RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—After the massive egg recall, you're were probably left pondering egg carton claims in search of the healthiest eggs. One surefire solution: raising a handful of your own backyard chickens, giving you complete control over egg quality. Home-raised chickens may not be an option for everybody, but they are more of an option than you may think. Even if you live in the city, once you realize the myriad benefits a small flock of three or more hens can provide, you'll start thinking of your non-chicken-keeping neighbors as the strange ones. "Most people are going to get chickens because they love eggs, but then they're going to find out how useful they are in other ways," says Patrician Foreman, author of City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers (Good Earth Publications, 2010).
Of course, you should first figure out if you have what it takes to own a chicken, which Foreman says falls in between raising a dog and a cat in terms of difficulty. Generally speaking, you should be able to take care of a small flock of chickens in a few minutes a day, less time than it takes you to take your dog on a decent walk.
Which isn't to say there's not a lot to learn. We can't even begin to detail all of the information crammed into Foreman's 459-page ultimate guide to raising urban chickens, ranging from lobbying your local government to make raising an urban micro-flock legal, and from choosing location-appropriate breeds and raising day-old chicks to feeding guidelines and coop design ideas. But we can tell you that Foreman lays out a strong argument for keeping a small flock on the premises (she suggests six to 10 feet of coop space per bird for a micro-flock).
Here are five reasons why chickens belong in the city:
#1. Urban chickens as bargain-basement backyard city workers.
Foreman concludes that the most economic and politically compelling reason to keep hens is to recycle food and yard waste, therefore keeping it out of landfills as it composts into an invaluable organic soil builder for your garden. The idea is that you feed your chickens kitchen scraps, they poop out a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and you compost it with leaves and other untreated yard waste.
In fact, in Belgium, one city is actually giving three laying hens to 2,000 homes in an effort to reduce landfill costs. City officials expect to recover a significant portion of the $600,000 a year the city spends on dealing with this type of household "trash." According to Foreman, a single chicken can biorecycle about seven pounds of food residuals in a month. If just 2,000 households raise three hens, it could divert 252 tons of waste from landfills annually.
#2. City chickens as a backyard organic exterminating service.
Chickens love to eat protein-packed insects, which works out well because they can serve as the organic pest-cleanup crew in your garden and devour ticks on your property. They also love to eat many weeds, and serve as post-harvest garden bed gleaners, potentially making your work as a gardener very, very easy.
#3. Urban chickens as soil savers.
The health of our food is tied directly to the health of our soil. And chickens perform multiple functions that can turn parts of our boring old yards into fertile garden patches. Their natural scratching and digging tendencies serve them well and can help you create top-notch garden beds. They are expert in mixing manure with mulch to create raised beds, which allow you to grow more produce in a smaller space and use less water, which is particularly useful to urban gardeners. They also act as gasoline-free, noise-free tillers, mixing the top layers of soil with compost or other mulches. (OK, they're not completely noise-free, but hens sure do make cute noises, adding entertainment value for the whole family!)
#4. Heritage-breed city chickens as an extinction-prevention task force.
Because factory-farm operations prefer pretty much the same type of high-volume laying breeds (or in the case of meat, heavy, fast-growing meat birds), the preservation of rare, heritage breeds is threatened. If we lose these beautiful breeds, we wipe out genetic material from a species, perhaps losing genes that could save the poultry industry one day if the standard production breeds fall susceptible to illness. To learn more about heritage breeds, check out What's the Best Chicken for You.
#5. Urban chickens as antidepressants.
Ever hear of oxytocin, the love hormone? It's a stress-lowering chemical in your body that's unleashed when you hug someone you love, or even pet your dog or cat. And anyone who has raised backyard chickens can probably contend the same effect holds true for hens. Believe it or not, Foreman says, there are actually hens employed as therapy chickens! That's something to cluck about!
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