To quote acclaimed food writer Michael Pollan, “Our most profound engagement with the natural world […] has been so invisible to us in such a thoughtless way.” This can be especially true for the urbanite, engulfed in layers of brick, concrete, and smog, hidden from the flora and the stars. That may be why so many Chicagoans have taken to their own yards for a closer connection to the natural world by raising their own backyard chickens. We’ll show you how to keep chickens in style in designing and constructing your own eco-friendly coop and how to reap those daily fresh egg benefits.
BACKYARD CHICKENS IN THE BIG CITY
Of the many memorable sketches from the hit show Portlandia, Colin the Chicken is definitely one for the books. Is it local? is hilariously mocked for its self-serious hipsterism ethos, nodding toward a recently booming (and still growing) movement within the zeitgeist of wanting the local, the organic, the closest to hearth and home. However excessive or laughable the skit shows people of this ilk can be, we’ll still stand firm next to the “locavore” sensibility. The more care and quality put in to food production can not only be felt but tasted. Minimizing the time, travel, and crowdedness it takes for factory farm-to-table makes for happier animals, people, and earth. One can opt for eggs from the local farmer’s market or buy cage-free organic eggs from the market. But the easiest way to go from coop to plate? The answer lies in your own backyard.
In addition to fresh eggs, one of the main reasons many take to backyard chickens is to contribute ecologically in what many call “eco-activities.” Chicken bedding makes for outstanding compost and rainwater collection, creating nutrient-rich soil ideal for organic gardening. To get a better idea of how to ensure your plan sufficiently serves, check out The Windy City Coop & Eco-Yard tour hosted by Chicagoland Chicken Enthusiasts, a free event held every year. Our own Chris Koster, whose special hen house design is outlined below, participated in this year’s tour, with a few curious Chicagoans stopping by to check out his coop and his chickens — Flo, Blue, and the ultimate diva Latifah, to be exact (Cream Legbar, Plymouth Rock, and Americuana breeds, respectively). Many came through to see the chicken tractor in action–not to mention to hold the freshly made eggs themselves.
ARE BACKYARD CHICKENS REALLY ALLOWED IN THE CITY? YOU BET!
So you want to build a hen house. You’re excited about the prospect of fresh eggs every morning — as you should be. But building a chicken coop and caring for backyard chickens is definitely a whole other game. You do have to crack some eggs to make an omelet.
It may come as a surprise that the city of Chicago actually has a more ready allowance of farming and livestock than its surrounding suburban and rural areas. In a fascinating report from WBEZ’s Curious City, some interesting cultural and historical reasons for that have surfaced. The author notes “changing community identities” for reasoning, as surrounding suburban areas over the years have gone through the process of “redefining their image,” wanting to feel less rural and more sophisticated. The result is Chicago –an urban dwelling–shacking up with sheep, chickens, pigs, and even goats for a “throwback” kind of feel. In essence: the farm left the country for the city.
While it may be exciting to see different creatures around the neighborhood other than cats and dogs, it’s important to do your homework before you call one your own. Firstly, although Chicago has very lean ordinances against livestock and backyard farming, there are still some rules to keep in mind. Caring for your chickens in the best way possible is key: help them help you.
- There are no limits to how many chickens you decide to have, and there isn’t a ban on roosters, however for your (and your neighbors’) sanity, keeping things minimal and hen-centric would probably be your best bet, as excessive animal noise is prohibited.
- Opting for a trio of hens would be best so they don’t get lonely! A bored chicken can start pecking herself.
- It’s also illegal to keep animals for slaughter, however you can take your chickens to a “Live Poultry” facility which are monitored and regulated by the state.
- Be sure to choose breeds best for urban spaces. Silkie Bantams, Orpingtons, and Australorps are a few of the most sufficient breeds for small Chicago lots.
- Keep your chickens well fed, with a grain-protein meal you can buy at feed stores (Belmont Feed & Seed is a great stop).
- Be sure to let them roam, granting enough time and space to feel the fresh air and grass outside of the coop.
- In the summer, hens will be laying eggs daily, so be sure to collect daily as they could start pecking at the eggs if not.
- Be sure to clean up after their chicken bedding (monthly) and prepare for their retirement, as hens eventually stop laying.
- We suggest keeping them as pets (it can be easy to form a bond), however you can have them slaughtered at a live poultry shop.
CHICKEN COOP DESIGN: CHICKEN TRACTOR
Sure, you could order a brand name chicken coop online and await its delivery to your door; but what would be the fun in that? Since you’d want to provide the best care for your backyard chickens, we think a sufficiently designed and functionally sound home proves the most fulfilling — for you and your fowl. It also doesn’t hurt for everyone to reside in style.
The internet is full of chicken coop designs that range from DIY using recycled pallets to architect designed like this metal-clad coop complete with underfloor heating. Chris opted for a chicken tractor design to house his backyard chickens. A chicken tractor is a mobile version of a chicken coop which allows the birds to forage freely across the ground, pecking up tasty critters and fresh vegetation along the way, while protecting them from curious predators.
Below are the sketches and final design of the mobile chicken tractor at his Pilsen residence, which makes for three happy chickens who have a warm and comforting nesting place and also an abundance of green space to roam free. The sketches show his process of design, incorporating a coop and nesting area for laying eggs, and a run area for them to, well, run. The run Chris designed is situated attached to a mobile tractor, able to extend and travel with the other parts of the structure. This enables the chickens to have different spaces to roam and also for the yard area to receive some free fertilizer, essentially, with Chris’s design so that waste at the end of the day is collected in different spaces in the yard for him to water down, providing abundant compost all over the yard. Chris notes that if you’re living in the city, predators are not a real pressing issue. However, he suggests hardwire cloth over chicken wire for a more safe and secure dwelling as some … well … uncomfortable stories about raccoons reaching their paws through wire is cause for concern — to put it lightly. Chris also ensured his process was as eco-friendly as possible, using all recycled materials, including plywood and wood planks from a renovation project, galvanized corrugated metal from an old barn roof, and hardwire cloth for the cage material. Follow these helpful pointers and your chickens (and the earth!) will not only live healthy, but happy.
Oh yeah — and be sure to keep up with the special ladies of the 16th street hen house by following them on Instagram @douglasparkhenposse