Before purchasing birds or planning for a coop, it is important to check local regulations and homeowner association rules. Many municipalities ban roosters (don't worry, hens lay eggs without them) and limit the number of hens a household can keep. Some communities require signed agreements from neighbors, permits, or an appearance before the zoning board, while others have ordinances that restrict the size and placement of outbuildings.
Sometimes the rules are surprising—pleasantly. New York City, for example, has never banned hens, says Owen Taylor, the training and livestock coordinator for Just Food, a nonprofit that works to improve access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food in the city. "They're considered pets, like cats and dogs, so zoning laws do not apply," Taylor says.
In communities that outlaw poultry, chicken activists are joining together to challenge the laws. Tracy Halward formed the Longmont Urban Chicken Coalition after her family was cited for illegally keeping chickens in their Longmont, Colorado, back yard. The coalition scored a victory when the city council voted to allow a pilot backyard-chicken program, and in March 2009 issued permits to 50 residents, including Halward. Similar grassroots movements have overturned chicken bans in Madison, Wisconsin; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Bozeman, Montana. So backyard flocks may become common once again.
A decided benefit of keeping chickens is the opportunity to raise birds that have beautiful plumage and lay unusually colored eggs. Many breeds come in two sizes: standard, also known as large breed, and bantam, which are typically one-quarter the size of standard birds. Both do fine in back yards, though standard chickens lay much larger eggs than bantams and, because they weigh more, tend to be less flighty.
For dependable egg production, choose layers--lightweight breeds, such as Black Australorps, that were bred to lay reliably. Dual-purpose breeds (eggs and meat), such as Buff Orpingtons and Silver Laced Wyandottes, are heavier than layers but have better egg production than broilers, breeds used primarily for meat. Many layer, broiler, and dual-purpose breeds are available as standards or bantams.
Most breeds lay either white or brown eggs, though the tint can vary. Welsummers, a rare dual-purpose breed, lay dark brown eggs. And both Araucanas and Ameraucanas lay blue-green eggs, though many of the chickens sold as these breeds are actually "Easter Eggers"—hybrid birds that may lay blue-green, olive, or other tinted eggs.
When building a flock, consider the behavioral and physical characteristics and climate suitability of each breed. Rhode Island Reds are a popular dual-purpose breed that lay large, light brown eggs, but they can be aggressive toward calmer birds such as Brahmas. Breeds with thicker plumage do best in cold climates, while those without a lot of extra insulation, such as Silkies, a fabulously ornamental breed with feathers that look more like fur, live comfortably in warmer climates.
A coop provides shelter for chickens, but it will also be a part of the landscape, so consider aesthetics as well as the chickens' needs when planning for one. Debbie Hoffmann, who keeps chickens in her suburban-Philadelphia back yard, paid a carpenter to build a stylish gray-and-white coop with a leaded stained-glass window installed over the nesting boxes. "I had to go before the zoning board to get permission to have the hens," says Hoffmann. "They were really dazzled by the decorative window and I had no trouble." A quick search online will turn up loads of inspiration for do-it-yourself coops. Several companies, including Wine Country Coops and Henspa, sell premade henhouses.
At its most basic, a coop must protect chickens from drafts and predators and keep them dry, warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. The coop itself should have wooden boxes filled with straw in which the hens can lay their eggs (one box for every two hens, because they will share), a place to roost off the ground, and at least 2 to 4 square feet of floor space per bird. "Crowding is one thing they don't like," says Louisiana State University AgCenter poultry expert Theresia Lavergne, Ph.D. "If they get stressed, they will peck each other." Cover the floor of the coop with 2 to 3 inches of pine shavings and dust the shavings with diatomaceous earth to help prevent infestations of lice and mites. Replace the shavings every month or two. Attach an enclosed outdoor run (8 to 10 square feet per bird) to the coop to give the hens a place to exercise while keeping them contained.
Even in a fenced back yard, it's not wise to allow chickens to range free without supervision, both for their security and the safety of your garden. Chickens love to scratch the ground looking for worms and seeds, without regard for what plants might be in their way. And in urban and suburban areas, predators come in all shapes and sizes, from coyotes to raccoons to hawks. Danger can come from above and below, so cover the run and bury its fencing at least 1 foot deep. Use 1/4-inch hardware cloth for enclosures instead of chicken wire, which raccoons can easily pull apart and small rodents can squeeze through.
Chickens will dig up part of their diet—insects, slugs and snails, sand, and seeds—but you must also provide them with chicken feed. "Chickens need a quality balanced diet that's 16 to 18 percent protein and made specifically for their needs," says Phillip J. Clauer, a Penn State poultry expert, who notes that there are special diets for young chicks, growing birds, and layers. As a treat, scatter scratch—a mixture of grains and seeds—into the run, as well as organic grass clippings and vegetable scraps.
Plenty of water is especially important for consistent laying, says Clauer. "If a laying chicken goes without water for more than 12 hours, it can go out of production for weeks." Special poultry waterers ensure that chickens always have access to fresh water.
Chickens also appreciate human interaction. "This is going to sound weird, but they become your friends," says Debbie Edwards-Anderson, who, with her husband, tends a flock of hens in Brooklyn. "When I get to my garden gate, I yell out, 'Hey, ladies,' and one will run back and get all the others and they crowd at the gate with all their 'awk, awk' greeting noises. They are really affectionate in their own strange way."
Although hens can lay as long as they live (8 to 10 years isn't uncommon), they start producing fewer eggs after 3 to 5 years. When egg production drops to one or two a week, chicken owners are forced to decide whether to keep the older hens as pets or use them for meat. Edwards-Anderson's husband, Greg, who grew up with hens in his hometown of Selma, Alabama, is not squeamish about turning their hens, Hattie, Onyx, and Mildred, into stew when the time comes. But he suspects his wife will have a problem. "This is her first farm-animal experience," he explains. "They're like my babies and I love them," she concurs.
Best Backyard Breeds
Chickens are social creatures. It is wise to keep at least three hens, but they do not need to be of the same breed. The four listed here were chosen for their superior qualities as pets. All come in both bantam and standard sizes, do well in mixed flocks, and have lovely plumage.
Buff Orpington. Bred in England, these large, gentle birds have beautiful orange feathers and a docile disposition. They lay large, light brown eggs and handle cold weather with aplomb.
Black Australorp. Originally from Australia, they have red combs offset by glossy black feathers that shimmer in the sunshine with a hint of green. Australorps are known for their curious nature and sweet personalities. They mature early and reliably lay large brown eggs.
Cochin. Introduced to the United States from China in the early 1800s, Cochins look like balls of feathers. They aren't known for heavy egg production, but the hens make an excellent addition to a flock, both for their calm personality and their fun feathered feet.
Barred Plymouth Rock. A heritage American breed with striking black-and-white "barred" feathers, they lay large brown eggs that can sometimes have a pinkish hue. Very easy to handle and friendly.
For more about breeds, check out Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds (Storey, 2007).