Chicago’s Chickens: Keeping Poultry in an Urban Environment
Although Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, about one in six of its residents face hunger every day (1). In this situation, however, Chicago is not unique. Many urban communities in the United States and elsewhere lack access to affordable, nutritious food (2). Chicago alone contains around 79, 434 food deserts, a space defined as a census tract located more than one mile from a food retailer larger than 10,000 square feet, not including gas stations and fast food restaurants (3). There is unfortunately no indication that the number of food deserts in Chicago will go down any time soon. There are, however, a growing number of Chicagoans who have started to take food production into their own hands.
Mike McVickar and Brian Westphal, who live in Ravenswood, have been keeping chickens in their backyard for years and are enjoying the resultant eggs. As residents of the Windy City, Mike and Brian are but two of a growing number of Chicago residents who raise chickens, a part of farm living that is spreading through city neighborhoods of all cultures and incomes (4). Chicago residents are currently allowed to keep chickens, both hens and roosters, as pets and for eggs. To get the ins and outs of caring for chickens from two of Chicago’s veterans, Spoon got an interview with Brian and Mike, who have shared their experiences on living with the birds, from how much initial costs are to what kind of treats a hen might prefer.
So tell me why you decided to keep chickens.
We actually got our hens through an accident. We hadn’t kept any of our own until one of our friends, who also keeps chickens and who had ordered chicks online from a hatchery, found that they had shipped too many. We got to take four of the extra chicks, and the rest is history.
Where did you get your chickens from?
As mentioned before, we first got our chickens as chicks from a friend, who ordered them online from a hatchery. All the chicks available for purchase are originally from hatcheries, and many websites give you a number of breeds to choose from. The chicks are typically shipped to buyers through the U.S. post.
How hard has it been to take care of your chickens? Is it time-consuming?
Not at all! Chickens are very easy animals to take care of and to keep happy. Putting up their coop was probably the hardest part, but after it was built, we only have to spend a minimum amount of time maintaining it. As for the hens themselves, we give them fresh water daily, but their feeder holds a week’s worth of food. Our hens do have some yard space to roam around in, but they could probably do okay in just the coop. Generally, each chicken should have about eight square feet per coop area to keep them happy and laying.
About how many eggs do your chickens produce per week? Do you sell any of them?
Although our hens have recently slowed down their egg production, we’ve come to expect them to lay about one egg per day per chicken. They don’t lay every day, but it’s safe to bet on an egg every two out of three days. We only had four chickens and we cook a lot, so we used almost every egg they laid, and still do. With a laying regime like that, however, it wouldn’t take too many chickens to create a saleable surplus! Chickens do have a finite number of eggs, although you can expect around 200 to 300 eggs per year. Hens also don’t lay that much when they’re hot.
What would you say the cost of raising chickens for their eggs is compared to just buying eggs?
In initial cost, it probably is cheaper to buy eggs from hens raised in factory farms. Once you’re up and running, though, it may be cheaper to grow you own. Not to mention it’s nice knowing that the hens providing your eggs live good lives, rather than suffering in tiny cages! We’ve found that 50 pounds of chicken feed is about $20, and this meets the dietary needs of two hens for about three months, although we do give them vegetable scraps as well. Our hens particularly like fruit, especially grapes. They also go crazy for mealworms and chicken scratch, although of course you don’t need to buy these.
Do your chickens have any special requirements? This includes seasonal changes.
Not really. I can’t stress enough that chickens area really low maintenance animals. That said, there are a couple of features in regards to their coop that have to be watched. Our coop has a dirt floor that’s cleaned out once a year, although for the most part we can throw in wood chip beddings every month and leave it at that. We also replace the henhouse straw every month. In winter, we wrap the henhouse in plastic to shelter them from the cold. In summer they usually do all right as long as the temperature is below 95 degrees. If it gets around or above that number, however, we give them a fan.
How much does it cost to keep the chickens?
It’s usually a good idea to get your chickens as chicks. Chicks are incredibly cheap, and often cost no more than a dollar. The material for their coop cost is about $200, and all in all it was about $1000 to build the coop. Our coop has features such as a green roof, however, and someone else could make a coop for much less time and money than we did. As for the hens themselves, it cost us around $120 annually to keep four birds, which I know is a lot less than many people spend on their pets!
About how much space do your chickens need?
It’s a good idea to give each chickens about five square feet per bird to prevent stress and fighting. The henhouse should provide about two square feet per bird.
Would you consider your chickens pets?
No. Chickens are, unlike dogs and cats, animals that have little appreciation for human interaction. They’re more livestock than pets.
Anything else you would like to add about raising and keeping chickens?
Raising chickens is definitely easier than raising a dog or a cat, and chickens give you eggs to boot! It’s also neat how diverse chickens can be. Our hen Fanny is a Buff-Orpington, and Tina is a Silver Laced Wyandotte. They’re just two of the breeds you can buy. Yet no matter what the breed, you really don’t have to work that hard to keep chickens active and healthy. You don’t have to control their food, and they don’t need treats to survive or even to stay sane. People tend to forget that chickens are poultry, that they’re really not as complicated or as fragile as many make them out to be. They can have health issues due to eating certain kinds of rich food, but their lifespan isn’t that long. We do give them more fruit than many people say they should get, but we’d rather have chickens that are fat and happy and live a little less than skinny and miserable ones that have a long life.
(2) Kellogg, Scott, and Stacy Pettigrew. Toolbox for Sustainable City Living. South End Press, Cambridge, MA. 2008.
(3) Fortino, Ellyn. “Experts: New Chicago Food Desert Number Not As ‘Rosy’ As Emanuel Says From Progress Illinois, August 21st, 2013 http://www.progressillinois.com/posts/content/2013/08/21/experts-new-chicago-food-desert-numbers-not-rosy-emanuel-says-0
(4) Spak, Kara. “Raising chickens legal in Chicago, and people are crowing about it.” From Chicago Sun-Times.com. August 12, 2011. http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/6942644-418/city-of-chicken-coops.html
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