The benefits of raising chickens at home, even in the city

Chickens raised in the back yard can help keep pests at bay.
Chickens raised in the back yard can help keep pests at bay. (Bigstockphoto)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 7, 2010

The paper place mat at the Chinese restaurant may have told you that 2009 was the Year of the Ox. But to me it was the year of the chicken.

Americans, even urban ones, have been sidling up to the idea of growing their own food, sparked by a yen for better-tasting, healthier fare; food safety concerns; and economic necessity -- in more or less that order. With backyard gardens more common, the idea of backyard poultry has begun to sneak through the gate. This is a big step. I doubt there is a single country, besides ours, that views the city chicken as a complete aberration. For us, many miles and many layers of plastic, Styrofoam and abstraction separate city dwellers from the places where their food is grown, so the sound of crowing and clucking has come as a shock. It also flies in the face of local ordinances, which vary widely from one state or municipality to the next.

Let's look at the broader view. Since the beginning of agriculture, there has been a natural link between the raising of animals and the raising of plant crops. It's very simple: Food plants benefit from being grown with well-composted animal manure, and the animals that produce it benefit from being fed the overflow greens, roots, stems, fruits (and weeds) from an abundant garden. So if you have such a garden, an easy-to-manage form of livestock is the logical next step.

Eggs from backyard chickens are different from those bought at the store. The fresh yolks are tastier and colored bright orange, thanks to the hens' access to greens, not to mention bugs and other goodies they snatch up in their foraging. Needless to say, even when fenced out of the garden itself, they keep pest populations down. At season's end, turning the chickens loose in the patch is a time-honored way to clean it up and prevent pests from overwintering.

Not all city neighbors are ready to live next door to chickens, although many can be won over by a supply of fresh eggs. Roosters can be unwelcome. Personally I prefer their morning wakeup call to that of a barking dog or a car horn, but even communities that permit hens sometimes outlaw roosters. If you insist on fertile eggs, for which a rooster is needed, include just one. If he's a problem, make coq au vin.

If even the hens are an issue, try ducks. These charming creatures lay delicious eggs without loudly broadcasting the news. You do not, contrary to what you might think, need to provide them with a pond. Their manure is less conspicuous than that of a chicken's, sinking effectively into your increasingly green, well-fed lawn. 2010 could well be their year.

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