Chickens: Like Tiny Dinosaurs in Your Yard

Posted on January 31, 2011 by Jacob

Ask many people about the idea of raising chickens in an urban or suburban setting and you’re likely to get the following responses. “Isn’t that illegal?” “They’re too noisy!” “They’re too stinky!” “That’s just weird.”

I can’t say much about that last concern. After all, keeping chickens in large population centers is not all that common. By definition that would be weird. However, if you make your decisions based solely on whether something is normal or not, well, I’ve lost a little respect for you. That’s right. I don’t even know you and I’m already judging you.

The other three are valid concerns, however. First, let’s talk about the illegal part. It is true that some cities ban all livestock from the city limits and consider chickens livestock, but this is far from the case in many cities. There are many major metropolises that now allow citizens to keep four or five hens at their residence given certain restrictions. It’s best to check your local ordinances before investing any money or effort on chickens, but I did find at least one site that tries to summarize the laws by city.

Now on to the noise concern. Roosters are noisy. There is no way around this. In fact, most chicken-friendly cities still banish roosters. Stick to the hens, which are much quieter and lay eggs. Hens rarely make any noise and the sounds they do make are generally very soft and don’t carry.

Unlike the noise, the smell is something that actually requires a little work to prevent. The birds themselves have no discernable body odor, but their waste most definitely does. If you’re not up on your fecal euphemisms, waste means poop. Chickens poop. A lot. If you’re keeping a small flock (up to four hens) this shouldn’t be a major problem if you take a few precautions. If I were doing the backyard suburban thing, I’d most definitely build a chicken tractor. This is a portable pen that can be moved easily. The pen should be moved every one or two days to keep the waste from building up and the birds from eating every speck of grass under the pen. This small amount of waste scattered widely over your yard will fertilize the grass and keep down the smell. If you’re going to keep the birds in a permanent pen, make sure to keep straw on the floor and clean this out regularly. You can compost this poop straw and fertilize your garden (just make sure to let it compost long enough to prevent microbial contamination). Properly cleaned up after, people have been successful raising a couple of birds on the balcony of their high-rise apartment buildings, so it’s very doable if you have a back yard.

Hosting an urban flock does have many rewards for the effort. Chickens can be beautiful birds. If you clip their wings (trimming the primary flight feathers, which is as harmful and painful as a haircut) and have a fenced yard, you can let them wander. They’ll consume insect pests and turn over your compost pile while scratching for grubs, speeding up the decomposition. The fresh eggs are not only better for the environment than the store-bought industrial farm eggs, they also taste better. You may notice that the yolks are more orange than the typical pale yellow of store-bought eggs, but this is mainly because your birds are healthier. Eggs this fresh don’t peel well when boiled, but each hen is likely to lay more than a hundred eggs a year during her peak laying years so having a few older eggs around for boiling shouldn’t be difficult.

Finally, if you decide to take on this project, I suggest that you help preserve endangered heritage breeds. Take a look at the American Livestock Breed Conservancy’s list of endangered chicken breeds and either order your chicks from conservation-minded hatcheries like Sand Hill Preservation or keep those breeds in mind while searching the local classifieds or sites like Craigslist or eBay for your flock.

The best thing about keeping chickens is that even if they do decide to murder you, unlike large dogs and any cat, they can’t actually carry out a mauling efficiently. You’d have to sit very still for a very long time for them to pull it off and most healthy adults can outrun a chicken.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments. I’ll make sure to answer any you may have as soon as possible.

This is our second post on keeping chickens. Howling Hill posted on microsteading with chickens here.

12 Comments +

  1. Great post, Jacob! I especially like your tip about preserving endangered breeds. I’d never thought about endangered chicken breeds before.

    January 31st, 2011 at 10:07 am
    Comment by Courtney
  2. Wow, there’s a lot of useful info here. Great post!

    I wish I had the kind of time and schedule that would allow me to care for chickens. I can barely keep up with two dogs (who would no doubt terrorize chickens in our yard) and a fiance. Our city is going through the process of reworking the ordinances to allow chickens in the urban core, and I think some of my neighbors are interested. I’ll pass on your post to them (and hope they stick with the hens-only suggestion).

    January 31st, 2011 at 11:09 am
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  3. Modern Gal: I spend almost no time on the chickens during the week. In the spring I’m at work from 7:45 until after 6 p.m. most days. I do the extra stuff on weekends. 10 minutes an evening after work to feed and check the water. When I have young birds in the chicken tractor, the moving adds about 30 seconds. The dogs would definitely terrorize the birds, most likely. Also, remind your neighbors that roosters have sharp pointy things and like to stab you when your back is turned. Just don’t tell them that many breeds are so docile they forget that they’re male.

