Serious Green: A Guide to Keeping City Chickens

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[Photograph: Lisa Moussalli]

This is my theory. You and all your foodie friends, the New York Times' Dining section, and the Washington Post's Home and Garden section can all call something a new food trend. Slate can even call it a bogus trend. But it's when a food trend lands on the front page of the business section that it's really gone mainstream.

The chickens have landed in our backyards and they're here to stay.

Everyone's got a reason for you to rush out to get some of these feathered friends for your own backyard: fresher free-range eggs, being closer to the source of your food, a sense of self-reliance, and free nitrogen-rich fertilizer. These are all legitimate answers, but if you want to take the step from applauding the efforts of others to taking care of your own little brood, you'll need more information than that.

Here, important steps you'll need to take before getting your own flock, after the jump.

Are They Legal?

First things first. Check if it's legal to keep chickens in your city. New York City; Oakland, California; San Francisco; Houston; Chicago; Seattle; and Portland, Oregon, are all chicken-friendly. Omlet has an extensive city-by-city guide to where you can and cannot keep chickens. It's also worth checking with your local government. There are a lot of backyard chicken activists out there, and chicken ordinances are changing all the time. As an aside, lot's of people keep chickens illegally. "Don't Cluck, Don't Tell" is the mantra around those parts. Not encouraging anything here, just saying.

Research, Research, Research

Squawkin' in Talk

A number of serious eaters responded to this fantastic thread that moibec started in Talk: "Raising Your Own Chickens: Pros & Cons?" Read more there from community members who actively keep chickens as a source of eggs and eatin'.

Wyandottes, Silkies, or Rhode Island Reds? There are a lot of chickens varieties out there, so it's important to do your research before your buy. Temperament, size, and egg color are all differing factors. Think about how many chickens you can care for and how much room you have. Many breeds come in a smaller "bantam" size, like "toy" breeds for dogs. Martha Stewart's blue-egg laying Araucana chickens started a craze for specialty breeds. The Mother Earth News Hatchery Finder allows you to quickly search the online catalogs of 70 mail-order hatcheries. Whatever you do pick, NO ROOSTERS! That cock-a-doodle-doo might be a classic sound of the country, but it's sure not going to endear you to your neighbors.

Cooking Up a Story has a tour of one backyard chicken coop with chickens of every color and size (video, above).

Get or Build a Coop

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[Photograph: omlet.us]

Chickens must have a place where they can get some shade, sleep, lay eggs, get out of bad weather, and be protected from predators like raccoons, dogs, and cats. I prefer the look of a traditional wooden coop, but you might require something a little more stylish for your ladies.

There's a special plastic coop, the Eglu, designed for urban chickens. Eglus come in bright colors (pink, orange, lime green, blue, and red) and look a lot like those old candy-colored iMacs. They come equipped with everything your new gals will need: wooden perching bars, nesting boxes, and a secure run. But with a starting price of $495, you might want to see what extra wood you've got lying around.

Feed 'Em

There is no such thing as a grass-fed chicken. Chickens are omnivores and cannot subsist on grass alone. Though they do enjoy being out on pasture, they need some protein in their diet, so household table scraps like day-old bread, vegetables, fruit, egg shells, and meat are great choices for chickens. No need to wait for those scraps to do their thing in the compost pile, the chickens have got it taken care of. You'll also need to supplement your chickens' diet with grain and provide them with clean water.

Keep It Clean, and Share the Bounty

You should regularly clean out and scrub the chicken coop. Keeping the area clean will keep your neighbors from complaining. Gifts of fresh eggs will probably help on that front too.

Finally, advice from a seasoned farmer who has taken care of up to 800 chickens on pasture.

Lisa Moussalli from our Meet Your Farmers series says: Chickens are not a lot of work, and they're so satisfying and fun. I suppose my only real advice to folks (aside from: don't get a rooster if you're a city dweller!) would be to just jump right in. You don't need a fancy coop or high-tech water-ers or custom grain rations to keep enough happy, healthy chickens to feed a family.

More Resources to Help Get You Started

TheCityChicken.com
BackYardChickens.com
Backyard Poultry Magazine
Raising Your Own Chickens: Pros & Cons? [SE Talk, September 23, 2009]

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