The Urban Chicken Coop Movement

The Times-Picayne newspaper announcement seemed harmless enough.  Hens and eggs were for sale at the New Orleans area flea market and the Latino Farmers Cooperative was about to start its urban chickens education series. It stated, “Partners in the event are the LSU AgCenter School of Agriculture, and associate professor of poultry, Theresia Lavergne, who will provide in-depth knowledge on how to raise hens in urban settings.”

Those last few words are highlighted for the property manager and owner. In landlord vocabulary, animals equal liability – but putting aside vague concerns like avian flu - how much risk is really involved with these birds?  In the U.S. raising urban chickens has gone mainstream, even though we raise only a fraction of the world’s 23 billion birds domestically. Besides, in the current climate of anything-to-snag-a-renter, managers may need to create specific lease language to cover the practice. The tentative manager could require annual renewal or a 6-month trial period, but there should be an established policy, even if it is a prohibition.

Prompted by urban agriculture enthusiasts, community organizations, those with disease concerns, food sourcing issues, organic ideals and sustainability practices, the urban coop movement continues to expand. The recession has created a climate in which many families can benefit from greater self-sufficiency.  As eggs are a high quality source of cheap protein, the Mayor of Missoula, Montana gained a bit of attention a while back. Shortly before the City Council passed the ordinance in favor of urban chickens in 2007, he was quoted as saying:

“It seems that if we want to be a town that does its part for sustainability, this is something we ought to consider. I think we want to allow folks to use their good judgment and move toward more sustainable food practices.”  – Mayor John Engen

It is interesting to note that in the year following passage, the City received only 14 complaints. Anxious property managers may want to call Missoula’s city manager and see if things are still going well, but more importantly, find out what their own city allows.

A study of 25 chicken-friendly cities’ ordinances was released by KT Labadie of the University of New Mexico in 2008. One study conclusion was that there was no ‘national’ urban chicken policy. Each ordinance varied and a few were so difficult to locate within city codes that Labadie identified this issue as a major contributor to non-compliance.  Over the last three years the urban chicken coop movement has further accelerated. Portland, Oregon was one of the cities that made an exception to their livestock ordinance.  It labels the birds as ‘pets’ and lumps them in with other domesticated farm animals. The City’s Code Section 13.05.015, Paragraph E states:

A person keeping a total of three or fewer chickens, ducks, doves, pigeons, pygmy goats or rabbits shall not be required to obtain a specified animal facility permit. If the Director determines that the keeper is allowing such animals to roam at large, or is not keeping such animals in a clean and sanitary condition, free of vermin, obnoxious smells and substances, then the person shall be required to apply for a facility permit to keep such animals at the site.”

This summer the Portland non-profit urban agriculture group, Growing Gardens, is offering a ‘Tours de Coops’ on June 24th, 2010. Promoted as a family event, it is also an effective method in which urban gardening groups and community organizations are providing free public education. Growing Gardens promises:

“Chicken owners throughout Portland will open their yards so you can see their coops and meet their chickens. The Tour de Coops is a self-guided tour; you’ll have the opportunity to visit as many as 25 backyard chicken coops all over East Portland – getting to know your neighbors while learning and sharing urban chicken keeping ideas.”

Whether owners and property managers have the facilities, space or temperament for a backyard chicken coop, some city ordinances do allow chickens even within multifamily zoning.  Although this is an admirable effort to avoid erecting barriers for lower-income residents, urban chickens may not be compatible on every property. The pro-active manager should determine the requirements for an urban coop and make their decision about policy before a resident asks for coop privileges.

If you decide to allow urban chicken keeping do it with style but cover all the issues well.  At a minimum your pet policy and lease agreement should cover:

  • Number and sex of chickens permitted per family – particularly rooster regulation
  • References to resident compliance with chicken keeping city and building restrictions
  • Restrictions and requirements for humane containers and enclosures
  • Slaughtering regulations – indoor, outdoor or not permitted
  • Coop siting requirements including a specific number of feet from residences, property lines (varies by city from 10 to 100 feet)
  • Identifying the tenant’s responsibility to pay all permits, fees and fines levied by city government
  • Pet deposits and guarantees for future coop removal and/or grounds restoration
  • Requirement for and defining ’immediate’ correction of nuisance complaints judged legitimate by management

Chicken Facts: 3 or 4 hens will produce one to two dozen eggs a week, more than adequate for a typical city family’s consumption. The average hen has her most productive egg-laying in her first 12 months but will generally live well beyond her egg-laying years.  The oldest chicken on record lived to 16 years, but most live between 6 and 10 with good caretaking and predator protection. Whether you consider them pets or livestock, recent evidence suggests chickens were first domesticated in Vietnam 10,000 years ago, not India, which had been the long-standing historical assumption.

