1. Chickens are definitely going mainstream. Whether it’s due to the interest in locally produced foods or simply a desire for a natural hobby, a growing number of urban and suburban residents are raising chickens. It’s now legal to keep chickens as pets (under certain conditions) in many cities, including Madison, Chicago, New York, Seattle and St. Louis, and several others are considering allowing the practice. There’s no good data on how many people are taking up backyard chicken farming, but Backyard Poultry, a magazine published in Wisconsin, sells about 95,000 copies each issue.
2. Buy the bird, get the eggs for free. Madison’s backyard-chicken networking group, Mad City Chickens, champions the hen as a “pet with benefits.” Not only do they come in many shapes, sizes and colors, but they provide eggs, consume kitchen waste and produce fertilizer for gardens. They’re also relatively inexpensive and can live comfortably in urban-sized yards. On top of that, they’re just interesting—chickens have social behaviors that make them fascinating companions for children and adults alike. With some handling and treats, they can become very tame around people.
3. And we’re talking about a lot of eggs. It takes a hen about 24 to 26 hours to make one egg. A hen bred for commercial production can lay about 300 eggs per year in her prime. Breeds that have been selected for other traits, such as color or pattern, will generally lay fewer, as will older hens. But a good estimate for a backyard coop with four hens is about 70 to 80 dozen eggs each year—likely plenty for a family, and the neighbors, too.
4. No boys allowed. Most cities permit residents to keep only hens, fearing that roosters’ crowing will create disturbance for those living nearby. And that’s probably a good idea. Some people don’t realize that roosters don’t crow only at sunrise—they crow often throughout the day, which can put a strain on neighborly relations. And unless you’re looking to hatch eggs, roosters aren’t needed for egg production, anyway.
5. And no hormones, either. A common misconception is that poultry producers use hormones to boost egg production in their hens. Not only is hormone use illegal in the United States, it’s unnecessary. Those phenomenal production levels are the result of years of careful genetic selection, nutritionally balanced rations and good flock management.
Ron Kean is the extension poultry specialist for CALS and UW-Extension. In addition to teaching courses on the biology and management of poultry for the Department of Animal Science and leading workshops for poultry professionals and hobbyists around the state, he is a regular columnist for Backyard Poultry magazine.