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Chickens in the City – Practical Advice on Managing an Urban Coop and the Neighbors

August 13, 2012 |

Chickens pecking at your toes? Fresh eggs daily? Sounds like rural living. With the rise of the urban locavore movement, though, poultry are becoming commonplace in cities all over the country.

When Khrysti Smyth first started keeping chickens in her urban yard in Somerville Massachusetts, it was not only for the fresh eggs, but to reconnect with nature.

“I have been a green living practitioner and advocate for my entire life,” she said, but after moving to Somerville and selling her car she found herself “city-locked”.  She started to feel detached from nature and wanted to bring it back into her life.

For her, chicken keeping quickly became a natural antidote to city living.

As someone starting out with chickens in an urban environment, there were many practical questions to answer: How much would it cost? What would chickens do to the lawn? How would the neighbors react? Having successfully negotiated these muddy waters herself, Smyth has extended her love of the birds into a small business, helping other urbanites bring chickens into their homes. Now, she has some tips for you.

Costs and Coops: the practical side to chicken keeping

The greatest cost associated with chickens is the initial set up, including the coop. The trade off, Smyth says, is between time and money. For example, she built her chicken coop entirely from Craigslist materials, costing her less than $500, but also 3-4 months of her time. Chickens themselves range in price, too. Chicks can cost between $3-10, while laying-aged hens can be as much as $75.

Smyth sells a coop and bird set up, complete with installation, for $1,000-$1,500. As it can take up to a year before chicks start laying, buying a complete set-up means that her customers can have a chicken coop with laying birds within a few days rather than months or even years.

Khrysti Smyth and Lucy. Photo: Khrysti Smyth

Typically, feed is the only reoccurring cost chicken owners have after the initial set up. In the summer, Smyth reports that her 14 chickens will go through a 50-pound bag of chicken feed (costing under $20) in about one and a half months. In the winter, with fewer alternative food options, the chickens go through the feed a little faster.

“The more you have them free-ranging and the more fruits and veggies you feed them, the less chicken food they eat,” Smyth said.

For all that work, Smyth reports that she can get between 4-5 eggs per bird per week, with ornamental chickens laying slightly less than that.

Grit and Grass: What are chickens going to do to the yard?

Though chickens are appreciated for their eggs, new owners and their neighbors are often concerned about the problems poultry can bring, such as attracting pest animals and destroying lawns.

Smyth says that the potential for increased urban pests is “not entirely a misconception, but it has been amplified more than is realistic.”

“As long as you manage it in such a way that does not make [the food] easily accessible, even if [pests] show up once, they are not going to stick around because there is something easier to get down the block.”

She encourages chicken owners to keep all their food in pest-proof containers, design their coops to keep critters out, and ensure that the chicken coop won’t provide the easiest meal on the block. In urban environments, most pests have better options.

But what about your lawn or garden?

“Anything green or leafy that you might eat, [the chickens] definitely want to eat,” Smyth reports. She recommends poultry netting to keep chickens away from gardens and moving the enclosure daily to ensure that they don’t do too much damage to any one area.

She notes that many farmers will use chickens to till and fertilize a garden after it’s been harvested. “It’s a great way to put your animals to work in your garden area.”

The Other Pest: how to manage your neighbors

Surprisingly, keeping birds out of gardens and away from opportunist rodents can be chickenfeed compared to the challenges of dealing with the human neighbors in an urban environment.

Smyth has had a lot of success bringing chickens to her neighborhood in Somerville, displaying them in classrooms and even having them meet the mayor. Unfortunately, not all urban poultry owners are as lucky.

Blake Brasher was living in the adjacent city of Cambridge, when he and his housemates decided to purchase a few chickens and ducks.

“We had two chickens and three ducks. Each duck had its own personality and would run out to greet us when we went into the yard,” Brasher says. “We considered them pets with benefits; the benefits being the eggs.”

He even noticed a benefit to his yard. “The birds were wonderful at keeping the rats at bay and at eating slugs, which are a big garden pest in New England. Many of our garden plants thrived that year. It was a pleasure to hang out with the birds, and a number of our friends and neighbors would come over to see them regularly.”

It wasn’t long though before one neighbor started to complain to the city. There was concern about rats, noises, housing values and even bird flu.

At the time, the city of Cambridge did not have any laws or zoning ordinances related to managing urban poultry. And as a result, the city was forced to interpret existing zoning ordinances. The interpretation for Brasher and his housemates was not good, ultimately requiring them to get rid of their birds.

“It was not a happy ending,” Brasher said. The birds were sent off to a local learning farm, where the chickens died within a few weeks from disease and the ducks were eaten by predators.

According to the city of Cambridge, poultry keeping is not permitted at this time, leaving other chicken owners in the city at the mercy of neighbors and city zoning boards.

“I guess the key would be to have good relations with your neighbors,” Brasher says. “We had discussed within the house whether or not we should try to ask for permission from our neighbors before getting the birds, but we felt like our relationship was such that she would say no to anything we asked.”

Smyth says that it’s common for people to not want to deal with neighbors. “The risk is that you are going to have one neighbor who is absolutely opposed to it. If you open that flood gate of communication, you are going to hear all about why this is a terrible idea.”

She adds that getting as many people on your side ahead of time is key. “I was proactive with my neighbors,” Smyth said. She brought them a plan, which detailed the number of chickens and the layout of their coop, inviting them to respond. She also hyped up the fact that there would be eggs, “which is really good for placating neighbors.”

Since first getting her chickens, Smyth has helped the city of Somerville change their ordinances to allow up to 6 hens and disallow roosters, which can be a nuisance to neighbors.

Keeping a tidy coop, using her birds for outreach and including her neighbors in her planning has allowed Smyth to safely keep chickens in her urban yard for several years now. She sees chicken-keeping as a neighborhood activity, and her goal is to be able to share a little piece of nature with other city dwellers.

“Having a garden and giving produce to your neighbors is one thing,” Smyth said. “Having chickens and having everybody want to come over to meet them and show their kids really helps develop the community.”

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