How to Raise Chickens in an Urban Environment

Funny how great ideas never really die. They may fade away for a few years, but they always seem to return, mainly because, well, they were great ideas. We’ve never seen the return of the Pet Rock, but we are seeing chickens make a comeback, and this writer says HALLEJUAH, BROTHER!

My grandparents had a farm in Charles City, Iowa, prior to the Great Depression. Their farm of 200 acres was mostly gone by 1939. By the time I first visited them, in 1953, they had their original farmhouse and five acres. To me, a child of five, their “spread” seemed enormous. To them, older, wiser, and disillusioned, their “spread” was a painful reminder of better days.

My grandfather sat me on his knee one day and talked to me of the old days of farming, the long hours, the endless problems, and his love for the land. He talked about the cattle and the pigs, the turkeys and the goats, and then he pointed to ten chickens scratching a few feet from us.

“That’s all that remains, Billy, of the farm. Ten chickens. As long as I’m able to work this property, I’ll have chickens, because to me, chickens represent a way of life I’ll never see again.”

“Why,” I asked him, ”do you like chickens so much?”

He laughed his booming laugh. “Because they don’t require me to do any work, Billy. I toss them some food every now and then, and each morning I’m rewarded with fresh eggs. They are the perfect farm animal, and I’ll be damned if I can understand why more people in the city don’t own them.”

So here I am, little Billy all grown up, and I’ll be damned if I can understand why more people in the city don’t own chickens.

If there are no restrictions in your city, then what are you waiting for?

And if there are restrictions in your community, then why aren’t you changing those restrictions?

The movement is growing. You might just as well become a part of it.

Today is your lucky day and how cool is that?

Today I’m going to give you a primer on raising chickens in the city, and you get to learn from my considerable mistakes. If it could be done wrong then I’ve done it, but I only made the mistakes once and then learned from them. Now you don’t even have to make those same mistakes once.

Don’t try to thank me. I embarrass easily.

Shall we begin?

You just might be surprised! Many cities across the United States now allow chickens within their boundaries. Most cities allow between three and five hens per yard. Rarely are roosters allowed because, well, roosters are annoyingly loud.

But never fear, you get eggs without having roosters. You just don’t get fertilized eggs, but if you aren’t planning on raising a large flock, you don’t need fertilized eggs anyway.

So check with your city planners and find out what your city allows. If you live where chickens are not allowed, it most likely is because nobody has ever started the political process to get them allowed. Why not you?

No clowning around on this point. Chickens are basically helpless when it comes to dogs, raccoons, weasels, possums, rats, and even large cats. Chickens need protection. Their coop needs to be safe from invasion, as does their chicken run. If you choose not to have a run, and allow your chickens to roam freely around your yard, don’t worry too much about predators during the day. An occasional hawk might soar above them, but chickens are amazingly good at knowing when birds of prey are nearby, and they will head for cover when they hear a hawk cry out from above. Just make sure dogs can’t get into your yard. As dusk approaches, your chickens will head back to the safety of their coop, where you can lock them in for the night.

There are hundreds of building plans for constructing a chicken coop, and there are hundreds of completed coops for sale if you want to go that route. You can also do what we did and simply construct a simple coop out of wooden pallets and a couple sheets of plywood. Our entire coop, which houses six hens, cost us $44 to make, or the cost of two sheets of plywood. We must have done a good job because we haven’t lost one of our six chickens to predators over the first two years.

I can only give you an average figure based on my experience, and I can also tell you that every chicken is a bit different when it comes to a laying schedule.

On average, a hen will lay five or six eggs during a seven-day week. That’s during the spring, summer, and early fall. During the winter all bets are off. Our first year, our hens laid the entire year and did not take the winter months off. The second winter, they took two months off and then started in again. I’ve spoken to friends in the Midwest who say their hens don’t lay from October to March.

As your hens get older they will lay fewer eggs. Their greatest productivity happens in the first two years, and then their output diminishes. I know of chickens that will lay when they are seven and eight years old, but again, on average, after about four years they are better as fryers than egg-layers.

Chicken feed, of course, which can be found at many pet stores and farm feed stores, but chickens will also scratch for bugs constantly, and they also happen to love bread. In fact, you might be surprised at the things your chickens will enjoy eating. We turn ours loose in the vegetable garden when the growing season is over, and they love eating the leaves on the dormant plants. They will even eat slugs if you split the slug open first.

Give them a worm and they will love you forever. I go out in the yard every week and dig up a section with my trusty shovel. New worms are discovered and the chickens once again declare their love for me.

Fresh water is also non-negotiable. If it gets cold in the winter then you need to make sure their water supply doesn’t freeze.

Believe it or not, chickens are very hardy. They are not fond of wind and rain but they will survive it. Snow is a challenge for them but again, they can survive it. Cold is their greatest enemy other than predators, but a simple heat lamp in their coop will get them through the winter. Once the temperature dips into the twenties or below, the heat lamp needs to be turned on so your critters have a warm place to run to.

I’ve written articles on how to construct a chicken coop, so I won’t go into that here. I’m not going to bother you with the different breeds you can choose from. Do a little research and find out which breed will work best for you. If you plan on eating your chickens when their laying days are over, then go for productivity and size. If you just want eggs, then lean towards the best egg-producers.

If you learn only one lesson from this article, make it this: chickens need to be protected from predators. Do that and chances are excellent that you will be successful.

2015 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)