Urban 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).