City Regulations: About half of the cities that allow urban chickens have loose regulations, which seem to get looser the longer the program is in place. Permit fees are charged by some, with others not even requiring any registration. Some cities have no regulation on cooping and don’t limit free-range policies either. A few allow one rooster, others multiples, but these cities then must deal with noise complaints. The majority either highly restrict or prohibit roosters.  Although some chicken keepers believe a rooster in the hen house increases egg production, I could not find an authority to back this claim.  Roosters are also aggressive with children, so banning them has its benefits for both submissive hen and small child. The Coalition of Lawrence Urban Chicken Keepers has a search site by state which outlines many of the bigger cities’ policies across the country.

Coop Materials: Lower income families may not have the means to buy or build professional- looking coops, so if you are going to have restrictions on materials and design, make this clear up front. Chicken coops are often made from salvaged materials and so it may be important to consult with your neighborhood homeowners’ association before giving permission to build one.  Many CC&Rs have restrictions on free-standing and/or other temporary structures, so if you manage condos, do check the covenants, conditions and restrictions. Cities generally do not regulate the size or form of coops, as they fall into the same category as doghouses.

Rodent Control: Rats are already an urban problem. Introducing chickens may not be a good idea unless the chicken feed can be securely stored in rat-proof containers and locations.  This advice applies for dog and cat food, by the way, as it should not be left unattended outdoors.

Humane Treatment: Birds should have an appropriate amount of square footage living area with access to fresh air, sunshine and a covered run. In cloudy and colder climates, artificial light is recommended and all coops should be appropriately insulated.  Any chicken keeping agreements should include a clause that requires tenants to seek veterinary treatment for sick animals, and chickens should also be protected from predators.  If coops are portable, they can be moved to protect the grounds which also creates a healthier environment for the birds. Chickens are also social animals, so buying just one baby chick is actually cruel. Keeping a minimum of three hens creates community for them. Hens are collaborative in chick-rearing and helping each other. To be happy they need a couple of good BFFs (Best Friends Forever).

Nuisances: In fairness to good urban keepers, although chickens exhibit no proclivity for house-training, properly groomed chickens with clean cages do not create bad odors or present hygiene concerns. Flies, rodents, noise, smells, public health concerns, dirty coops and improper disposal of manure are all issues that can arise with poorly trained or errant chicken keepers. Education is the key to solving these issues. Cities use permits and fines to raise funds for supervision and enforcement, but a pro-active landlord should develop a stronger supervision and prevention policy. Perhaps membership in an urban chicken keepers organization could be a required credential or evidence of experience. Whatever remedies and fines you decide are appropriate should be outlined in detail to prevent misunderstandings and preserve good tenant relations.  Neighboring families often become closer when one of them is raising chickens, as it’s a friendly sort of activity and children love the birds.

Roosters: Beyond a voracious appetite for insects and an entertaining rocking gait, hens are cuddly and sweet-natured. Roosters, on the other hand, have issues. On this subject I will leave you with an anecdote from my youth. We lived on a residential 6 acre lot, and it was my responsibility to gather our chickens’ eggs. One hot, humid morning I was being punished for some sort of adolescent boundary-crossing. Confined to serve my time in the backyard – while my siblings went to the beach – I glared at my mother as she gathered the eggs.

I should mention here that our Bantam rooster, Jaws, and I got along fine as I was subtle. My mother, on the other hand, was a retired opera singer. Diva-like but inexperienced, she rushed into the chicken yard, pushed the hens aside and grabbed the eggs she needed for a Boston Crème Pie.  As she walked toward the  gate, Jaws - alerted by his squawking harem’s distress – flew into a rage and repeatedly attacked my mother’s large behind.

My elegant, cultured and generally nonathletic Mum leapt three feet off the ground in such rapid intervals that to my 12-year-old mind it was a glorious scene out of Disney’s Fantasia.  Of course, these moves were accompanied by grand operatic shrieks and choice words. I confess I was paralyzed by such intense laughter, I never thought to help her. Now that I think about it, I never got a piece of that Boston Crème Pie either.

Editor’s Update April 15, 2010: Since the passage of New York’s beekeeping ordinance, Omlet, one of the companies offering  Coops and Beehives has gone designer: http://www.omlet.us/homepage/ It’s a fun site.

Other Articles of Interest:

12 Comments

  1. Posted April 6, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    This is a gr8 blog post, very informative… except no mention of the most powerful tool in the shed –> Article 25 of the UN Human Rights Declaration “The Right to Food”. There is not one municipality in North America that has the scope to outlaw urban ag or livestock. Not one municipality has ever prosecuted against a citizen asserting Article 25. Canada & the USA have both ratified the UNHRD on many occasions. The City of Calgary just dropped the charges against me for this very reason… they would lose in court. Everything else is a distraction.

