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Remember when Sue Lowden told us to take a chicken to the doctor? Well, I did that. The doctor, a vet, examined her, prescribed an antibiotic, and charged me $70.

OK, bad joke (although it's a true story)... but an important subject, in my mind. And a fun one for the week of Christmas, when the world is slowing down a little bit and we can talk about a lighter topic.

Two weeks ago, I got 4 chickens. And it's actually quite a political issue, because I got them as an act of civil disobedience. Many cities around the U.S. and Canada have recently legalized backyard chickens. Not mine.

I'll tell you about the legalization battle I've fought in my city, but I think the larger point here that I wish to make is why chickens belong in every garden as a major (and simple) component of sustainability.

Looking for bugs

The reasons why I wanted chickens are simple. I'll admit that a large part of it is that I'm a sucker for animals, I love chickens, and I want to pet them, hold them, cuddle them, feed them, etc etc etc. I'm as much of a kid as my roommate's 3 year old daughter in this regard. But there's a whole lot more.

Healthier Eggs
Eggs from backyard chickens have more omega-3s and vitamins A and E and less cholesterol than store-bought eggs. I'd venture to bet that eggs from backyard chickens are even healthier than the eggs I can get at the farmers' market because it has to do with the chickens' diet. If your chickens forage for grass and bugs in addition to eating chicken feed, then they lay healthier eggs. Most of the people who have enough chickens to obtain enough eggs to sell at my farmers' market keep their chickens indoors eating chicken feed. Those who let their chickens forage outside are small enough that you have to wake up early and line up if you want any eggs. And they're expensive!

Pest, Weed, and Kitchen Scrap Disposal
Chickens eat EVERYTHING. They eat bugs, grass, banana peels, apple cores, carrot tops, egg shells, YOU NAME IT. Usually these things all go into our compost pile but many households throw them in the trash. And the bugs, well... if there's a pest to dispose of I step on it or drown it in soapy water. I'd much rather feed it to a chicken who will convert it from a pest to a nice, healthy egg for me to eat.

Free, High-Quality Organic Fertilizer
Chicken poo is GREAT fertilizer. Now, it's cheap to buy... but guess what? Factory broiler operations sometimes feed their chickens Roxarsone, an arsenical, as a medication and those chickens poop out arsenic-laced manure. Obviously no one wants that in their garden. So where does the store-bought chicken poo come from? I don't know. There's an awful lot of chicken poo to go around in this country. Probably some comes from boilers and some comes from layers, and I don't believe the layers are fed Roxarsone because the arsenic would go into their eggs.

All in all, I'd rather have my own chickens. Rather than driving to the store (using gas), buying a bag (wasting money), lugging it home, applying it to my garden, having no idea what the chickens who produced it were fed and which, if any, antibiotics they ate and pooped out, and ultimately being left with a plastic bag that I send to the landfill, I'd rather just have my own chickens.

I've broken the beauty of chickens down into their component parts but as you can see it's a cycle. Chickens take unwanted things from my home and yard and turn them into valuable products - eggs, fertilizer, and meat. Or in my case, eggs, fertilizer, and cute fun pets that I will never eat.

Can you garden without chickens? Yeah. But as I've found over the past year, it kinda sucks. I started gardening with totally dead soil. We compost. We have a worm bin. And our family of four produces entirely too little compost to feed our soil.

Without the chickens, we tried growing winter crops last year - fava beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, and sugarsnap peas. We added what little compost we had produced to our soil (the worms - at that point - hadn't produced anything yet) and planted our seeds. If you're a gardener, you know that the favas and the peas fix nitrogen in the soil. They did just fine. The carrots don't need much nitrogen, and they did fine. The broccoli and cabbage... not so much. They needed nitrogen and the soil didn't have enough. After several months of growing, each broccoli plant produced about a bite of broccoli.

