Pecking order

A little yard space and some determination are all you need to become an urban chicken farmer

Photo By David Robert

Jeff Brooke says his front yard is like Jurassic Park. The creatures that inhabit his property hunt like the swift Velociraptor, eat like the mighty Brontosaurus and cluck like the ravenous Tyranosaurus Rex. Cluck?

Brooke, a Reno surveyor, is an urban chicken farmer. He lives in the central part of town near a busy thoroughfare. He’s got a few chickens, about enough to keep his family and friends in eggs. The hens live in the front yard during the day and roost out back in the henhouse at night. He says there’s more to raising poultry than opening the gate, though.

“It’s not as easy as just getting chickens and putting them in your yard—that’s what I thought,” he says. “Then the chickens started getting bored, so I had to worry about entertaining the chickens.”

Chickens are camped out in more local backyards than you might think. That means, for better or worse, raising a few laying hens in your yard won’t make you the neighborhood freak. Still, if you’re frustrated that ripping out the front lawn and installing a vegetable garden doesn’t brand you a hippie in these parts, chickens just might be your ticket to countercultural cachet.

Mary Johns shares her home with a bantam rooster named Wally, “a very undemanding little pet.” He sleeps in a chicken-wire enclosure underneath Johns’ kitchen island. “During the day, he prances back and forth on the deck,” she says. Although the unusual indoor coop requires frequent cleaning, she says the setup has been very successful. When her teenage daughter brings friends home, they go gaga for affable Wally.

Urban chicken farmer Jeff Brooke shows off one of his chickens’ eggs.

Photo By David Robert

Chickens have distinct personalities—unwelcome news, perhaps, for those who enjoy them primarily at KFC—and make friendly pets. They won’t be sleeping at the foot of your bed, but they will stay endearingly underfoot as you pull weeds or tan in your patio chair. And unlike freeloading dogs and cats, they pay rent in eggs.

The hens do, anyway. Keeping hens for eggs in an urban area is a laidback affair. Roosters, a bit less reposed with their loud and proud crows, can be a disturbance. While Reno ordinances are fairly silent on the issue, Washoe County codes say poultry owners must keep their chickens on their own property. Though much smaller than standard roosters, Wally’s declarations of self can still be heard ringing out across the canyon behind his home.

Hen noises are much sweeter: the shuffling of leaves as they scratch the soil, the quiet bok-bok-bok of contentment that is their take on purring, the check-in calls back and forth (”Bwaawk! Where you at?"). Best of all is the ecstatic egg celebration, which begins with a string of ascending boks and crescendos to bok-bok-b-CAW! Hearing this announcement and then stepping outside to gather a warm egg makes the urban chicken farmer feel like God.

You won’t need a rooster, by the way. Hens lay regularly, even if there’s no guy around to fertilize. Damn fine eggs they are, too. If you keep chickens, you might never order another restaurant omelette. Store-bought eggs will seem pale and runny. Flat and flavorless. A fresh, homegrown egg has spunk. The yolk is orange for real, and the white stays firmly where it lands in the pan.

Saskia Levy-Sheon, 13, has grown up alongside a small flock of Barred Plymouth Rock hens and says the free egg supply is the best part. Her dad decided to add a coop to their yard five years ago. “He needed someone to talk to,” she explains, eyes rolled.

“They’re fun to hold, except when they poop on you,” says Saskia’s 9-year-old sister, Sophie, who particularly enjoys hand-feeding slug treats to the birds. Kids are mesmerized by the prodigiousness of these feathery egg machines.

Homegrown eggs are said to have more nutrients and lower cholesterol than factory-farmed eggs.

Photo by David Robert

Hens go lay-crazy their first year, possibly threatening their owners’ cholesterol count, and then lay gradually fewer eggs each year. Someday, even spring chickens will be old and worn out. Since most urban poultry isn’t fated for the stewpot, you may end up caring for them well past their prime laying days. Healthy hens typically live eight to 10 years.

