started to bother the neighbors. I lost Missy in December 2009 to an unknown condition, and then lost Speedy (the remaining Delaware) in May 2010.
City chicken keeping basics: two rules
First and foremost: check your city code to be sure that chickens are allowed. Many cities have their municipal codes available online; if your city does not, check with your local city clerk or library. You’ll likely find the details in the sections relating to animal care and control or zoning. If you call city hall and ask if chickens are allowed, do not assume that you will receive a valid answer. (Sad to say, but true.)
Second and nearly as important: be a good neighbor. This is a great rule to follow no matter what you’re doing. When you have companion animals living with you, it is a cardinal rule. No on likes living next to the house with the dog that barks all the time and the yard that reeks like a kennel long overdue for a cleaning. Likewise, no one wants to live next to a house with noisy, smelly birds.
Hens are usually quiet, although it is possible to have a noisy one in your flock. Like all living thing, there is variation in the population and some hens are noisier than others. Roosters are guaranteed to make noise. If your city allows chickens, it’s very likely that the code specifies hens only and bans roosters outright. Even if your city does not ban roosters, be sensitive to their impact on your neighbors.
Clean your coop and yard regularly and check for offensive odors. Good hygiene not only makes you a good neighbor, it is essential for the health of your chickens. Once you start collecting eggs, you’ll definitely want to keep the living area clean and tidy so you won’t have to scrape *stuff* off of the eggs.
It’s a good idea to check in with your neighbors occasionally about whether they have any valid complaints about your chickens. Do this while presenting them with some fresh eggs, and your chances of the conversation going well are increased!
These two rules pretty much cover everything that makes urban (city) chicken keeping different than keeping chickens in a rural area.
General chicken care
Just like you, chickens need food, water, and shelter. Feed your chickens a balanced ration that meets their nutritional needs. This could mean a commercially produced feedstock, or something you create at home.
Your chickens also provide a valuable service: they will eat your kitchen scraps, thus reducing the amount of waste you add to the local landfill. Chickens relish all sorts of scraps: vegetable and fruit peelings and seeds, leftover grains and grain products (like pasta, rice, and baked goods), and even offal and meat/fish waste (such as gristle, fish skin, and shrimp shells).
That’s right: chickens are omnivores, and much of their time free-ranging in your yard is devoted to hunting down and eating insects. You may feel squeemish about this, but it’s in their nature. They can get quite a bit of their daily protein requirement from seeds, but they also desire animal protein, even if it comes from bugs.
Many urban chicken keepers consider this a bonus: chickens eat all sorts of insects like spiders, earwigs, japanese beetles, ants, termites, and other creepy-crawleys that pester you and mess with your garden. They will attempt to catch winged insects, too, like moths and flys. If you want to *really* spoil your pet chickens, give them some meal worms or earthworms.
Chickens also enjoy many common weeds: dandelions, purslane, and crab grass, among others.
Be warned that chickens can be a garden pest as well as a garden asset. They find many plants that we deliberately put in our gardens quite tasty, too. Common ornamentals like hostas, and vegetable plants or fruits such as peppers, tomatos, and lettuce can be quickly mowed down if you give your chickens free access to the yard at all times.
Many chicken owners learn that while it’s a good idea to let their chickens roam their yard regularly, it’s best to limit the length of time. An hour or two just before dusk is usually plenty of time for them to stretch their wings and satisfy their curiosity. You may just want to keep your chickens in a dedicated section of your yard and just provide them with the garden thinnings and weedings, instead.
Do not let your chickens roam around if the yard is not fenced. Chickens don’t recognize property lines and will wander into neighboring yards, sidewalks, and streets unless contained. They can fly over short barriers, too, so fencing should be at least 5 feet high.
As for water, give your chickens fresh water every day and clean their water container frequently. For those of us in areas that freeze in the winter, there are special considerations.
When it comes to shelter, chickens are not picky. They would live inside a cardboard box if that was all that was available. However, they likely wouldn’t live very long or healthy lives in such a setting, so we need to make a bit more effort on their behalf.
Housing requirements for chickens are simple: dry, well-ventilated, draft-free, and secure. They don’t need artificially cooled or heated accomodations, but their house should be sound enough to keep out the wet (rain, snow, etc.) while allowing for good air circulation, and keep them safe from predators and pests.
Even in a city, predators are a problem. In any city, you can run into a stray or escaped dog. Such dogs can be big problems for chicken keepers, as they possess the size and strength to kill a chicken. Oppossums and raccoons are also present in many cities. Stray cats are mainly a problem for chicks or young chickens unprotected by a flock or mother hen; full-grown chickens can usually fend off a cat pretty well.
Chickens are not party animals. They go to sleep (roost) at dusk. This makes them very vulnerable at night, so be sure their coop is locked down tight against things that roam around after dark (oppossums, raccoons, rowdy teens, etc.)
When you clean your chicken coop and run, be sure to put the droppings in a compost bin or pile. Leave it for a few weeks or so and you can use it in your garden as terrific fertilizer. If you’re worried about odor, consult websites like your local university extension service for information on how to effectively compost. A properly balanced compost pile (correct mix of dry/brown and wet/green ingredients) will not smell.
Winter care of chickens
I live in a city that gets quite cold in the winter, so I get lots of questions about how to keep chickens in the winter months. This does require a bit more attention to detail than keeping chickens in the spring, summer, or fall, but not too much more. The main issue with winter care is making sure the chickens have an ample supply of unfrozen water to drink.
If you have a handy, grounded electrical outlet, you can buy or make a heating device that will keep drinking water warm enough to not freeze. Or, you can check your chicken’s water supply a few times a day and switch out drinking containers full of frozen water for those full of fresh, fluid (but not hot) water.
If your chicken coop is dry and draft-free, the chickens will do OK; if it is insulated, they will do even better. You can insulate your coop with standard materials (foam board, fiberglass, etc.) as you build it, purchase a coop that is already insulated, or add insulation as needed.
My chickens live in a purchased coop that is already insulated and I add a bit of seasonal insulation when it gets really cold. My seasonal insulation is dried leaves, collected from the trees in my and neighboring yards in the fall. All those bags of leaves are just sitting in the alley or at the curb waiting to be liberated and put to good use. Grab some and stuff them in a spot where they will remain dry until needed: in the garage, under the porch, or in the garden shed. Then when the weather has dipped down to the teens or lower (Fahrenheit), stuff the coop with leaves so your chickens can snuggle down into them at night.
There are many resources, online and offline, to help you get started raising chickens in your backyard. Listed below are some of my favorites.
- Backyard Poultry magazine is published bi-monthly. It’s a wonderful resource for learning about breeds, care, and history of poultry. They also have an online bookstore.
- Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts is a volunteer-run site for backyard chicken keepers in the Chicagoland area. Resources on the site include links to model policies and laws about keeping chickens in cities and resources helpful to city chicken keepers. There is also a very active Google Group for CCE.
- Eglu chicken coops by Omlet. You can construct your own chicken coop, or you can buy one. I don’t have good carpentry skills or much time, and I find the Eglu works well for my flock.
- Henderson’s Chicken Breed Chart notes the qualities and characteristics of various breeds.
- Keep Chickens! by Barbara Kilarski is written specifically for the urban or suburban chicken keeper.
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow is the chicken keeping “bible” with loads of information on raising chickens from chick through maturity.
- View more photos of my chickens and their home through Flickr.