Backyard chicken and coop

Which came first, the urban chicken farmer or the free-range egg?

These days, in places from Brooklyn to Portland, the answer may be both. Backyard chicken coops have become as de rigueur as compost piles and gluten-free diets. Celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Martha Stewart even reportedly keep coops. “People mainly want chickens for two reasons: because it’s part of their culture from growing up with farm animals or because they believe in the local food movement,” says Greg Anderson, City Farms program manager for Just Food, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that promotes holistic food.

Popularity notwithstanding, chicken keeping is not to be taken lightly. Anderson got involved when he and his wife set out to establish a coop at their local Crown Heights community garden in 2008. Just Food helped them build it, and afterward they volunteered to help others (a requirement of the program). Anderson began running training sessions for Just Food and eventually took over the helm of the chicken project. “Keeping chickens is a full-time commitment — you become responsible for the lives of these animals,” he says. “That’s why we advise not going into it alone. Work with your community and your neighbors. Share the joy of having fresh eggs, so that people are inclined to help!” Since 2007, Just Food has built 19 chicken coops in urban farms, community gardens and public schools in the NYC area.

Here, Anderson offers tips on how to establish and nourish your own flourishing backyard flock.

Become an Egghead

The first step is to educate yourself. It’s important to know as much as possible about the chicken world before joining (so you don’t do anything birdbrained). There are countless resources online, including two Just Food creations: a City Farms group focused on urban agriculture and a specific City Chicken group. Through online forums like these you can meet fellow chicken keepers, attend Meetups and find resources.

In the book department, Anderson recommends How To Raise Chickens: Everything You Need To Know by Christine Heinrichs. “She’s been working with chickens for a very long time,” he explains. “She understands the concepts of keeping them on farms and also in urban settings.”

It's also important, before you bring your chicks home to roost, to know where to take them if they need medical care. In New York City, Anderson recommends Brooklyn Cares Veterinary Clinic and the Animal Medical Center; check with chicken experts or veterinary practices in your area to find a doctor near you.

Chicken Little? Or Chicken Big?

Now that you know the background of chicken keeping, ask yourself why you want the birds. Is it because you’d like to have fresh eggs daily? Do you want them as pets or as show chickens? (Yes, that’s a thing.) “That would dictate how you set up your coop with specific breeds,” Anderson explains, describing one woman who keeps her birds as pets in diapers inside her apartment. “For example, there are breeds that are more human-friendly or that lay big or small eggs.”

Climate is also a factor in choosing the right chickens. Breeds from Central and South America are often better suited to dry, hot weather, whereas others, like the Rhode Island Red, for example, are hardier and more prepared for northeast winters. Brahma chickens are even more protected, with feathers that cover their feet.

Whatever you choose, get your chickens from a reputable source and not a butcher, Anderson suggests. Those birds have been caged for so long that they don’t possess basic chicken instincts like scratching the earth for worms.

How Many Chickens Does It Take?

Once you’ve chosen your breed, it’s time to consider how many chickens to house based on two factors: the size of your space and, if you’re hoping for eggs, how many you’d like to have daily. “How large is your family? Are you going to share your eggs with neighbors?” Anderson asks. “Those answers would dictate the size of your coop.” The expert also recommends considering the environment itself: Does the backyard face north or south? If it gets a lot of sun, you may want to allot space to create additional shade.

Coop Comfort

Not all coops and runs (the fenced-in area where chickens hang during the day) are appointed equally. Some people trust hay, while others opt for straw or sand. What’s the difference? “It’s mostly about expense and odor control,” Anderson says, “but there are other factors, too.” Some people prefer hay because it’s a mixture of different grasses, including clover, so the birds can eat the seeds. Straw is hollow and offers little nutritional value, so the chickens don’t eat it. Sand is a good absorbent with the added bonus that you can use a scooper, as you would with cat litter, so it’s easier to keep clean. “Hay, straw or sand: It’s a personal choice,” Anderson says.

Stores that sell chicken feed will stock different types. Be mindful of buying the correct food for your birds; for example, look for layer feed for egg producers.

The Hen House

Like our homes and apartments, chicken coops can range from no-frills to mansion-equivalent. In fact, Neiman Marcus’ 2012 Christmas catalog included a $100,000 coop labeled “eggcessive” by some. (Williams-Sonoma sells some, too.)

Coops can be ordered or commissioned in every shape and size — modernist, sleek, traditional. They also come as kits, for those who want to build the structures themselves. “Environmentally conscious people even scavenge found materials like reclaimed wood to build coops,” Anderson says. “The most important thing is that the coop houses the chickens at night and can keep them out of rain, wind and snow. They can keep themselves warm out of those elements.” 

Chicken Care

When it comes to caring for the feathered friends, people also approach the process in different ways. Some opt to be totally hands on, while others rely on services to do the dirty work. There are companies easily found online that will come build your coop and also clean it regularly and care for the chickens.

No matter what, make sure to talk to your neighbors before getting birds. Roosters are illegal in many cities because of noise restrictions, and while hens aren’t as loud, they still do cluck now and again to show pride or warn of a perceived nearby predator. No one wants to deal with a dispute over that after the coop is already built.

Most important, Anderson reminds all future chicken keepers to take this choice seriously: “You’re dealing with live animals. Just like with a pet dog, be mindful of the time it takes to care for them.”

What do you do if it turns out that chickens aren't your thing after all? "Due to the high number of unwanted chickens in the city," Anderson says, "it has become difficult to find organizations" that will take unwanted birds. He recommends doing some hands-on research before you commit. "The more you educate yourself about chicken keeping the less problems you will have once you get them," he says. "I would also suggest that folks find a garden, school or neighbor that has chickens and volunteer to help them out so you can experience chicken keeping before you go out and buy your own."

If you do decide, in the end, that your chickens need a new home, Anderson suggests looking for a Meetup group of chicken owners and reaching out to them first. Someone in the group may be willing — and able — to take your birds in.

Read more Vetstreet articles featuring farm animals.