A Beginner's Guide to City Chickens

Tired of paying five bucks for cage-free eggs? Want an organic source of protein right in your own backyard? Well, a lot of folks feel the same way: their answer's a backyard flock of chickens.
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Tired of paying five bucks for cage-free eggs? Getting uncomfortable about all the reports on factory farming? Want an organic source of protein right in your own backyard? Well, a lot of folks feel the same way and their answer's unanimous - a backyard flock of chickens. From Portland patios to New York City apartments, more and more people are putting up hen houses where doghouses used to be. City coops are shooting up across the nation at a breakneck pace.

And why not? Chickens are livestock anyone can raise. Hens are unobtrusive city dwellers, happy to peck around your small Brooklyn backyard. They require little time, money, or space and in return for some humble room and board - you get a free lunch. Recently Mother Earth News did a farm egg vs. grocery store egg comparison and found the free-range birds' bounty lower in cholesterol and twice as high in omega-3 fatty acids compared to the ones in the checkout line. So not only are homegrown eggs organic and local - they're better for you.

Most cities allow small flocks (without roosters) right in downtown neighborhoods. After all, they cause less damage than dogs and are quieter than cats. When you live in a world of failing banks, soaring gas prices, and E. coli in the produce isle - it's reassuring knowing you can always opt for an omelet at the end of the day. So to get you started, here are the firsts steps towards bringing some hens into your life.


1. Check With Your City's Livestock Ordinances (And Your Neighbors)
Before you order your first pullets, make sure your town allows chickens. Some don't, but you'd be surprised how many do. New York City, Chicago, Memphis, Portland, and Seattle all allow laying hens. Once you get the okay from your local officials, knock on your closest neighbor's doors. Check with them on how they'd feel about a few hens in your backyard. Explain that chickens are clean, quiet, and won't cause any problems (all true as long as they live in a stress free and well maintained home). While I don't think there is any legal reason you need a neighbor's permission, it does show a certain amount of respect and responsibility on your part. It also might stop any possible future complaints when you offer them half a dozen fresh eggs every two weeks for their cooperation. I'm telling you, these birds can build bridges.

2. Do Your Homework
There are a few great books written with the city flock in mind. Barbara Kilarski's Keep Chickens! is a perfect introduction, written by an Northwest urbanite about her trio of hens. Another good one to pick up is Living with Chickens by Jay Rossier. Besides books, there are also great resources online such as Backyard Chickens and My Pet Chicken. Get to know them, they're well worth it. Reading up on these animals will prepare you for all the fun and interesting times ahead. It'll explain to you why your hen's first eggs are the size of walnuts and what to do when you see your birds sneezing a lot. At the very least, keep some books on the shelf at home for reference.

3. Set Up A Living Space
This can be as simple as a medium sized wooden doghouse from the hardware store propped up on two layers of cinder blocks. The doghouses with the removable roofs work best, since it's the easiest way to collect eggs and hose it down every few weeks to clean it out. All you need to do to these houses to modify them for poultry is add a roost about a foot off the doghouse floor and layer the bottom with some straw for nests. Around the coop pound in some inexpensive t-posts and roll out some wire garden fencing to keep them in (and neighbors cats and dogs out). This hour in your backyard will be the most labor intensive part of the entire process. And hey, if you don't want to build anything you can always order a small pre-built coop. The Eglu and Chik-N-Hutch are both great small flock homes.

4. Order Your Birds
You have a few choices on where to actually procure your birds. Short of knowing any sustainable farmers in your area that are willing to sell you some, I suggest ordering them online. Yes dear readers, there are plenty of online poultry suppliers and hatcheries that can ship chickens right to your downtown post office. If you want eggs soon, order 18-week old started pullets. These young adults will begin laying within a few weeks of arriving at your home.

5. Introduce Them To Their New Coop
When Chicken Day does occur, make sure your coop is set up in advance. Have a poultry feeder and water font set up with fresh water and organic layer feed. Make sure they have a proper pen and are safe from brave stray cats and four-year-olds. Line their coop with straw for bedding and let your neighbors know they're on their way. When everything is ready in paradise, try to hold off till dark to set your adult hens in their new coop. The birds will just be calmer in general if they can go right to sleep in a safe place and wake up in the morning in their new digs. It'll imprint on their tiny brains that they're home.

6. Care And Feeding
Invest the extra money in organic chicken feed. The average fifty pound bag of feed is thirteen dollars. The organic version might cost up to eight dollars more, but it's well worth it. Because even if you are raising hens right in your own backyard, the eggs they lay aren't organic if the food they eat isn't. Store the food in a metal trash can with a good lid so rodents and bad weather can't break in. You can store right outside the backdoor or in the gargae, or even right next to the coop itself.

7. What To Do When You Leave Town
Chickens are easy keepers. If you're just leaving for a day or two, they don't require any oversight at all. A filled water font and feeder is all they need. If you leave for a few days or an extended vacation, ask a neighbor or friend to stop by after work to collect eggs (offer to let them keep what they collect as a payment for their time) and throw some feed on the ground and offer fresh water. None of these chores are backbreaking, time-consuming burdens. Far as livestock goes, this is easy street.

For more on modern homesteading come to the farm - Cold Antler Farm.