In case you haven’t noticed, urban chicken farming is becoming more and more common in Chicago. With the growing interest in eating fresher, healthier food, Chicagoans have taken this food ethic in hand – it is after all, a way of life. Pioneers in do-it-yourself urban agriculture are surfacing all over the city. And not only those who were raised in rural settings, (who at least might have experienced childhood 4H projects), but also people who’s only previous experience with farm animals is perhaps petting a cow at the Lincoln Park Farm Zoo. This interest in “growing one’s own food” is seen all over the city, from vegetable plots sprouting in formally unused city ravaged landscapes, to rooftop gardens and balcony tomato patches.
To find out more, I spoke to several families who have been raising their own chickens in city limits for several years. All unanimously concurred that raising chickens for eggs can be a satisfying and rewarding experience.
Legal. The first question most people ask – is it legal in Chicago? Currently, it is legal to raise chickens within Chicago city limits, as long as you don’t raise them for slaughter. Refer to the Illinois Municipal Code of Chicago, Chapter 7-12 on Health and Safety, Animal Care and Control, for the rules and regulations regarding raising chickens for egg laying in Chicago city limits. Evanston has also reversed its ban on raising chickens, as of September 2010. See Evanston Municipal Codesfor more specific information. As of October 2011, Brookfield has voted on allowing chickens, with very specific limitations. If you live outside ofChicagocity limits, check your town’s ordinance and zoning laws.
Organic Eggs / Free-Range Eggs. An organic egg is described as: eggs from hens fed rations having ingredients that were grown without pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or commercial fertilizers. True free-range eggs are those produced by hens raised outdoors or that have daily access to the outdoors. Recent research has shown that hens let out to pasture lay significantly healthier eggs: 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, 7 times more beta carotene (check out this article in Mother Earth News).
Of course, if you are going to raise chickens on your own, the premise is that you will be providing them with suitable shelter, adequate area to run, and proper food and care. You may opt to provide them with ‘organic’ feed or you may not. The eggs produced under these conditions might be noticeably different than ‘non-organic’ store bought eggs (from hens raised in cramped hatcheries). To understand the reasons they will appear different, it is important to note the following:
– Color of shell depends on breed of hen, and color ranges from white to deep brown. Breeds with white feathers and ear lobes lay white eggs; breeds with red feathers and ear lobes lay brown eggs. The Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire and Plymouth Rock are breeds that lay brown eggs.
– Shell thickness is also related to egg size which, in turn, is related to the hen’s age. As the hen ages, egg size increases. The same amount of shell material which covers a smaller egg must be “stretched” to cover a larger one, hence the shell is thinner. Shell strength is greatly influenced by the minerals and vitamins in the hen’s diet, particularly calcium, phosphorus, manganese and Vitamin D. If the diet is deficient in calcium, for instance, the hen will produce a thin or soft-shelled egg. A thicker shell may be produced if a hen is allowed to forage and eat green plant matter in your chicken run, compost bin or yard.
– Yolk color depends on the diet of the hen. If she gets plenty of yellow-orange plant pigments known as xanthophylls, they will be deposited in the yolk. The yolk or yellow portion makes up about 33% of the liquid weight of the egg. It contains all of the fat in the egg and a little less than half of the protein. With the exception of riboflavin and niacin, the yolk contains a higher proportion of the egg’s vitamins than the white. All of the egg’s vitamins A, D and E are in the yolk. Egg yolks are one of the few foods naturally containing vitamin D. The yolk also contains more phosphorus, manganese, iron, iodine, copper, and calcium than the white, and it contains all of the zinc. The yolk of a Large egg contains about 59 calories.
The first time I purchased fresh free-range eggs directly from a farm, I was surprised when cracking them open to see small red ‘blood spots’ on the yoke. I was convinced they were defective or even fertilized, and declined from using them. It is important to note that I was incorrect!! Contrary to popular opinion, these tiny spots do not indicate a fertilized egg. Rather, they are caused by the rupture of a blood vessel on the yolk surface during formation of the egg or by a similar accident in the wall of the oviduct. In large scale egg hatcheries, most of these eggs are detected electronically and removed from going to market (thus I had rarely seen them). As a matter of fact, as an egg ages, the yolk takes up water from the albumen to dilute the blood spot so, in actuality, a blood spot indicates that the egg is fresh – and perfectly fine for consumption.
Chickens as Pets. As one urban chicken enthusiast said, “You have to make a choice – will they be pets or farm animals.” This is something that anyone who has spent time raising farm animals in a rural setting already knows well, but for everyone else the need to make the distinction quickly becomes apparent. After racking up over $500. in vet bills to save an elderly pet chicken, the need for one family to make “the choice” going forward was made clear. On the other hand, hens can be surprisingly adorable and endearing, and as all those I spoke to said, they make perfect pets. It is hard not to love them, name them, coddle them.
Hen Lifespan. Lifespan can largely depend on environment, in other words if they are kept comfortable, healthy and safe from predators. Depending on what information source you refer to, average lifespan can range anywhere from 6 to 35 years! For more specific information on lifespan, see resources below. [thank you Jennifer and Michele at Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts for your helpful information on this subject]
Hens have a predetermined number of eggs, like humans. Generally, you can hope for anywhere from 1 to 5 eggs per week depending on the breed, per hen, during the egg laying period of their life.
