Urban Chickens: Food & Fun!

Three new additions to our family arrived this spring - hens named Emma, Trunchable, and Getaway. No, we don't live in the country, but right inside the city limits of Traverse City.

We are not the first city-dwellers to get chickens. Since the city ordinance passed in 2009 allowing it, dozens of Traverse City families have built chicken coops in their backyards and now enjoy fresh eggs daily and rich fertilizer for their gardens. Backyard chickens are allowed in many other cities across the state including Lansing, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo. It is a growing national trend with plenty of helpful resources. You can even rent a chicken for the summer!

The Traverse City ordinance allows for four hens per yard, and they must be kept at least 25 feet from a neighbor's home. Roosters are not allowed (too loud) and you cannot slaughter chickens on your property. Within those rules, there's really nothing bothersome about having chickens. Yet, some cities continue to ban it.

To help demystify backyard chickens, some chicken-having friends of ours started the "Coop Loop," an annual tour of coops around downtown Traverse City. We joined in on our bikes last summer and saw everything from fancy coops to chicken shacks in yards of all shapes and sizes around the city. Having chickens not only looked manageable, it kind of looked like fun.

So when those friends offered to give us their chickens while they traveled for the year, we jumped at the chance. They dropped off the hens, their coop, and some food on a Monday, and by that afternoon we had our first eggs!

We were surprised to discover that having chickens is easier and more fun than we thought they would be.

The chickens themselves are amusing little ladies. They spend the day quietly clucking and pecking at the ground, and sometimes they appear to give themselves baths in the dirt.  Once a day, give or take, they go into the coop and lay an egg. At sunset they climb into their coop and roost for the night.

Our two little boys love collecting their eggs, feeding them, and observing their behavior. Emerson, our six-year-old was so thrilled when we got them that he wanted to move his bed into the yard so he could sleep next to them. Charlie, our two-year-old keeps trying to hide the eggs so they will hatch into chicks. We're still working on explaining that one to him. And after one afternoon spent barking at them, even our dog Bailey seems to like them.

For my part, I like knowing our eggs come from happy, healthy chickens. And I like that our family is a bit more self-sufficient and living a little bit closer to the land.

We also have experienced firsthand how backyard chickens can be a community builder.

At first we were worried that our neighbors wouldn't like having chickens around. Then two of our neighbors congregated by our fence as we set up the coop the first day, offering to help and laughing as we tried to chase Getaway back into the yard. Our neighbor, Sally, was happy to chicken-sit when we were away for the weekend, with fresh eggs as her payment. And we met another amused neighbor for the first time when she found an escaped Emma drinking from her sprinkler. (We have since figured out how to keep our renegade chickens from escaping.)

Chickens are not all fun and games. Like raising any animal comes the responsibility to give them the right food, keep their coop clean, and keep them watered. And when their egg-laying days come to an end, we will face a decision. Given the way my family has taken to them, I don't think Emma, Trunchable, or Getaway are destined to become Coq au vin, not on our dinner plates anyway.

This is not my first time living with chickens. I stayed with a family in rural Costa Rica during a semester abroad in college, and their chickens roosted in a tree in their backyard. I asked my host mother a lot of basic questions about the chickens like: "Will the eggs hatch into chicks if the hen keeps it warm?" and "How many eggs does a hen lay each week?" She answered all of my questions and then made her own surprised observation: "You really don't know very much about chickens."

It was true. I ate eggs almost every day, yet I didn't know a thing about the chickens they came from.

And now that I have chickens I often get asked these same questions by friends and family. In a society that has become so far removed from agriculture, raising urban chickens is one refreshing way to reconnect with and appreciate where our food comes from.

Kate Madigan is a development specialist with the Michigan Environmental Council.



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