City Cluckers

You don’t have to live on a rural route to own chickens; raising birds within the city limits is quite possible with the right preparatio­n.

- by Moira K. Mcghee

You don’t have to live on a rural route to own chickens; raising birds within the city limits is quite possible with the right preparatio­n.

City dwellers often have all sorts of interestin­g neighbors, but one that goes cluck-cluck and scratches around in the dirt probably isn’t the norm. While urban chicken farming has had its highs and lows, lots of people are still interested in raising fowl that are big on personalit­y. The most common reason for raising city chickens is access to fresher eggs, but some are surprised that they also make great pets. It’s typically easy to care for chickens, but before you start your flock, learn more about what’s involved.

Is Your City Chicken-friendly?

First things first: Make sure keeping chickens in your backyard is legal in your city. Local laws and ordinances regarding chickens vary from city to city and are often complex. You may need a permit, which may require a fee. Most cities limit the number of chickens you can keep, and roosters are typically a big no-no due to noise ordinances. There may be requiremen­ts on the types of enclosures and housing used, amount of space provided per chicken and distance between coops and neighborin­g property lines. Check with your local code enforcemen­t, zoning and/or animal control department­s before buying a flock you might not be allowed to keep.

“You need to know the restrictio­ns,” says Leslie Citroen, proprietor of Mill Valley Chickens (www.millvalley­, a small urban farm located in Marin County, California, that sells a large assortment of backyard chicken breeds and small-scale chicken farming supplies. “One of the first things I tell anyone considerin­g raising chickens in an

urban backyard is to find out about their local zoning ordinances, including the number of chickens allowed and the zoning requiremen­ts for a coop. Some municipali­ties have harsh setbacks from property lines or buildings.”

It’s also important to talk to your neighbors. Even if backyard chickens are legal in your city, if you live next to anti-chicken neighbors, you could still run into problems. If a neighbor complains about the noise, smell or other issue they’re having with your feathered friends, you could face a fine or be forced to re-home your flock. Let your neighbors know in advance about your plan to raise chickens and address any concerns they might have. Offering to share extra eggs with them might not hurt either.

Breed Selection

There are numerous chicken breeds with a wide variety of traits. You may be tempted to simply choose a cute breed with colorful plumage that produces colorful eggs and has a winning personalit­y. However, it’s also important to choose breeds that can withstand the weather in your region, especially if harsh winters or blistering summers are typical. Your purpose for wanting chickens and who will be caring for the birds also will impact breed selection.

“Always choose hardy breeds that are disease resistant,” advises Maurice Pitesky, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and UC Davis Cooperativ­e Extension (https://ucanr. edu/sites/poultry/). An expert in flock management and Chickens Poultry Science columnist is a big fan of a hybrid Rhode Island Red, because it’s a very hardy breed. “Polish hens are another option,” he says. “Bantams are also good choices in urban areas.”

Citroen adds that she always asks people what their goals are in keeping chickens. She suggests different breeds based on those goals, which may include chickens that are beautiful and/or have beautiful eggs, or to have as pets or for pure egg production, or a mixture of all these traits. However, she says there are also other things to consider.

“If the chickens are going to be confined in a run, you need to stay away from Mediterran­ean chickens and chickens that like to free-range, such as Fayoumi, etc.,” Citroen says. “They will be unhappy and stressed out being confined in a run.

“For families, you can’t go wrong having an Orpington or a Barred Rock. I find people are really attracted to the Barred Rock or Silver Laced Wyandotte pattern. [They’re] very handsome. I’ve also found that young boys are always attracted to the Polish chickens. It’s that crazy wacky look the boys like. Young girls are attracted to the mini chickens, the Bantams.”

Buying Your Flock

Once you’ve decided on a breed or breeds, ask yourself which should come first, the chick or the egg? If you’ve never raised chickens before, incubating and hatching is a somewhat advanced aspect that’s better tackled after you have more experience. Chicks are more commonly recommende­d for new urban chicken farmers, and it’s vital to only purchase chicks from reputable sources.

Pitesky urges beginners to “start with chicks. Eggs aren’t a good choice for a newbie, and chicks are cute. Purchasing older birds also isn’t a good choice, because you don’t know how they were raised or what diseases they may have been exposed to.

“Buy your chicks from feed stores and hatcheries. Chicks from these places are going to have all the things you want, including all the necessary vaccines. Poultry breeders can be another good source, especially if they participat­e in the National Poultry Improvemen­t Plan.”

The NPIP is a voluntary certificat­ion system for hatcheries and poultry breeders. Participan­ts in the program submit their birds for regularly scheduled testing to ensure their flocks are free of pullorum disease and fowl typhoid. Both are extremely contagious, severe salmonella infections that cause high mortality in chickens and turkeys.

Citroen discourage­s people from buying adult chickens from individual­s posting on classified advertisem­ent websites. She warns that you risk buying spent hens or, worse, diseased hens

that bring infection or parasites into your backyard. She agrees that chicks are the ideal choice, especially for families with kids.

“It’s a wonderful bonding experience for a family and teaches kids responsibi­lity,” Citroen says. “Kids can see how quickly the chickens grow and the more the chicks are handled, the friendlier they’ll be as adults. Older adults, however, usually aren’t interested in raising chicks, dealing with heat lamps, etc., so young pullets are the way to go for this age group.”

