City dwellers often have all sorts of interesting neighbors. But one that goes cluck-cluck and scratches around in the dirt probably isn’t the norm.
While urban chicken farming has had its highs and lows, lots of people are still interested in raising fowl that are big on personality.
The most common reason for raising city chickens is access to fresher eggs. But some are surprised that they also make great pets.
It’s typically easy to care for chickens, but before you start your flock, learn more about what’s involved.
Is Your City Chicken-Friendly?
First things first: Make sure keeping chickens in your urban backyard is legal in your city. Local laws and ordinances regarding chickens vary from city to city and are often complex. You may need a permit, which may require a fee.
Most cities limit the number of chickens you can keep, and roosters are typically a big no-no due to noise ordinances.
There may be requirements on the types of enclosures and housing used, amount of space provided per chicken and distance between coops and neighboring property lines. Check with your local code enforcement, zoning and/or animal control departments before buying a flock you might not be allowed to keep.
“You need to know the restrictions,” says Leslie Citroen, proprietor of Mill Valley Chickens, a small urban farm located in Marin County, California, that sells a large assortment of backyard chicken breeds and small-scale chicken farming supplies.
“One of the first things I tell anyone considering raising chickens in an urban backyard is to find out about their local zoning ordinances, including the number of chickens allowed and the zoning requirements for a coop. Some municipalities have harsh setbacks from property lines or buildings.”
It’s also important to talk to your neighbors. Even if backyard chickens are legal in your city, if you live next to anti-chicken neighbors, you could still run into problems. If a neighbor complains about the noise, smell or other issue they’re having with your feathered friends, you could face a fine or be forced to re-home your flock.
Let your neighbors know in advance about your plan to raise chickens and address any concerns they might have. Offering to share extra eggs with them might not hurt either.
There are numerous chicken breeds with a wide variety of traits. You may be tempted to simply choose a cute breed with colorful plumage that produces colorful eggs and has a winning personality.
However, it’s also important to choose breeds that can withstand the weather in your region, especially if harsh winters or blistering summers are typical.
“Always choose hardy breeds that are disease resistant,” advises Maurice Pitesky, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and UC Davis Cooperative Extension. The expert in flock management (and Chickens Poultry Science columnist) is a big fan of a hybrid Rhode Island Red, because it’s a very hardy breed.
“Polish hens are another option,” he says. “Bantams are also good choices in urban areas.”
Citroen adds that she always asks people what their goals are in keeping chickens. She suggests different breeds based on those goals. These may include having chickens that are beautiful and/or have beautiful eggs. It could also mean keeping chickens as pets or for pure egg production, or a mixture of all these traits.
However, she says there are also other things to consider.
“If the chickens are going to be confined in a run, you need to stay away from Mediterranean chickens and chickens that like to free-range, such as Fayoumi, etc.,” Citroen says. “They will be unhappy and stressed out being confined in a run.
“For families, you can’t go wrong having an Orpington or a Barred Rock. I find people are really attracted to the Barred Rock or Silver Laced Wyandotte pattern. [They’re] very handsome. I’ve also found that young boys are always attracted to the Polish chickens. It’s that crazy wacky look the boys like. Young girls are attracted to the mini chickens, the Bantams.”
Buying Your Flock
Once you’ve decided on a breed or breeds, ask yourself which should come first, the chick or the egg? If you’ve never raised chickens before, incubating and hatching is a somewhat advanced aspect that’s better tackled after you have more experience.
Chicks are more commonly recommended for new urban chicken farmers. And it’s vital to only purchase chicks from reputable sources.
Pitesky urges beginners to “start with chicks. Eggs aren’t a good choice for a newbie, and chicks are cute. Purchasing older birds also isn’t a good choice, because you don’t know how they were raised or what diseases they may have been exposed to.
“Buy your chicks from feed stores and hatcheries. Chicks from these places are going to have all the things you want, including all the necessary vaccines. Poultry breeders can be another good source, especially if they participate in the National Poultry Improvement Plan.”
The NPIP is a voluntary certification system for hatcheries and poultry breeders. Participants in the program submit their birds for regularly scheduled testing to ensure their flocks are free of pullorum disease and fowl typhoid. Both are extremely contagious, severe salmonella infections that cause high mortality in chickens and turkeys.
Citroen discourages people from buying adult chickens from individuals posting on classified advertisement websites. She warns that you risk buying spent hens or, worse, diseased hens that bring infection or parasites into your backyard.
She agrees that chicks are the ideal choice, especially for families with kids.
“It’s a wonderful bonding experience for a family and teaches kids responsibility,” Citroen says. “Kids can see how quickly the chickens grow. And the more the chicks are handled, the friendlier they’ll be as adults. Older adults, however, usually aren’t interested in raising chicks, dealing with heat lamps, etc.. So young pullets are the way to go for this age group.”
