I must admit that Chicago was the last place I expected to have a close encounter with livestock that weren’t part of a petting zoo. But with the growing popularity of urban agriculture, it’s beginning to feel like “Green Acres” around here.
Remember the runaway roosters spotted on Paulina this past summer? They have friends. Lots of them.
The second annual tour of Chicago’s backyard chicken coops, held in late September and sponsored by Windy City Chickens, featured 27 locations that stretched from Evanston to Hyde Park. And those were just the people willing to open up their homes to strangers.
On a relentlessly drizzly afternoon, I set out to visit the handful of coops within walking distance of Lincoln Square, pulling on a pair of rubber boots as a precautionary measure. (Do I have to spell it out for you? OK: p-o-o-p.) My first stop: Ainslie, where I was a bit freaked out to discover that the chickens were of the free range variety. As in, they had the run of the yard. Maybe I was Tippi Hedren in a past life, because I have an illogical fear of being pecked to death by birds.
“They’re not really aggressive,” coop keeper Tom Boeman assured me.
That was just one of the myths dispelled during the course of my adventure; education, it turned out, was the primary goal of the tour, according to Martha Boyd, program director of Angelic Organics Learning Center’s Urban Initiative in Chicago and moderator of the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts website. (CCE is an excellent resource for anyone in a fowl frame of mind. Don’t have a yard? There are co-op options.)
The common misconception that backyard chickens are a messy, stinky, noisy nuisance nearly led to a ban on the birds four years ago by Chicago’s City Council, until Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th Ward) stepped in and brokered a reprieve. The bad rap can be blamed more on those doing a poor job of tending to their flocks than the chickens themselves, Boyd noted. “We do what we can to help people understand it’s legal,” she said. “What we’ve been trying to do is say there are policies on the books to take care of any problems. That’s why I try to get aldermen and their staff out to see what it should be.”
If the tour is any indication, what those aldermen will likely discover: clean and well-maintained coops and healthy, beautiful birds being cared for like any household pet that happens to live outdoors. “The people who are doing this well are our ambassadors,” said Boyd.
“Doing well” typically means eliminating the major issue associated with urban chickens: Mr. Rooster, we’re talking about you and your cock-a-doodle-do. “Roosters are amazingly loud,” admitted Boyd. “In some neighborhoods, people grew up with the sound and like it, but it’s by far the biggest complaint.” While roosters are not prohibited in Chicago, excessive noise is and that includes crowing. “I just recommend no rooster,” said Boyd.
The owners I visited, all of them relative newbies with less than five years total experience among them, had taken that advice to heart.
Boeman, who raised his chickens from eggs, wound up with five hens and a couple of roosters. “We recognized that could be an issue,” he said of the roosters, so he found them a home with a farmer he met at the Oak Park farmers market. (Yeah, and my mom just happened to run into a “farmer” when she took our cat, Cuddles, to the animal shelter. I made Boeman swear his story was legit.)
While hens are typically much quieter cluckers (and certainly no more annoying than a barking dog, said Boeman), owners have come across the occasional obnoxious exception, the same way that out of millions of Italian-Americans, you’re bound to find a Snooki. Brian Westphal and Mike McVickar welcomed four foster chickens to their home on Winona when a friend received 10 by mistake. “But I only see three,” I noted.
The fourth hen was Rhonda. “She was very sassy. Personally, for us, she was a little too noisy,” McVickar explained. So they shipped her off to Westphal’s sister and brother-in-law, who run a farm in Wisconsin (swear to God), where Rhonda reacted like Carrie Bradshaw shipped off to, well, a farm in Wisconsin. She took one look at her less manicured country bumpkin sisters and promptly tried to escape. “She was definitely a city chicken,” laughed McVickar.
Prima donnas like Rhonda aside, owners agreed that chickens are actually quite low maintenance beyond the initial learning curve and coop construction: Chickens don’t need to be walked, there’s no litter box to deal with and unlike other exotic pets (see: alligators), they don’t cause widespread panic when they run away from home.
“They might even be less work than a gerbil,” said McVickar. With a full feeder and water dispenser, he estimates his hens could survive on their own for at least a week, plus they self-compost their waste by scratching it into the dirt floor of their coop. (So no, the rubber boots weren’t really necessary.)
Boeman’s flock, all named after characters from “The Simpsons,” take dust baths and shower in the rain. “They tend to themselves,” he said. They also keep to themselves. Anyone looking for a loyal companion should buy something with fur, not feathers. “They’re difficult to pick up,” Boeman said of chickens. “You have to chase them and frankly, it’s not worth the effort. They don’t sit on your lap.”
What they lack in affection, chickens make up for in other ways, providing everything from entertainment value to food, while benefiting the environment in the process.
Of the coops that I visited, all three owners also composted and McVickar and Westphal even boasted a rain barrel (plus a “green” roof on their coop), which is not uncommon, according to Boyd.
“This group is really trying to learn the skills needed to create a backyard ecosystem,” she said, with the past three to four years seeing a real uptick in interest in urban agriculture. Hens are just one part of that equation. “There is this sense of, ‘Of course you have chickens.’”
Behind his three-flat on Damen, Andrew Gardner’s yard is a model for urban farming. A proponent of the square foot gardening concept, he’s constructed a number of raised beds containing cucumbers, kale, beans, tomatoes and more, sharing cultivation of the beds with his tenants in exchange for some of their home-brewed beer. “It brings neighbors together,” he said. “We’re all interested in sustainable and green living.”
Each year, the aptly-named Gardner experiments with new plantings. “I ran out of things to add,” he said, “so I decided to grow eggs. It also gives you something to talk about at the bar besides sports.”
Though his hens (given kitschy names like Princess Laya and Feather Locklear) were just five weeks old at the time of the coop tour, Gardner is already anticipating the day when he can harvest all the fixings for an omelet from his own yard. “I can walk down my back stairs for fresh produce and eggs,” he said. “That’s zero footprint.”
Chickens also provide an organic alternative to much-maligned products like Roundup. “They love eating bugs and worms,” said Westphal. He and McVickar noticed that their hostas were far healthier this past summer with the chickens on slug patrol. “They’re better than pesticides,” Westphal said of the hens.
Apart from saving the environment, there are less high-minded reasons to own a chicken.
“It’s fun to watch them run around and scratch at things,” said McVickar, who lets his hens run loose nights and weekends. He’s seen them gather on one side of the lawn, only to suddenly decide to move to the other for no apparent reason. “It’s unpredictable what they’re going to do, partially because I think they’re stupid.”
Sure, an argument could be made that dogs and cats (or at least kittens) are equally amusing. But do they make breakfast? Boeman collects three to four eggs a day from his hens, one of which lays a lovely light blue color. “They’re just immaculate eggs,” he said.
“One of the biggest surprises has been how good the eggs are,” McVickar concurred. He and Westphal collect about an egg a day from each of their hens, a bounty they gladly share with neighbors. “We don’t enjoy going to brunch anymore; our own eggs are so much better.”