“If purchasing ready-to-lay pullets, ensure they have received appropriat­e vaccinatio­ns for Marek’s disease, Newcastle disease and infectious bronchitis,” says poultry veterinari­an Eric Gingerich. “The American Associatio­n of Avian Pathologis­ts small flock committee is a good website to find help with backyard chicken health and management.” Find out more at

Flock of How Many?

When starting your flock, remember that chickens are very social animals. Citroen stresses that it would be inhumane to have a single chicken.

“I push everyone to start off with a minimum of four chickens,” she says. “If buying baby chicks, there’s always a chance you’ll get a rooster. Even when they’re sexed, it’s possible for a rooster to slip through [which you can’t keep in most cities].”

Pitesky agrees that due to their social nature, you never want to start with less than two birds. His magic number is a minimum of three to start.

“If you only buy two, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket,” he says. “You’re assuming both birds will survive, but if one dies, you’re left with only one. Now you have to try to get a replacemen­t bird. It can be challengin­g to introduce a new bird, especially if you now need an older bird close in age to the surviving bird. Purchasing an older bird could put your other bird at risk, because there’s always the possibilit­y that an older bird has been exposed to something you don’t want to bring home.”

Space & Housing

In an urban environmen­t, size constraint­s can be a major issue. If you’re chickens are living in too close quarters, they become stressed, which can increase the likelihood of illnesses and disease. While you must comply with your city’s flock size limits, the amount of space you have available and housing requiremen­ts may mean require you to keep fewer birds than the allowed amount.

“Provide your chickens with clean air, clean water and clean food, and you’re 90% done,” Pitesky says. “You should also provide a minimum of 2 to 3 square feet of space per bird. However, space requiremen­ts can be different with different breeds. You must provide enough space for the birds to have fun and meet the needs of their natural behaviors, such as dust baths.”

“You want to give your chickens as much space as possible, especially well-ventilated, sunny spaces,” Citroen says. “The coop size can be small, because they only come into the coop to sleep and lay eggs, but it’s important they have a lot of space in the daytime. Ideally, chickens should free-range. If this isn’t possible, then you have to be realistic and cut back on the number of chickens you have to provide a humane environmen­t.

When building your coop and run, don’t build in a shady area or an area that floods, because your chickens will be miserable. They also want to scratch, so they need to be on soil, never on a concrete pad.

Smelly Challenges

One of the biggest challenges of raising urban chickens is the potential for a stinky, fly-infested environmen­t, especially in smaller spaces. Ensuring you have enough space for your chickens is a vital part of keeping the smell at bay.

“The most important part is paying attention to square footage, always keeping 2 to 3 feet between the birds,” Pitesky says. “You must also ensure you have good ventilatio­n in your coop and protect the interior from rain. The ammonia and poop smells get worse, if rain gets in. Excessive moisture is the enemy.”

Pitesky suggests putting a substrate on the ground, such as rice hulls, chopped up peanut hulls or straw. Due to your chickens’ natural behavior, they’ll “rototill” the poop into this substrate, which helps with the smell. The more birds you have, the more necessary a substrate may become, and it also provides enrichment for the birds.

Citroen warns that if you’re having smells, then you have too many chickens in too small of an area. “There’s never an excuse to have smells or flies.”

Predator Patrol

Despite being in an urban area, predators are one of the biggest hazards for your chicks and probably much more prevalent than you realize.

From your neighbor’s dog or cat to wildlife you might not be aware of, your chickens face numerous dangers. It’s critical to provide an extremely safe enclosure, especially at night.

“In a weird way, urban chicken farmers deal with way more predators than farmers out in rural areas,” Citroen says. “In farming communitie­s, people will shoot raccoons, bobcats, etc., but if someone was to shoot [a gun in an urban area], you would be facing jail time! So, even though I live only 8 miles from the worldfamou­s Golden Gate Bridge, I deal with bobcat attacks, hawks, skunks, foxes and raccoons.”

Egg-cellent Perks

The best part of raising urban chickens for most people is the bountiful supply of fresh eggs. And, your supply will be bountiful, maybe more than you can handle. On the upside, they make great gifts.

“In theory, a chicken lays an egg every 25 hours,” Pitesky says. “While it’s not hard to take care of five or six chickens, it could be difficult to figure out what to do with all those eggs.”

“People’s egg consumptio­n goes way up!” Citroen says. “But, it’s always easy to gift people eggs. Here in the greater San Francisco area, it’s a status symbol to bring eggs instead of wine to a party.”

Afinal word of advice for aspiring urban chicken farmers, make sure you’re prepared. Chickens are fairly easy to raise, but there are numerous issues you may run into. If you know any local chicken experts, get to know them. Browsing online fowl boards often provides lots of helpful informatio­n but having a poultry specialist to turn to with questions is invaluable.

Moira Mcghee is a nomadic writer who recently learned that keeping chickens in the sprawling Los Angeles area is mostly legal throughout the county, but most neighborho­ods won’t tolerate roosters.

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 ??  ?? Check local ordinances for legalities of owning chickens. Some require coops to be a certain distance your home and your neighbors.
Check local ordinances for legalities of owning chickens. Some require coops to be a certain distance your home and your neighbors.
 ??  ?? Keeping your coop and run clean is extremely important but even more so in an urban environmen­t.
Keeping your coop and run clean is extremely important but even more so in an urban environmen­t.
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A simple ark can provide day shelter and allow your birds to work your backyard, keeping down pests and fertilizin­g the grass!
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A couple of hens can turn a boring backyard into a free-range “pasture!”
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Who needs a pasture when a small space can provide “farmfresh” eggs!

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