“If purchasing ready-to-lay pullets, ensure they have received appropriate vaccinations for Marek’s disease, Newcastle disease and infectious bronchitis,” says poultry veterinarian Eric Gingerich. “The American Association of Avian Pathologists small flock committee is a good website to find help with backyard chicken health and management.”
Flock of How Many?
When starting your urban flock, remember that chickens are very social animals. Citroen stresses that it would be inhumane to have a single chicken.
“I push everyone to start off with a minimum of four chickens,” she says. “If buying baby chicks, there’s always a chance you’ll get a rooster. Even when they’re sexed, it’s possible for a rooster to slip through [which you can’t keep in most cities].”
Pitesky agrees that due to their social nature, you never want to start with less than two birds. His magic number is a minimum of three to start.
“If you only buy two, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket,” he says. “You’re assuming both birds will survive. But if one dies, you’re left with only one. Now you have to try to get a replacement bird.
“It can be challenging to introduce a new bird, especially if you now need an older bird close in age to the surviving bird. Purchasing an older bird could put your other bird at risk, because there’s always the possibility that an older bird has been exposed to something you don’t want to bring home.”
Space & Housing
When raising chickens in an urban environment, size constraints can be a major issue. If your chickens are living in too close quarters, they become stressed. And this can increase the likelihood of illnesses and disease.
While you must comply with your city’s flock size limits, the amount of space you have available and housing requirements may mean require you to keep fewer birds than the allowed amount.
“Provide your chickens with clean air, clean water and clean food, and you’re 90 percent done,” Pitesky says. “You should also provide a minimum of 2 to 3 square feet of space per bird. However, space requirements can be different with different breeds. You must provide enough space for the birds to have fun and meet the needs of their natural behaviors, such as dust baths.”
“You want to give your chickens as much space as possible, especially well-ventilated, sunny spaces,” Citroen says. “The coop size can be small, because they only come into the coop to sleep and lay eggs. But it’s important they have a lot of space in the daytime.
“Ideally, chickens should free-range. If this isn’t possible, then you have to be realistic and cut back on the number of chickens you have to provide a humane environment.”
When building your coop and run, don’t build in a shady area or an area that floods, because your chickens will be miserable. They also want to scratch, so they need to be on soil, never on a concrete pad.
One of the biggest challenges of raising urban chickens is the potential for a stinky, fly-infested environment, especially in smaller spaces. Ensuring you have enough space for your chickens is a vital part of keeping the smell at bay.
“The most important part is paying attention to square footage, always keeping 2 to 3 feet between the birds,” Pitesky says. “You must also ensure you have good ventilation in your coop and protect the interior from rain. The ammonia and poop smells get worse if rain gets in. Excessive moisture is the enemy.”
Pitesky suggests putting a substrate on the ground, such as rice hulls, chopped up peanut hulls or straw. Due to your chickens’ natural behavior, they’ll “rototill” the poop into this substrate, which helps with the smell.
The more birds you have, the more necessary a substrate may become, and it also provides enrichment for the birds.
Citroen warns that if you’re having smells, then you have too many chickens in too small of an area. “There’s never an excuse to have smells or flies.”
Despite being in an urban area, predators are one of the biggest hazards for your chickens and probably much more prevalent than you realize.
From your neighbor’s dog or cat to wildlife you might not be aware of, your chickens face numerous dangers. It’s critical to provide an extremely safe enclosure, especially at night.
“In a weird way, urban chicken farmers deal with way more predators than farmers out in rural areas,” Citroen says. “In farming communities, people will shoot raccoons, bobcats, etc., but if someone was to shoot [a gun in an urban area], you would be facing jail time!
“So, even though I live only 8 miles from the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge, I deal with bobcat attacks, hawks, skunks, foxes and raccoons.”
The best part of raising urban chickens for most people is the bountiful supply of fresh eggs. And, your supply will be bountiful, maybe more than you can handle. On the upside, they make great gifts.
“In theory, a chicken lays an egg every 25 hours,” Pitesky says. “While it’s not hard to take care of five or six chickens, it could be difficult to figure out what to do with all those eggs.”
“People’s egg consumption goes way up!” Citroen says. “But, it’s always easy to gift people eggs. Here in the greater San Francisco area, it’s a status symbol to bring eggs instead of wine to a party.”
A final word of advice for aspiring urban chicken farmers: Make sure you’re prepared. Chickens are fairly easy to raise, but there are numerous issues you may run into.
If you know any local chicken experts, get to know them. Browsing online fowl boards often provides lots of helpful information, but having a poultry specialist to turn to with questions is invaluable.