In the summer, I tried again. I added more compost and some worm castings to the soil and planted tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, corn, chard, beets, and okra. The corn was stunted but produced some corn. The weather hurt my plants as much as anything else, since it was unusually cold. It was dry and my dead soil was no good at holding moisture, making the dry weather's impact even harsher on the garden. I barely got any eggplant, okra, or peppers at all, and I only got one tiny zucchini.

While I did this, I maintained a friend's garden where we had added chicken manure to the soil. WHAT A DIFFERENCE. During a time period where my plants grew slowly and produced nothing, his would shoot up and produce tons of food. Every time I visited, there was more food to harvest than he could possibly eat. I've brought home entire grocery bags full of basil and chard from his place. He gave me a zucchini the size of a baseball bat once. He was growing the same plants from the same seeds in the same weather as I was. There are some differences in our soil - mine has more clay - and he has a drip irrigation system set up whereas I have to walk around with a hose every day or so. But other than that, our gardens were very similar and one of the major differences was the chicken manure.

Since I knew I wanted chickens when I moved to this house a year ago, I looked at the city code to see if they were legal. To do this, look first to see if your city's code has a section called ANIMALS (or something similar) and see if any animals are banned outright. In our case, roosters are banned from the entire city because they are loud. Hens are not banned. THEN, look at Zoning and see whether chickens are legal in your zone. In my case, chickens are not legal in most residential zones.

I found some folks online who had gone through the same thing in their cities, and read up on what had happened there. The major complaints or worries about chickens are the noise, the smell, and the fact that chickens could get eaten by wild animals or even dogs. Some have worried that there are no local chicken vets, or that people would abandon chickens after getting them, leading to extra chickens in local shelters.

Knowing this, I approached my city council (see the letter I sent them at the link). They took up the issue and promptly tabled it, which I assumed they did in good faith at the time but I now believe they were blowing me off. I've managed to get the chicken issue into the local paper a few times this year, first because a reporter covered the chicken story when the city council took it up, and then because I got friends and allies (other people who wanted chickens) to write letters to the editor to the paper. With so many letters, the paper took it as a sign of interest in the topic, and then published an anti-chicken editorial that called out me by name, criticizing me for wanting chickens in the city.

The editorial brought up a common but - in my view - dumb reason given to keep chickens illegal: "If you want chickens, go to the country. Chickens don't live in cities." Well, New York City, Seattle, Portland, Madison, San Francisco... they all have legal chickens. When the editorial appeared, I got even more people to write letters to the paper, and the paper printed those letters. I hear that a different local paper recently called me out (in an insulting way) for wanting chickens, but I have yet to get a copy of that one to see it for myself.

After a year, the entire city council plus the mayor have all heard from several people who want to have legalized chickens. They've gotten from me all of the possible problems with chickens and my responses to them, and I've answered all sorts of questions (like "Don't you need a rooster to get eggs?"... the answer is no). They know I'm requesting permission for people in single family houses to keep up to 6 hens, no roosters, in all residential zones. I'm asking for 6 so that people who get the chickens will have enough eggs even after their chickens get old and stop laying as much.

As for the concerns about the chickens (smell, noise)... I think they are reasonable concerns but they can be handled in the way the law is written. Typically, cities allow a small number of chickens (between 3 and 8) and no roosters. The chickens must be in a well-maintained coop. Sometimes cities prohibit slaughtering chickens. If this is your law, then some dumbass with a stinky coop that causes a nuisance to their neighbors is breaking the law and can be busted for it. If you only have hens, then noise won't be a problem. My girls quietly peep all day long, which is nothing compared to my neighbors' dog, not to mention the fire engines that are constantly blaring around here.

As for the concerns about predation, I think it's the chicken owner's job to protect their chickens. If you have a coop of chickens in your yard, you are dangling food in front of the faces of all of the local wildlife - hawks, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, possums, etc. There are MANY resources on how to build a coop that will be safe for your chickens.

Probably the top, totally legit concern about chickens is that people will try to get hens and accidentally get roosters. This happened to me. It happens a lot. Chickens are hard to sex until they are mature. Then when half of them crow and the other half lay eggs, you know the boys from the girls. When I got my chickens from a local farm, they agreed to swap out any roosters for hens at a later date. Most people won't have that type of a deal so if they get a rooster, they have to find a new home for that rooster. Or eat it.

