You don't need to live in the country to keep chickens and enjoy the benefits of fresh, nutritious, low-cost eggs. There's a growing movement toward "city chickens" — as long as you don't keep the noisy roosters — partly because home-grown chickens are green and sustainable: By eating locally, you're cutting down on the environmental cost of food miles.
Chickens are considered "the next step" after developing a food supply from your backyard garden, says Kathleen Holden, an Ashland chicken keeper who, along with Jenny Kuehnle, taught a March workshop on city chickens.
Chickens add a steady protein source to your diet, says Holden. And because chickens are virtually omnivorous, they'll recycle just about anything from your kitchen and turn it into yummy eggs.
"The eggs have a lot more flavor," says James Haim, Holden's husband and fellow chicken keeper, who for years with his wife ran Ashland High School's Wilderness Charter School.
"The color of the yolk is darker, and you know what they've been eating," says Haim. "You crack it open, and it's still warm."
Once you get used to chickens and their routines, their demands are easily met, say Holden and Kuehnle. You check their food and water and let them out of the coop in the morning. At dusk, when the chickens settle onto their perches, you make sure the door is latched so raccoons and other predators don't have a ready-made chicken dinner.
To ensure the security of your chickens, Holden suggests burying the bottom edge of their fence 6 to 12 inches deep. She suggests fencing the top, as well. With sound security and an on-demand system for feed and water, taking care of chickens gets a lot easier, says Holden.
It's also tremendously fun and educational for children, who see many of nature's laws in action. Children love to pet and hold the birds, and it's inevitable they'll all get named.
"They're so fun. They bring a lot of laughter and joy all day long," says Kuehnle. "They're pretty goofy. I could watch them all day: They chase each other and jump up into the air trying to get bugs."
Chickens are great at foraging; they'll scratch for edibles in the grass all day and nibble at plants. If you give chickens access to your garden, before produce appears on stems, they'll eat a lot of harmful bugs. Chicken droppings are wonderful garden fertilizer, and they help decompose compost, says Kuehnle.
"They're very low-maintenance compared to the protein they give back," says Haim.
Like canning, having apple trees and making pies, keeping backyard chickens used to be a standard practice in town and country, but it went out of fashion in the 1950s, says Haim. The "revitalization" of city chickens, says Kuehnle, is supported by many city councils, which usually set limits on the number of birds, the distance from neighbors and the presence of roosters, who crow at just about any hour and for any or no reason.
In Ashland, coops have to be 15 feet from the nearest neighbor's house, and roosters simply aren't allowed. Holden says she's aware of at least 50 chicken yards in Ashland.
Kuehnle adds that it builds community to share extra eggs with neighbors, especially in summer when production goes up. In warm months on average, each hen lays one egg per day, which translates into about two-dozen eggs a week from four hens.
To sign up for future workshops or to get more information, call Holden at 541-488-0916.