    CLUCK: Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub facebook
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=68948494632

    CLUCK: Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub blog
    http://cluckurbanchickens.blogspot.com/

  2. Posted April 6, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Paul, thank you for pointing out the real issue with sustainable food production. Whether one lives in an apartment, a single family home or in the great outdoors, there is a moral if unspoken ‘right to food’. The more global and melded our food delivery system becomes, the more complex our national and global security needs to be. Heck, if Martha Stewart has been raising chickens for 30 years – she broadcast about it on April 2nd’s show – what’s the matter with Calgary?

  3. Posted April 20, 2010 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the tip! I’m keeping it in reserve for when the squirrels discover our garden.

  4. Posted April 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    Our squirrels eat the bird food and the birds eat the squirrel food… but it all works out.

  5. Posted May 10, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Elizabeth,
    Interesting story, especially since I got a call recently about ducks (these were in a pond, not being raised for food) and did quite a bit of investigating into the City of Houston’s ordinance on fowl.
    Thanks for keeping me thinking!
    All the best,
    Aimee

  6. Posted May 10, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Hi Aimee. It amazes me what people want us to manage for them, but pond ducks are pretty sweet little things. (Geese are pretty messy by comparison.) Glad you enjoyed the Coop article. I too have been amazed at how fast this urban chicken movement is moving. It reinforces for me the many challenges that apartment managers face – a lot more than most residents will ever realize. Hope you come back soon!

  7. Posted July 9, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I can’t WAIT until I have a yard so I can have chickens! I find that being around farm animals is very relaxing and a break from the technologically-enhanced world we live in. Thanks for a great article to get us started when the time comes!

  8. Posted July 9, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Although chickens are not the ‘typical’ American pets, hens are actually very sweet with children and children – with some training on how to hold them, etc. – adore them. I once met a client’s pet goat, too, and still remember “Jennifer”. She was baa-ing and leaning against their patio door trying to come into the house as if she were a dog! It gave me a whole new view of the potential between man and animal. In fact, they had the only acreage in their semi-rural neighborhood without overrun blackberry vines.:)

  9. K in Silicon Valley
    Posted September 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    We have a 4 chicken limit in our city. My adjacent neighbor keeps 5, 2 tied by the leg to a tree, with 2 tipped up storage bins for shade and three in a 4′x4′ pen against our adjacent sideyard fence with a dog kennel inside presumably for shelter. The lots are 6000SF with 5′ sideyards between houses and aside from being over the City’s 4 bird limit raising them tethered on short rope this way is allowed. I guess they’ll still lay eggs wherever they are, but it’s pretty sad how they’re being raised, not cute at all.

  10. Posted September 15, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ki. It sounds to me like your city fathers need some serious education and some new blood on your city council. I agree, the tethering of animals is lazy and cruel in many cases and I don’t think I’ve encountered that myself with chickens. I would suggest you run for city council – or convince someone with similar views – and change it. I think I’m going to have nightmares about those poor chickens, but even that treatment is incredibly superior to our ‘chicken egg factories’.

  11. Posted December 26, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for linking to our site, Garden Coop’s Channel!

  12. Posted May 8, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    The food sourcing issue goes much deeper and basically boils down to:

    If one understands the ecological principles of food web trophic levels, then one should understand that a consequence of our ever increasing population, relative to the essential biodiversity of higher life form conducive natural ecosystems, is that we’re causing the extinction of an alarming number of other life forms daily just to support our own biomass. In increasing the biomass of a lesser number of organisms to support our own biomass (e.g. cows, chickens, corn, beans, tomatoes, wheat, …), we’re decreasing the biomass of the many other organisms we’re not intelligent enough to recognize the need for, and (among other issues) increasing the pathogens that function to help balance food web trophic levels. That is, we’re systematically diminishing the biodiversity of the natural biological communities, and in so doing are destabilizing nature’s infrastructure that is keeping us alive.

    The key factors of healthy ecosystems (in the sense of being conducive to human existence) are sustainable long term productivity through extensive biodiversity to exploit all the ecological niches (in time, space, and kind), and relative stability through the overall balance of ecological processes in minimizing ecosystem state shifts. This more complete utilization of limiting resources at higher diversity increases resource retention through more thorough and efficient recycling increasing productivity, and the balance of inherently more intricate ecological processes promote stabilization.

    For a better understanding of how we are jeopardizing the shorter term state of human existence on Earth, see the article Natural World Consciousness at achinook.com

    Will objective understanding or subjective beliefs prevail?

    Lee C

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