At any given moment on our planet, some 10-12 billion chickens are clucking. Hens worldwide lay close to 700 billion eggs each year. Most chickens live on large commercial farms; a few live on small farms or rural homesteads; fewer still live in cities, suburbs, and towns. But this is changing, in my own neighborhood and in neighborhoods across America, as more and more people are keeping small flocks of chickens tucked away in their yards and gardens. Whether prompted by the prospect of daily fresh eggs, or by a fanciful desire to import a little bit of country charm into our urban lives, over the past five years, city and suburban households have adopted more chickens than ever, from San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland to New York.
Why the sudden boom in town-and-country chicken farmers? Perhaps because raising chickens hearkens back to simpler times when most American households raised their own flocks and our food was brought in from the backyard, not shipped over thousands of miles and dozens of days to our dinner plates. Keeping chickens gives people the opportunity to slow down and experience life as it happens. And since they are relatively easy to raise, chickens make excellent backyard pets as well as bug-catchers. You can also count on some fantastic fertilizer for your garden and plants.
City chickens have awakened the carpenters and craftsmen apparently latent in modern civilization. They don’t necessarily live in scrap-wood shacks anymore; they reside in palatial hen estates built especially for them (think chicken coop meets Olmos Park mansion). When I recently moved back to San Antonio after living on the West Coast for 10 years, I brought “the girls” with me from Portland; Balina, a Rhode Island Red who lays brown eggs; Princess Grace of Monaco, a Blue Hamburg who produces small white eggs; Iman, the eldest, a radiant Black Sex-Link who lays large light-brown eggs; Ariana Huffington, an Ameraucana whose eggs are light blue; Waverly, a Welsummer who specializes in rich, dark speckled-brown eggs; Dottie, a Cuckoo Maran who lays dark chocolate-brown eggs; and Ari, an Araucana who produces green-blue eggs. I diligently sketched out a few different designs and was quickly on my way to building my hens their largest and most luxurious coop yet.
Urban-chicken husbandry is not new, but it may be a novel idea in this day and age, riding the wake of a growing trend toward increasing our quality of life by exercising greater control over significant details like our transportation and food. Raising chickens satisfies an intrinsic and basic human right to feed oneself. My urban chickens are a symbol of my commitment to being more self-reliant. Though I still shop at the grocery store, I now try to cook more from my backyard than the supermarket. Don’t crack up, but I feel empowered by raising my own eggs.
My decision to become an urban chicken farmer began with a reminiscence of the small flock my family raised here in San Antonio when I was a child. My father also kept a sprawling vegetable garden, so we always had fresh veggies. As I ate more fresh foods from my garden in the Northwest, I noticed that I became pickier about how food tasted. I was familiar with the words “fresh,” “natural,” and “organic,” but they began to hold a new significance for me.
So after debating breeds, coop size, and design (a neighbor gave us her old coop), and investigating the city code, I picked out three baby chicks at the local nursery: a Barred Plymouth Rock, a Rhode Island Red, and an Ameraucana. They joined my family as chicks, I raised them through pullethood (adolescence), and now enjoy fresh organic eggs almost every day. I watch them as they peck and scratch at the yard, eat, and chase one another across the grass. They take dirt baths to rid themselves of mites and parasites, sometimes resting motionless after their “spa treatment.” Endless hours of enjoyment all because of chickens. Sounds crazy, I know. Those ubiquitous yet taken-for-granted chickens have changed my life, and I love them for it.
When I mention to other people that I have chickens, eyes and ears perk up, and I often find out about other flocks of city chickens nearby. Urban-chicken keepers become noticeably excited during such impromptu flock talks, boasting exuberantly to anyone who will listen about their chickens’ eggs, antics, and easy care. If you’re at the home of an urban chicken keeper, you’ll all troop out to the coop so he or she can show off the birds and the beautiful/funky/outrageous coop they live in. City chicken keepers grin a lot, as if enjoying some private celebration. I can’t speak for others but I know why I smile. Since I’ve had chickens, I’ve realized the world functions in pretty much the same way since time began. The sun has always risen in the East. Rivers have always flowed down mountains. And chickens, with or without the help of human caretakers, have always laid eggs. I’ve realized that life is not as complex as we make it out to be. My life — my interaction with the rest of the world — can be as simple as I want it to be. Cluck cluck. •
It’s important to know that the City of San Antonio’s Animal Code allows you to keep only three chickens unless you obtain a permit, and your coop must be 50 feet from any occupied building except your own. This may vary in the City’s many incorporated townships.
An eggcellent read is Patricia L. Foreman’s City Chicks: Keeping MIcro Flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers, and Local Food Producers
Jeffrey currently resides in central San Antonio with his Chocolate Lab Beau Dog and the girls from Portland. Please send him your questions, comments, photos, and stories: firstname.lastname@example.org