Spotting an unusual bird in a cityscape makes me happy. I met my husband because of an injured wild Chicago Peregrine falcon he brought to the zoo hospital where I was working. Peregrines in the midwest, at that time, had been threatened with extinction, just as one out of eight bird species is today. Reintroduced to cities by the Chicago Peregrine Program, Peregrines are now one of the bird species that are thriving in the city. Peregrines give the added benefit to us of keeping pigeons at bay. As for other useful birds in the city, there's new interest in backyard chickens lately.
Many clients have asked my advice about raising chickens in the city. I myself am intrigued by the idea of having my own chickens. It would be a great way to put a little country life into my urban lifestyle. I believe that the advantages to having chickens foraging in my yard outweigh the trouble of their care. If you are considering chickens, provided your city or suburb's code allows them, here are a few thoughts about their care:
• can improve yard soil and plant health with their natural fertilizer
• can help eradicate bug problems by eating them
• can produce a lot of eggs, and the eggs typically will have a greater omega-3 fatty acid content than eggs from industrial cage operations
• make many sizes and colors of eggs
• make cute noises such as soft coos, cheeps and gurgles (females).
• have individual personalities -- some are inquisitive and funny, while others can be shy and quiet
• can be low maintenance, requiring only 45 minutes to an hour a day of care
• when properly kept, enjoy good health
• can tolerate winter well if you choose the right breeds
• are super fun for adults and children alike.
Signs of illness or discomfort and what action to take:
• Not eating or not drinking? Make sure food and water are fresh.
• Huddling together in one area? They may be too cold or there is a draft somewhere.
o Heavy breathing in the heat? Provide some shade or areas to cool off.
o Coughing/wheezing? Get to a vet.
• Feather picking/losing feathers/bald patches (except the normal "brood patch" on the chest)? Could mean there is some type of "pecking order" problem.
• Thin egg shells? Give more calcium supplementation.
• Any other obvious conditions, such as, cuts, swelling, scabs, nasal or ocular discharge, blood in stool, weight loss or swollen abdomen, etc? These warrant a trip to the vet.
• To avoid predation, make sure chickens have solid enclosures and protected areas. Hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and even rats will target unprotected chickens.
• A movable mesh dome without a floor can be used to keep them enclosed and protected from predators, but still allow them to move through the yard to peck and fertilize. Keep in mind, that while chickens are happy to forage, they prefer to be placed in areas where they can still see their coop.
• Chicken wire is not for chickens. It is too flimsy and easily torn by predators.
• Don't use cedar chips as bedding. It can be toxic to chickens.
• Buy food for the chickens before they arrive. A completely balanced feed should be available. They can also eat table scraps (avoid chocolate, raw potatoes or raw rice, avocados and any feed that is old or growing mold).
• Bury 6-8 inches of fencing wire curved outward to keep out burrowing animals.
• Provide shade and heat for chickens to keep them healthy.
• Don't get a rooster, they are typically too noisy and can be difficult if you have neighbors within cock-a-doodle-doo distance.
• Research chicken types. Do you want them for eggs or meat or both? Choose mild-tempered birds for the beginners. Some friendly types include: Cochin bantams, Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, or Barred Plymouth Rocks. They are not all alike!
• Teach children to help out with some of the chicken care. Keeping chickens can be a great learning experience for kids.
Climate and housing:
• Use removable perches, and easy to clean nest boxes that you can readily access to collect eggs.
• Make sure your coop has no dangerous protruding sharp nails or wires. Chickens are curious and accidents can happen.
• Offer plenty of calcium supplementation such as, ground eggshells, crushed limestone or finely ground bonemeal.
• Offer grit, it helps chickens grind coarse foods.
• Arrange a chicken pet sitter for when you want to go out of town.
• Remember that it's not easy to find homes for unwanted chickens, so try to have all your ducks in a row when you commit to chickens.
Chickens are good for the environment and create a lively ambiance. Female chickens get along very well together and don't need a rooster to lay the unfertilized eggs we typically eat. When a rooster is around, he will mate with the hens, fertilizing the eggs that are produced. Fertilized eggs have an embryo that could then develop into a chick. But most food eggs come from unfertilized eggs.
There is definitely a boomlet in city chicken coops. In many states, organizations offer backyard chicken-keeping workshops and yearly Tour de Coops. There are large internet support groups, so you don't have to "lay" alone! In Chicago these groups also provide support for people trying to challenge chicken-keeping ordinances in some suburbs.
The locavore movement has shortened the miles between people and their food source. More and more people are growing their own vegetables and herbs in community gardens. It makes sense to control egg and meat sources as well. Being able to sustain oneself is rewarding. Also, one can know for certain what is being fed to feed animals. Research increasingly suggests that pregnant women should avoid GMO's. This is barely feasible without raising one's own food.
You'll find you have plenty of eggs to share if your little cluckers are well kept. Everyone loves fresh eggs. They can make useful gifts for many occasions. One word of caution: if you are going to create a coop and don't want the cops, make sure to offer an occasional quiche made from the fresh eggs of your "girls." Home-made baked goods make good neighbors -- and ones that won't complain when the chickens come home to roost.
Suggested online resources (and there are even more than these):
MichaelPollan.com - his book The Omnivore's Dilemma is a great read for prospective chicken owners.