An article about a woman lobbying her city council to allow backyard chickens recently caught my attention. She wasn’t even sure she wants to raise chickens herself, but she wants the legal option.
A hundred years ago, plenty of city folks kept chickens. Urban chickens never raised an eyebrow.
What happened? And what’s likely to happen?
The early history of urban chickens
Humans first domesticated chickens thousands of years ago. The earliest cities hardly amounted to more than villages. Even as cities grew larger, all or most of the residents kept various animals for food or labor.
In America before the automobile, every family needed at least one horse. So why not chickens? Probably not every city dweller kept chickens, though. Why else would the Department of Agriculture have published a magazine advertisement promoting urban chickens?
At the time, raising chickens hardly seemed like a good use of resources for a farm. After all, chickens hardly seemed like a major source of revenue. If a farm kept 400 of them, it was considered a large flock.
Chickens ate kitchen scraps and whatever else they could scratch up. They had no specific housing. On farms, they shared the barn with other animals.
It was hard to keep them healthy over the winter, when there was so much less sunlight. About 40% of them died. Chickens existed to provide eggs. The average hen laid 150 eggs per year, if that.
Eggs seemed like a luxury. Chicken meat was no more than a byproduct. Hens too old to lay became meat. Otherwise, no one ate chicken meat except on special occasions. It took 16 weeks for a chicken to grow to two pounds, a standard frying weight. What a difference a century makes!
A revolution in the chicken business
First, scientists discovered Vitamin D in 1922. Feeding it to chickens kept them heathy throughout the winter.
At about the same time, truck farmers—farmers who grow vegetables on a large scale—wanted to find an alternative source of income for years when they couldn’t make enough profit from their crops.
Mrs. Wilmer Steele, a farmer’s wife in Delaware, decided to raise chickens for meat. In 1923 she started with a flock of 500 chickens, which by the standards of the day seemed huge. She provided confined housing for them. Her system worked so well that by 1926 she had a broiler house with room for 10,000 birds.
Needless to say, plenty of other people noticed. Industrial production of chicken meat had begun.
Between improved diet and housing for chickens only, the mortality rate dropped to 5%. With such large flocks, the chickens could no longer subsist on scraps and foraging. So the chicken feed industry started. Other new technology automated slaughtering the birds. And the meat kept longer because of advances in refrigeration
During World War II, the government again encouraged people to grow their own food, including urban chickens. But after the war, advancing technology and economies of scale meant that industrial chicken turned out so much chicken meat that it stopped being a luxury. And it became easier to buy chicken from the store than raise it in the back yard.
Eventually, large companies like Perdue and Tyson began to drive smaller operations out of business. They kept chickens confined in very small cages. Instead of taking sixteen weeks to reach two pounds, a chicken could grow to four pounds in eight weeks or less. But this rapid growth came at the expense of health problems.
Dissatisfaction with industrial chickens
In the 1990s, American consumers began to care about the living conditions of the animals that gave their lives to put meat on the table. At about the same time, homesteading started to become a noticeable trend.
Keeping chickens, even in urban areas, seems like step toward sustainability. Hen poop makes compost. People who compost garden. People who grow their own vegetables decrease the amount of produce grocery stores must bring in by truck—and all the associated environmental costs.
Nowadays, it appears that more and more people are keeping chickens at home, although statistics are hard to come by. According to a 2014 survey, most people growing their own chickens in urban, suburban, and rural areas had only been at it for five years or less. Reasons for keeping backyard chickens varied. Common responses included
- Home-grown chickens have better living conditions and health.
- Eggs and meat from home-grown chickens tastes better and are more nutritious.
- They are safer to eat than industrial chicken.
A majority of backyard chicken owners reported no health problems in their flocks, although they seemed to be unaware of such conditions as Marek’s disease. Most of them wanted to know more about detecting and treating health problems.
Reported challenges included predators, the cost of adequate food, soil management issues, and complying with legal regulations.
Legal barriers to urban chickens
The economic boom after World War II saw the explosive growth of suburbs. Suburban residents shunned both the crowding and noise of the inner city and the isolation and unsophistication of rural areas.
Since no city-dwelling family needed to grow their own food, most urban and suburban zoning regulations banned keeping farm animals. They had gone from a necessity to a nuisance. Offenders who tried to keep chickens or other farm animals in town faced heavy fines and probably the disapproval of everyone else in the neighborhood.
Recently, however, people have become more interested in local food. In part, these people do not want to participate in the environmental costs of shipping food long distances.
Why do we raise animals, ship them to China for processing, and then re-import them? It happens. Also, people have become more concerned about farm animals’ living conditions.
And what’s more local than a back-yard garden—and chicken coop?
So more and more cities have changed their laws and regulations to allow residents to raise chickens—usually subject to certain restrictions. Hardly any two towns that allow backyard chickens at all have the same restrictions, but these are common:
- Limiting the number of chickens any one household can keep
- Allowing hens but forbidding roosters
- Requiring permits and/or annual fees
- Forbidding free-range chickens by requiring confinement in a coop.
- Limiting coops to a minimum distance from neighboring property lines or a maximum portion of the yard
- Forbidding slaughter of urban chickens
- Prohibiting certain predictable nuisances such as noise, odor, pests, or other concerns related to public health.
- Limiting backyard chickens to personal use by forbidding sale of meat or eggs.
In addition to laws and regulations, many neighborhood associations have their own restrictions. And, of course, renters must have permission of landlords to keep chickens.
Not all is rosy in urban chicken land
Katherine Martinko, an outspoken advocate for backyard chickens who lobbied her town council for permission to keep them, finally gave up. Town bylaws required her to keep her chickens within a fenced area. The amount of poop five hens produced in a small area became overwhelming.
Despite her efforts to clear the poop and keep the area clean, it became compacted. She couldn’t keep from tracking it all over the place. And it stunk.
What’s more, one of the birds flew the coop every day. She’d find it in nearby flower beds. Although her research, and the breeder who sold her the birds, assured her that she had fenced in ample space, she felt sorry for confining them.
Earlier generations of chicken keepers regarded their flock as a source of food. They never thought of having a relationship with chickens or care much about how much space they needed.
Nowadays, urban farmers often name their birds and regard them as pets. And who wants to kill and eat a pet? Between not being able to keep the area clean and feeling guilty because of the requirement for a fence, Martinko finally decided to give the birds to someone who had a larger flock and plenty of room.
I expect a growing number of people will decide to keep chickens and persevere. But I also suspect that urban chickens will prove more successful on urban farms than in people’s backyards.
Backyard chickens in the United States: a survey of flock owners / C. Elkhoraibi et al. Poultry Science 93(November 2014): 2920-31
Bawk to the future: a century of Americans keeping chickens / Kenny Coogan, Hobby Farms. August 21, 2018
A history of chickens: then (1900) vs now (2016) / The Happy Chicken Coop. October 1, 2015 https://www.thehappychickencoop.com/a-history-of-chickens/
Is it legal to raise chickens in my suburban backyard? / Counting My Chickens. March 12, 2015
Orangeville resident wants backyard chickens put back on the pecking order / Chris Halliday, Orangeville [Ontario] Banner. September 8, 2019 https://www.orangeville.com/news-story/9584078-orangeville-resident-wants-backyard-chickens-put-back-on-the-pecking-order/
Why I no longer have backyard chickens / Katherine Martinko, Treehugger. September 19, 2018
Backyard chickens. Some rights reserved by Aaron Baugher
USDA advertisement. Source unknown
Industrial chicken coop. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Homesteading garden. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons [file has been deleted]
Garden. Some rights reserved by Cheryl
Urban farm. Some rights reserved by Sam Beebe