Raising Chickens in the City

Urban gardeners are flocking to chickens to keep bugs away and provide eggs and compost. Keeping backyard birds is easier than you might think.

| May/June 2006

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, and Beatrice, Gertrude and Zelda, three butterscotch-brown Buff Orpington hens, are having a field day in Jennifer Carlson’s Seattle back yard. A landscape designer and organic gardening expert, Carlson has placed a floorless chicken coop––or “chicken tractor”––on her lawn, where the hens methodically search for bugs and worms, taking an occasional break for a dust bath. Once the birds have excavated one area, she moves the tractor to a new piece of turf.

The remains of the chickens’ excavations—a rich mixture of dirt, chicken manure and grass that’s sprinkled with oak leaves to help decompose the droppings—gets a second life as compost for Carlson’s organic vegetable garden, which features basil, raspberries, eggplant and heirloom tomatoes. “The vegetables we grow then provide scraps for the birds, who produce delicious eggs and great compost for the vegetables,” explains Carlson, who has raised chickens in the city since the 1980s. “It’s a really cool cycle.”

Carlson, who spent her early childhood among Wyoming and Colorado ranchers, now lives in a cheery red house on a corner lot in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. “Chickens make ideal pets,” she says. “They like being around people, and they’re very curious, comical and ungainly. Yet they’re contained, so they’re not chasing the mailman.” With a cup of coffee in hand, she makes a daily round of the garden every morning. “It’s relaxing seeing the chickens and garden thrive.”

Backyard birds

From Seattle to St. Louis, hens are the latest trend in natural gardening. The Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, the country’s largest supplier of two-day old chicks, sends about 1,000 chicks a week to people in urban and suburban areas. (Five years ago, the number of urban buyers was so small the hatchery didn’t even keep track.) Reversing decades-old laws against urban chickens, advocates across the country are lobbying city officials to permit backyard hens, while community gardening organizations are hosting overflow crowds for chicken-coop tours and chicken-raising classes.

“People have lost touch with what used to be considered common knowledge about animals,” says Pam Karstens, who teaches Backyard Chickens 101 through the Madison, Wisconsin, nonprofit Mad City Chickens. Most attendees are well-educated urban professionals in their 30s and 40s. “Many are parents trying to teach their children where food comes from,” she says.

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