Metro chickens

Backyard flocks in the city

April 30, 2007

Editor’s note: Last week, Kelly Myers tackled the mystery of egg-carton labels and what they really mean, while food editor Carrie Floyd confessed she’s been duped by advertising. This week, Liz Crain reviews the DIY bird book Keep Chickens!, and Jes Burns reports below on how to get the best eggs you’ll ever taste, by keeping your own chickens.

Four-year-old Lilie Durazo-Garcia is a blur, dashing past in black Mary Janes, lacy ankle socks, and a thigh-length, faux-fur blue coat. A minute ago, she was up a tree in her mother’s broad backyard; a minute before, she was showing off her pink princess-themed fort.

Now she holds a basket in the crook of her arm and is running full speed toward the back of the yard. The basket is huge compared to her tiny body, bouncing off her legs wildly, mimicking her excitement. “I’ll get the eggs!” she yells over her shoulder.

“Kids love chickens,” says Lilie’s mother, Andrea Garcia, nodding her head toward her daughter as the young girl disappears into a garden shed. Converted into the family chicken coop, the garden shed is now home to six hens.

There’s a tactile delight in harvesting eggs your own chickens have laid.

Garcia and her daughter keep their chickens in a suburban neighborhood in Eugene, Oregon. Backyard chickens aren’t an uncommon sight in Eugene, and across the U.S., more and more urban dwellers are opting to keep a small flock. Actual counts of urban chicken populations have not been done, but city chicken-coop tours and urban poultry workshops are increasingly popular around the country. Metro chickens, it seems, have come home to roost.

In Seattle, a nonprofit organization called Seattle Tilth offers classes in organic gardening and about five “City Chickens 101” workshops each year. On average, the workshops attract about 40 participants each time and rival the popularity of the nonprofit’s other organic gardening, composting, and community-garden classes.

“We had very consistent large crowds,” says Karen Luetjen, Seattle Tilth’s executive director. “We moved to a larger room so we wouldn’t have to turn people away.” Seattle Tilth doesn’t keep statistics, but Luetjen estimates that hundreds of people in Seattle keep chickens. “We’ve had many participants come back and say they’ve started keeping chickens,” she says. “They say we’ve taken the mystery out of it.”

The tastiest eggs

Most urban chicken owners keep poultry less for companionship and more for their by-products: fresh eggs and yard maintenance.

Except in winter, when chickens don’t lay as consistently, Andrea Garcia’s six hens produce nearly three dozen eggs every week. Garcia puts aside enough for her family to eat before Lilie and her live-in grandmother sell the rest of the organic, free-range eggs to their neighbors. The going rate? A mere two dollars a dozen.

In grocery stores, the average retail price for free-range, organic eggs ranges from $3.50 to $4 a dozen. That’s a lot of cash, considering that the label “free range” has a legal definition when applied to chickens raised for meat but no such power when slapped on eggs. (See Kelly Myers’ article last week on egg-carton labels and what they mean.)

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In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the terms “free range,” “cage free,” and “pastured” don’t have any legal standards associated with eggs at all. This means that egg producers can use these terms on their packaging and never be held accountable for their claims. Only “certified organic” carries regulatory meaning, and even then, a carton of “free range” organic eggs may come from chickens that spend just a few minutes a day outside, pecking at dirt instead of grass and grubs.

The littlest gardeners — and entertainers

In addition to providing the freshest eggs possible, Garcia appreciates her chickens’ contributions to her yard. Hens are especially effective for slug control. Their incessant scratching helps keep her lawn aerated, and speeds up the natural composting process. And then there’s the seemingly endless supply of free fertilizer, courtesy of the chickens’ manure.

“The poopy straw is great for over-wintering your beds,” she says enthusiastically. The compacted straw from the coop and enclosed chicken run helps to suppress weeds, and the winter rains wash the manure into the soil, enriching it for spring planting.

The growing popularity of urban hens can be attributed partly to how easy it is to keep them. Getting a coop and chicken run set up necessitates a bit of planning and work, but overall, chickens require a fraction of the care and attention demanded by dogs and cats. And what they lack in cuddliness, they make up for in fresh eggs — and entertainment.

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1. by Liz Crain on May 2, 2007 at 10:36 AM PDT

This article is really inspiring. We’ve been wanting to have hens for awhile but worry about our cats, and other critters -- how do you keep your hens safe?

2. by Jes Burns on May 8, 2007 at 10:25 AM PDT

Re: Cats & Chickens

The thing I find about cats is that they’re pretty intelligent animals, and once they realize that a small animal is a pet, they usually don’t bother it.

I do own a cat - a big, burly, bird-eating cat - along with my three chickens (one of which is a wee chick). The cat and the chickens chill together on a regular basis.

When I first got the my newest chick, I held a formal introduction where-by I let the cat check out the tiny bird under highly supervised conditions. If the cat made any quick movements towards the bird, he got a light swat on the nose (a spray bottle also works). I made sure the cat saw me repeatedly handle and interact with the bird. Within a week or two, the cat and chick were hanging out in my mudroom together without any kind of cage between them. Just yesterday, I was planting some onions and both cat and chicken were six inches apart watching what I was doing.

The one time gato has shown any kind of aggression towards the chickens, it was definately not an I-want-to-eat-you kind of interaction. It was more territorial, where the chickens got too close and he hissed and swatted at them. The chickens made a loud noise, ran about five feet away and then proceeded scratching. The cat went back to sleep.

Also once a chicken gets to full size, I feel it’s too big for most cats to want to deal with. Our neighbor’s cats have half-heartedly chased, but never were able to get close to my full-grown girls. Of course if you have a feral cat in your neighborhood, they play by different rules, so make sure to pen the chickens up at night. One of the women I interviewed lost her entire adult flock to a bruiser cat in her neighborhood - one chicken day for about a week. Another interviewee had two cats who didn’t care one way or another about his chickens.

Of course, this has only been my experience - as I wrote in the articles, chickens are LOW on the food chain. But your own cats should be the least of your worries.

3. by Liz Crain on May 8, 2007 at 11:19 AM PDT

Thanks so much Jes. That seals the deal then. I was particularly worried about the chicks and our cats since we recently switched one cat (our housemate is still using kibble) to a raw meat diet -- which incorporates a lot of raw chicken and raw eggs. So, she has a taste for bird that’s for sure. We also have a lot of feral cats in the neighborhood so we’ll have to keep the pen solid. You can count me as another convert. Thanks.

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