    Courtney: I just like having stuff that is different from the mainstream (I’ve only had two white chickens in the last 5 years and one laid blue eggs and had no tail and the current one has extra toes), but the real reason to preserve heritage breeds is genetic diversity. They all originated in different places to succeed in different conditions so their genome could prove useful in the future considering the vast majority of chickens are the commercial egg and meat hybrids used in the US. It’s the same reason they have those seeds in that cave in Scandinavia.

    Also, I didn’t mention this in the post, but the weird things behind the black australorp rooster in the photo are guineas. Guineas do not make good city birds. They are loud and sound like a cross between the jungle and toy machine guns.

    January 31st, 2011 at 11:26 am
    Comment by Jacob
  4. Side note regarding previous comment: The seed-storage bunker is actually on Novaya Zemlya, a Russian island in the arctic.

    There’s a guy in Roswell currently quibbling with the authorities over his birds, but he has several roosters, so I have no sympathy for him at all. It would be cool to have a flock of egg-layers, but I see no reason to keep a rooster around. The city is noisy enough.

    January 31st, 2011 at 1:02 pm
    Comment by mickey
  5. I should have mentioned this in the post, but Mickey brings up some good points.

    First, some of the resistance to chickens in cities is misguided. Some people just think it’s not dignified or strange and resist it because of that. However, there are ways to be a bad urban chicken keeper. The first is obvious. Roosters. Next, I mentioned clipping the wings if you let them wander your back yard. You do NOT want them going into neighbor’s property. They may object to the droppings, the fact that the birds will kick up straw and other bedding for flowerbeds scratching for food and it’s kind of rude letting pets onto other people’s yards. Keep them contained on your property. If you stick to hens and keep them in your yard through pens or wing clipping with a fenced-in yard, there’s no real reason your neighbors should object.

    But it wouldn’t hurt to talk to them about it before you get started. Offer them eggs if you have to.

    January 31st, 2011 at 3:12 pm
    Comment by Jacob
  6. Blue eggs? That is so cool! And this is such a great post!

    I do think having German Shepherds means not having chickens, although, I don’t know for sure – they love the cat. I just wouldn’t want to find out if it would be a problem the hard way.

    February 1st, 2011 at 9:05 am
    Comment by Allie
  7. Blue eggs are a trait of true araucanas, a breed derived from native South American birds. The real breed has ear tufts, no tail and true blue eggs. Birds that are only part araucana will lay greener eggs. Unlike brown eggs that are white on the inside of the shell, araucana eggs are blue on the inside of the shell (although the part you eat is no different). Another cool thing about the breed is that genetic tests have turned the breed into evidence that Polynesians reached South America before Europeans. The chickens were in indigenous villages when Europeans first arrived, but it’s always been assumed that the birds got there through trade ahead of the Europeans. The fact that they carry genetic markers specific to the chickens that Polynesians kept suggests otherwise.

    And if I can keep birds surrounded by a family of foxes, owls, hawks, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, and random stray dogs (all who want to eat my birds), then you can make it work with German Shepherds, especially since those dogs can be trained.

    February 1st, 2011 at 9:16 am
    Comment by Jacob
  8. Here in CA, our real problem with having hens is not with the cities, but with the all-powerful HomeOwner’s Associations. They strictly prohibit it, even though the city allows a couple of hens.
    How to get around that one? It’s frustrating.

    February 2nd, 2011 at 3:45 pm
    Comment by Tommy
  9. Our HOA does not strictly prohibit hens, but limits all backyard animals to “pets.” So, my two new Rhode Island Reds are being named by my son and they are treated as pets!! I’ve only had them a week, and am still waiting for that first yummy egg…!

    February 4th, 2011 at 5:26 pm
    Comment by Lynn
  10. They probably won’t lay until the spring.

    February 5th, 2011 at 3:51 pm
    Comment by Jacob
  11. hey
    those things are soooo amazing. GASP :0
    LOL

    September 5th, 2011 at 4:34 am
    Comment by jimmy
  12. I have six free range Barred Rock hens. Let me just say that if you like well manacured-mulched-shrub lawns, don’t get chickens! LOL! They love to dust bathe, and digging under the mulch is a prime bathing area! And, of course looking for insects and worms also is on their agenda! And, when people say they are great for gardening because they eat the bugs, well, they eat the plants and vegetables as well!
    But, after all that said, I still love my hens!:)

    February 15th, 2012 at 1:03 pm
    Comment by Cynthia

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