Through much of human history, people kept animals for food, even in cities. Until quite recently, urban centers commonly had not only chickens, but cows, pigs, and other animals raised to provide food. It’s only in the last century, as mass-produced food became the norm, that people stopped keeping small animals like chickens.
With the development of the suburbs in the mid twentieth century, many communities explicitly outlawed raising animals for food as a way to distinguish the new suburban way of life from nearby rural areas. These rules stayed on the books for decades.
With the rise of the local food movement and a resurgence of interest in growing one’s own food, urban chicken-keeping has enjoyed a renaissance, and many cities have altered their regulations about chickens accordingly. Most of the cities in Los Angeles County now allow chickens, as do New York, Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Vancouver, and numerous other metropolitan areas. Until recently, chicken-keepers in Washington D.C. have taken advantage of ambiguous animal ordinances, but they may be facing a ban on chicken-keeping in the near future, as Philadelphia and Toronto residents do.
Could you be keeping backyard chickens where you live? The odds are becoming increasingly good that you can. Here’s what you need to know.
Don’t Count Your Chickens Until You Know City Ordinances
Numerous North American cities have adopted guidelines for keeping chickens in the last several years. Rules may include:
- How many hens are allowed. Three to eight is the norm, though some permit twelve or more. Most cities don’t allow roosters.
- Site plan. Many municipalities require would-be chicken keepers to submit a site plan prior to installing their coop and acquiring hens.
- Location. Many ordinances stipulate setbacks from property lines and distance from other residential buildings as well as visibility from the street.
- Permitting for electricity. Chickens will lay better with a light source during the darker times of year, when egg production typically drops. Running an extension cord for the light is not permitted in some communities, so you may need to have wires installed by a licensed electrician.
- Nuisance conditions. Cities may outline regulations regarding smells, sights, vermin or excessive noise.
- Sanitation requirements. Many ordinances require that coops be kept clean and regulate how chicken droppings are used or disposed of.
- Historic neighborhood considerations. If you live in a historic neighborhood, you may have to seek special approval from your city’s historic preservation commission. Some coops are quite attractive, and people have even installed leaded-glass windows to add to their coop’s appeal. For more information about coop design and location, read Housing Your Backyard Chickens.
- Non-commercial use only. Many cities do not permit owners to sell eggs or meat.
- Prohibition of slaughtering. When owners choose to cull their flocks for food, many cities require that they use a commercial processor rather than doing it themselves.
- Securing the chickens’ food. Chicken feed must be secure to avoid attracting rodents.
- Space considerations. Some ordinances stipulate how much space each hen must be allotted.
To find out the rules in your community, call City Hall or search your city’s ordinances online. Many cities have responded to the enthusiasm for chicken-raising with updates to their municipal code, but many others have laws banning them still on the books. Some don’t explicitly allow or disallow them, and chicken enthusiasts in these cities keep their flocks under the radar.
If your city doesn’t currently permit backyard chickens, you can lobby your local government to update the ordinance. You may want to band with other would-be chicken keepers before approaching city officials. Proceed with caution. Some city governments have rejected proposals to reverse chicken bans in city limits, while residents of some cities without explicit bans have been unpleasantly surprised that raising the subject prompted city officials to outlaw what had previously been tolerated.
Hatching a Plan for Backyard Chickens in Your Town
If you want to make your city chicken-friendly, below are some steps successful activists have taken to legalize chicken-keeping.
There’s no shortage of online resources for would-be chicken activists. A web search for ‘urban chickens’ will point you to organizations and forums as well as groups in your region.
Familiarize yourself with common objections to urban chickens, such as noise, odor, pests, aesthetics, and health concerns. Be prepared to answer these concerns, and consider preparing a packet for your government officials.
Start by finding other people in your city interested in changing the ordinance. Contact groups that might be able to assist or support you, including your region’s extension office, local food advocacy groups, or even a prominent nature or environmental center in your community. A social media page for your group that garners a certain number of likes from people in your community might be a useful tool for convincing officials that an ordinance has support.
Find sympathetic officials.
City councillors may hold very different opinions on the issue, so before presenting to your council in a formal meeting, try to meet with those who seem most receptive and discuss your proposal to change the ordinance. They can also point you to other sympathetic members and additional steps you might take to sway the council in your favor.
City councils can move slowly. Expect the process of submitting a proposal and having it discussed and voted on to take awhile.
Best Practices for Your Urban Chicken Coop
If you live in a community that permits chickens, be sure to follow some best practices to avoid ruffling feathers in your neighborhood:
Know the laws.
Be sure you follow the laws of your community regarding how many chickens, setbacks, and the like to avoid getting fined or having your coop shut down.
Talk to your neighbors.
While many people will think it’s really cool to keep chickens, others might find it very strange. Explain why you’re keeping chickens and allay their concerns about smells, noise, and vermin.
Keep it clean.
If you want to keep the neighbors happy, preventing bad smells from wafting into their yard is a paramount concern. Be diligent about clearing out the coop every week, which is required in many city ordinances. For more information, read Our Top 6 Chicken-Raising Mistakes.
Share your eggs.
Want to convince neighbors keeping chickens is a good idea? Give them some eggs to try for themselves and they’ll get to taste what all the fuss is about.
Keeping chickens is a fun and exciting (eggs-citing?) way to raise your own food. Find out if you can keep chickens in your city, and if not, explore the possibility of changing your community’s code so you and your neighbors can enjoy the pleasures of your own backyard flocks.