Eggs aren’t the only perk. Gardeners like Jeff Brooke love the idea of having little machines that till soil, turn compost, hunt snails, eat leaf-mined chard, and spew organic fertilizer. So what if they come in cute, feathered packages? The more weeds, grass, and insects your chickens munch, the healthier they, and your eggs will be. Recent trials by Mother Earth News showed pastured, homegrown eggs to be vastly higher in omega-3s, beta-carotene, and vitamin E, and lower in cholesterol, than factory-farmed eggs.

Of course, chickens also can turn the garden into a graveyard of uprooted seedlings, defoliated spinach and disappeared tomatoes. Even free-range fowl need boundaries. Herein lies the art of urban husbandry. A balance must be struck between security—i.e., a raccoon-proof coop—humane treatment, and protection of the garden. Maybe at a Lemmon Valley spread, you could just fling open the coop each morning and let ’em roam. It doesn’t work quite like that off West First Street.

The simplest solution is a fenced run attached to the coop. This will soon become a wasteland—a chilling display of the garden’s would-be fate. The chickens will rid the run of plant matter and dig out comfy holes in which to take their prized dust baths. For limited access to green foliage, let them out shortly before dusk so they can graze the garden and make their way back to the coop on their own—yep, chickens do come home to roost. You may still want to protect vegetable beds and young seedlings. Throwing some leaves or weeds into the coop also provides fresh vegetable matter.

Definitely let the chickens clean up the vegetable beds at the end of the season. Give them a patch of buggy, spent vegetables and tired soil, and they’ll scratch and peck and bok contentedly until only freshly turned earth remains. No grubs, no weed seeds. They’ll provide the fertilizer—and dig it in at no extra charge.

While backyard chickens bring delights, there is also some unpleasantness to be dealt with. There will be manure, which will stink, and if it isn’t promptly exiled, there will also be flies. If the coop has any potential entry points, grain-robbing rodents will visit. That said, basic maintenance will keep any grossness at bay. (See sidebar, “Tips for chicks.")

Karen Brooke, Jeff’s wife and RN&R office and distribution manager, feeds corn to her chickens.

Photo By David Robert

Ready for your chickens? Better start with chicks. But be aware that bringing these little cotton balls into your life is a bit stressful. Most chicks for sale are but a day old and need newborn care. Fortunately, they are only chicks for a second, so this level of commitment won’t last long. Their vulnerable fluff quickly disappears, and in six weeks or so, they’ll be feathered up and ready for coop life.

Amid morning clucking, skirmishes over worms, and never-ending attempts to fly the coop, you might breeze right past the fact that you’re raising your own food. But one day, when the coop is quiet and the hens have laid, you’ll find yourself in a stupefied daze, just thinking about from where those eggs really came.

Indeed, some people keep chickens for the entertainment value—not just for themselves but also for passers-by.

“The neighbors all like them,” says Brooke from his Plumb Lane Jurassic Park. “Everything I’ve heard has been positive; everybody either looking at them running around or hearing them—long as you don’t have a rooster, of course. Chickens are dinosaurs. That’s what I call them, ‘Our little dinosaurs.'”

And no. These chickens never cross the road.

Books about chickens

Buffy and Buttercuppy hang out in a “tractor,” or moveable coop.

Photo By David Robert

Gail Damerow, Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey, $18.95)

Barbara Kilarski, Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces (Storey, $16.95)

Gail and Rick Luttmann, Chickens in Your Backyard: A Beginner’s Guide (Rodale, $12.95)

Web sites about keeping chickens

• Chicken Keeping: General info, plus hen blog and hencam.

• The City Chicken: Coop photos and useful FAQ.

• FeatherSite: A wellspring on breeds and husbandry.

• Backyard Chickens: Coop design and helpful Learning Center.

• Biosecurity for the Birds: Bird flu info.

• Mother Earth News Chicken and Egg Page: Egg nutrition research.

Chickens are good for more than eggs. Their manure is some of the best fertilizer around.

Photo By David Robert

Online coop sales