Breeds and Chicks. It’s important to choose the right breed for your climate, and your egg laying expectations. For some specific questions and answers regarding how chicks are shipped, what to expect, and other issues, see chickensforbackyards.com. Also, for some basic help selecting an appropriate breed, see mypetchicken.com.
Roosters. No, you do not need a rooster for your hen to lay eggs, unless you want the eggs to be fertilized for chicks. In fact, you may NOT want a rooster for your basic backyard egg laying venture, as roosters do not only crow in the morning, but sometimes crow all day long! Never the less, it is not illegal to have a rooster inChicago, provided you follow the guidelines outlined in the municipal code for noise nuisance. You should also note that when purchasing chicks, there is no guarantee that yours won’t grow up to be a rooster (the gender of a chick is not easy to determine by the naked eye). It’s estimated ½ of all shipped chicks could turn out to be male.
Feed. With the surge of interest in raising urban chickens, also gratefully has come greater ease in finding packaged feed nearby (10 years ago some families had to drive at least an hour outside of city limits to obtain chicken feed. Now they have it delivered to their door by a local supplier). But, there is also the fact that chickens are great scavengers. One family noted how their hens loved to dig in the dirt for bugs and insects, as well as scavenge through their compost pile for vegetable scraps. Many save their kitchen scraps for their chickens, which also improves trash management (less trash sent to the city dump).
Your hens will need shelter during the nighttime hours, to keep safe from predators. The hen house can also be somewhat insulated to keep them warm in winter, especially in our cold climate, but should not be too hot in summer (some breeds don’t do well in hot weather), provide a nesting box, and a water source. Some urban farmers provide additional warmth with heat lamps, or even move their chickens to a temporary indoor hen house during the coldest winter nights. However, hens do fine in cold climates. Their toes, wattles and combs are most susceptible to frost bite, so selecting breeds with smaller combs and wattles might be a better choice for our climate. There’s a plethora of ready made hen house suppliers, some are listed below in resources.
Nesting Material. The most common bedding materials used are wood shavings and straw. However, one family I spoke with uses coffee chaffe from a local coffee roasting company, (after roasting, the chaffe falls off the bean), The chaffe is soft, absorbent and also insulating – perfect as bedding in the coop and along the run. The chaffe is also beneficial in their compost bin. The company normally would toss the chaffe in the garbage, so this is an efficient and less costly solution for both the coffee supplier and the farmer.
Chicken Run. Chickens will spend a great deal of time in their ‘run’, so it’s important to give them appropriate space and habitat. Make sure the run is safe from predators, and suitable for chickens to scrounge around and dig.
Workshop and Chicken Coop Tour. Angelic Organics offers training workshops for beginners. In 2011 Chicago chicken farmers offered a tour of their coops. See here and here for information. Stay tuned to our site for announcements of this year’s tours.
Classes, Seminars, Workshops:
- Angelic Organics Learning Center, Instructional Seminar on Basic Backyard Chicken Care. Location: Christy Webber Landscaping/Rancho Verde , 445 N Sacramento (turn into road and go east), Chicago. (Enter from Sacramento (445 N) and follow the road east until it doubles back on itself. Park curbside and come on in). Cost: $35.00 or possible limited work exchange scholarship. Time: 10:00am to 1:00pm. Registration required.
- Windy City Coop Tour. In 2011 Chicago chicken farmers offered a tour of their coops and will be doing the same in Fall of 2012. Stay tuned and check ou calendar for more information.
- Home To Roost Services. 708-524-5038. The following are Spring 2012 presentations and workshops led by owner Jennifer Murtoff.
– 3/24 Home to Roost leads Backyard Chicken Basics class at Angelic Organics, Chicago.
– 3/27 Chicken-keeping class at Green Home Experts, Oak Park.
Getting Supplies in Chicago:
- Backyard Chicken Run, DELIVERS!! Everything anyone needs to raise chickens, plus dog food, cat food and cat litter.
- Belmont Feed and Seed, 3036 W. Belmont, Chicago, 773-588-1144. 23 years experience as suppliers of poultry, pigeon, and now beekeeping supplies. Poultry specialists.
References, Resources and Links:
- A Great Resource for anyone considering, curious or involved in raising their own chickens in Chicago: Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts. This site has an abundance of information regarding all aspects of the subject, from coop design, to breed selection, winterizing, feed, life cycle, and much more. Consult this site for additional resources and links.
- Home to Roost: Urban chicken consulting.
- Article: “Shattering Seven Urban Myths About Raising Chickens”, by Patricia Foreman, The Review, May 10, 2011.
- Angelic Organics Learning Center for training workshops.
- Article: “Chickens Pass Muster in Evanston”, by Jonathon Bullington, Chicago Tribune, September 29, 2010.
- Municipal Code of Chicago
- Backyard Chickens. See this site for lifespan information as mentioned above.
- My Pet Chicken. See this site for lifespan information as noted above. Also, information on buying coops, and other supplies.
- Chicken Health Handbook , by Gail Damerow
- Chicken Saloon, coops for sale
- Murray’s Hen Hoops, coops for sale
- “Eggciting News!!!”, by Tabitha Alterman, Mother Earth News, 10/15/2008.
- How to Build a Chicken Coup
- You Tube – how to build a chicken coop
- Chickens for Backyards
- For a compiled list of ordinances by city: Visit The City Chicken.
- Check out this informative and quirky film “Mad City Chickens”