Urban Agriculturalist: Backyard Chickens

Plymouth Rock HenUrban Agriculturalist is a series on the ways city and suburb dwellers use their land as a food resource.

Behold Gallus Domesticus, the backyard chicken and latest slow food phenomenon. Traumatized by images of chicken warehouses, disgusted by food recalls and perhaps even longing for animal companionship, urban dwellers are becoming enthusiastic chicken owners. Urban Chickens is their gathering place, Backyard Poultry their manifesto and Mad City Chicken their rallying cry. But just where does one procure a baby chicken? How many eggs can a person expect? And what level of companionship are we talking here? All this and more after the jump.

Chickens make good pets for a number of reasons, according to their enthusiasts. These reasons divide neatly into three categories: usefulness, companionship and environmental friendliness. Chickens are obviously useful in their production of eggs, which are collected daily. Each hen lays up to four eggs a week and so only three birds are needed for a weekly dozen. Chickens also like to forage for seeds and bugs, making them ideal lawn caretakers – they keep grass short and gobble up weeds and pests before they can reek havoc. Their excrement is particularly nitrogen-rich and makes nutritious, valuable compost.

In terms of companionship, chickens are low-maintenance – needing minimal grooming and attention. They are generally mellow and friendly to human contact. According to those who own them, they have distinct personalities and show affection. Contrary to public perception, chickens are quiet animals – provided you don’t have a rooster.

The environmental benefits are obvious: no trucks necessary to get eggs to your house. The lawncare services they provide replace toxic weed killers, pesticides and plant growers. Additionally, chickens can digest most human food, so they make excellent “garborators” – eating scraps and turning them into nitrogen-rich manure.

My Pet Chicken – a home chicken retailer and resource site also mentions the ethical benefits of saving a chicken from a factory farm, where they might otherwise end up.

I buy my eggs from an organic chicken farmer at my local farmer’s market – what I had previously considered the best possible egg-buying scenario. But this still requires a weekly 106-mile round trip drive for the farmer. That’s 5,512 miles per year – and that’s a good scenario. Imagine the carbon impact of grocery eggs. I shudder to think of the carbon expenditure of merely refrigerating and lighting them in a superstore glass case.

And for those of you concerned about the potential health risks, bird flu expert Dr. Michael Greger spoke to the filmmakers of Mad City Chicken where he assured them that small-scale bird tending would not increase the risk of transferring avian flu to human populations. On the contrary, outdoor free-range chickens enjoy lower stress levels and better health. It is the cramped factory chickens that are a worry: their immune systems are lowered by stress and the high density of the population in a factory chicken coop means the disease can spread quickly.

While certainly not for everyone, backyard chickens are a well-rounded option for many households. Luckily, a growing number of cities are modifying bans on livestock ownership to exclude chickens. Madison, Wisconsin, New York City and the Bay Area are just a few of the newly avo-hospitable cities. Make sure your city is chicken-friendly by writing to municipal officials in your area. With so many cities jumping on board, the legislation is sure to have a domino effect.

(Photo courtesy of My Pet Chicken, an extraordinary resource for potential and current chicken owners and the chicken-curious).

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8 thoughts on “Urban Agriculturalist: Backyard Chickens”

  1. Kendra Holliday

    I don’t see how anyone could look at that gorgeous chicken in the picture you used and think, “mmmm dinner.” OK, maybe a fox. ;)

  2. I have ALWAYS wanted to have chickens! Out here in NJ, we have a high tick population (yuck), and they eat the little bad boys. i have some neighbors w/ chickens and we get awesome organic eggs. right now our golden retriever (woody the wonder dog), wouldn’t be able to contain himself and would torment the poor cluckers. we visit a farm that has chickens running around and he terrorizes them whever we go.

  3. I would like to add that keeping pure bred chickens is a greener option. Hybrid chickens, those developed for the caged egg industry, are similar to hybrid vegetable seeds. They’ve been changed to suit human needs. Hybrids focus on laying eggs, at the expense of all else, like the natural traits of broodiness and raising their own chicks.

    Pure breeds need backyard keepers to keep them alive. They’re prettier – the chicken in your photo looks like a Plymouth Rock, they’re healthier and they go broody, and therefore will raise their own chicks is left with a rooster for a couple of days. (Borrow one and send him back.)

    Any chickens are better than none, but if you don’t want to support the caged eggs industry and if you want to help maintain genetic diversity, keep pure breed chickens.

    I have photos of my chickens on my blog here:

  4. Meredith Melnick

    Thanks so much for the info, Rhonda Jean – and for sharing pictures of your adorable chickies with us. This is definitely an important point that I hadn’t considered and certainly goes back to Kendra’s idea of seeing a chicken for more than its food capabilities. And as for Megan’s point, does anyone out there know how to get dogs and chickens to coexist peacefully?

  5. Hi Meredith. I have two Airedale Terriers and they get along well with the chickens. I’ve been keeping chickens for about 25 years and I believe the secret is to have the chickens before you buy the dog. Some dogs never learn, but often, if the dog sees the chickens as part of the territory when they arrive, they will protect them rather than harrass them. All dogs need obedience training and sometimes that training can include protection of other critters and children.

    Thank you for your writing. I’ve enjoyed being part of this discussion very much.

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