By Hara Estroff Marano, published on January 1, 2010 - last reviewed on September 17, 2010
You know something's afoot when there's a new book called Raising Chickens for Dummies. But then again, how many other pets can provide you with breakfast and live to do it again the next day—and the next?
For a large and rapidly growing number of people—especially those in urban and suburban areas of the country—eating healthy, eating local, reducing the environmental costs of consumption, and knowing where your food comes from boils down to one thing: raising chickens in your backyard. Or on your roof. Or even balcony.
Your next-door neighbor could be doing it and you wouldn't even know. Contrary to what many people assume, chickens are not noisy critters. Many municipalities allow backyard chicken-raising so long as there are a maximum of four or five hens and no roosters. New York City, for example, is a highly chicken-friendly place; it puts no limit on the number of hens anyone can raise, but, again, no roosters, please, in the flock. For producing and laying eggs, you may recall from biology class, hens do not need a rooster; hatching chicks is another matter entirely.
"My family of four hasn't bought eggs in five years," reports Rob Ludlow, who since 2005 has been raising five heritage-breed hens in an urban/suburban neighborhood in the San Francisco East Bay area. "In my immediate neighborhood alone, five other families are raising hens, and most got into it in the last two years." "Chickens are the new black," a California newspaper recently crowed.
Ludlow didn't set out to be a chicken farmer. He spends his days as an online business consultant. But he enjoys the sideline so much and has acquired so much expertise so quickly that he co-authored the chickens-for-dummies book a few months ago and runs the Web site BackYardChickens.com. New members are flocking to the 43,000-user site at a rate of over 80 a day, he notes.
Part of the appeal of raising chickens seems to be "chatting chicken." A number of very active online communities exist, and regulars happily share information about everything from coop construction and space requirements to avian health and choosing chicken breeds—including that perennial problem, which to acquire first—the chicken or the egg? Since most urban/suburban areas are lacking in veterinarians with avian expertise, those online tend to be very generous about helping fellow farmers diagnose any problems that crop up in their flocks.
"Chickens are really a great multipurpose pet," Ludlow insists. "They're social animals. They interact with their environment and with people." A poll of 34,000 members of his Web site revealed that the number one reason people raise chickens at home is for pets. The word "entertainment" comes up a lot, and many people enjoy sitting in their yard and watching the birds interact. "Chickens are always active," says Ludlow. "They're fun to watch."
A close runner-up is to have a constant supply of ultrafresh eggs. Nutritionally speaking, there is a pecking order among eggs, and home-raised chickens given even minimal room to roam produce gems that are lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than your standard supermarket egg. They are also richer in vitamin A, omega-3 fats, vitamin E, and beta carotene than eggs produced by cage-raised birds. It's that daily dose of the outdoors that does it. Chickens are omnivores. They naturally seek a diet of bugs, seeds, grass, worms, and weeds.
Backyard-chicken eggs are also remarkably rich in flavor. Nor is there any mistaking them; they can look radically different, as well. The shells can come in a rainbow of colors besides white and light brown, depending largely on the breed. Araucana chickens lay blue to blue-green eggs. Marans lay rich-chocolate-colored eggs. Shell color has no bearing on taste.
It's inside the shell, however, that home-raised chickens show their true colors. Yolks are brighter and far more intense in color—almost bright orange. The whites are also clearer and firmer, making them especially valued by cooks.
Misconceptions abound about raising chickens, Ludlow points out. The most widespread, he says, is probably that the animals are smelly as well as noisy. "They are neither if cared for properly," which in his book comes down to having adequate space and "waste management." A second major misconception is that chickens have no personality. On the contrary, Ludlow insists, they have lots.
"Small flocks are the wave of the future," insists Barbara Laino, who with her husband runs Midsummer Farm about 60 miles north of New York City and regularly holds workshops in backyard organic poultry-rearing. "It's where poultry-raising should be. Chickens were never meant to be raised in factory farms."
The eggs are "totally awesome" in their freshness and in nutritional quality, she says. "Backyard chickens are living happy lives, which has real meaning in terms of nutrients going into the eggs. Walking around, they also eat a natural diet. Omega-3s get into the eggs not because the birds are fed flaxseed but because they are eating greens."
Laino's workshops are always well-attended, and many sign up fresh from having read Michael Pollan's books or novelist Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, chronicling a year of eating home-grown food. "They get inspired," she reports. "People feel that by raising chickens, 'at least I can be part of this movement towards artisanal living.'"
She doesn't see it as a fad. "I really put people through rigorous training. They get a good sense of what it's like. Many of them come back in a year for more chickens. It gets addictive. The animals really don't take that much work. And there are all the different color eggs people begin wanting."
She also warns city and suburban dwellers about what more rural farmers may already know—that it's essential to create for the birds a safe place that "can be locked down like a fortress at night, because predators sneak in." In her rural neck of the woods, it might be a raccoon. In places like New York City, she reports, it's likely to be a hungry rat.
Dreams of raising chickens at home are on the rise. Here are a half-dozen things you need to know to turn that into reality.