And eating your chickens is certainly one way to get rid of unwanted chickens (which, for the city, brings up the slaughter issue again). I found a farm nearby that offered to take any unwanted roosters off of people's hands. Getting rid of roosters becomes much harder if you want to make sure your rooster doesn't get eaten.

Long story short, after a year of campaigning for legal chickens, I got illegal chickens. I told the members of the city council before I did it, and I did it. I also checked with my neighbors ahead of time (A VERY GOOD IDEA) to make sure it was okay with them. I've heard of people being turned in by neighbors and even the mailman for having illegal chickens. (Note: Neighbors will like your chickens much more if you give them free eggs as a bribe.) I think the city policy - as enforced - is that chickens are fine so long as your neighbors don't complain. I'm fine with that, but my roommate is uneasy about breaking the law.

Getting chickens is pretty simple. You can get eggs and incubate them (fun if you have kids!), get chicks, or get full-grown hens. For me I had a few considerations that factored in:

  1. I wanted to get all of the hens from the same source. Introducing chickens from different flocks introduces the chickens to new germs and some chickens can get sick.
  1. I didn't want to get chickens from a hatchery (they can be sent through the mail as day-old chicks) because I don't know how they treat the adult birds that serve as their breeding stock... but I don't have a lot of faith that they treat them very well.
  1. I didn't want eggs because I'm broke and don't want to pay for an incubator.

Since I had so much time in between deciding to get chickens and actually doing it, I had time to look around. I found a local farm that raises laying hens, including a few of the breeds I liked (Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpington... and yes, I know, this will bring up memories for any Kossack who's been around a few years!). Of all of the breeds out there, Buff Orpingtons (thanks to DailyKos) were the one breed I was pre-disposed to NOT want... but I kept hearing really nice things about them.

In the end, actually getting the chickens was a real fiasco, and the farm only had Buff Orps and no Rhode Island Reds. So that's what I took. Now that I've got them, I can say that the downside of having all one breed is that they are hard to tell apart. I can recognize Diana, and I've named the probable-rooster Prince William. I can't tell the difference between Elizabeth and Victoria at all. When I trade out William for a hen, I think I'll request a chicken of a different breed to replace him.

I was going to get baby chicks but the farm only had pullets (young hens who haven't yet laid eggs) so that's what I got. And now that I have them, I'm happy about it. Chicks need to be kept warm in a "brooder" (which can be as simple as a cardboard box with a lightbulb keeping it warm), and it would have been difficult keeping them indoors with my cats and my roommate's dog. The pullets are fine outside.

The costs of the chickens is low, aside from building the coop. Ready-made coops are expensive, so that option was out. I should have looked on Craigslist (plenty of coops there!) but instead I bought a coop plan online for $20 and then spent $270 on the materials and built it myself. I spent a few bucks on water and food containers, and aside from that, the food is $.79/lb for organic feed. And they eat all the leftovers. The straw bale they use as bedding was $12 and it will last awhile. Plus, the straw will compost with their manure and then go into the garden to improve the soil. As for the vet trip... I've now been told by a farmer that I should've probably just gone to a feed store for the antibiotics instead of paying for the vet. Who knew?

Cluckingham Palace... not yet fully built but good enough for the chickens to be safe and warm at night.

Now that I have chickens, I feel more strongly than ever that a sustainable society includes backyard chickens. Environmentally, there are many things that need to be done at federal and state levels, and there are so many things that are nearly impossible politically. But keeping backyard chickens is easy and fun. It is something that everyone who has a yard can do, so long as your HOA or local government doesn't prevent it. And after the nasty salmonella outbreak in eggs this summer, which led me to learn a lot more about the horrific conditions factory farmed laying eggs are kept in, I think the more business we can draw away from that cruel industry, the better.

Originally posted to Jill Richardson on Mon Dec 20, 2010 at 06:53 PM PST.

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