Chicken Ethics 

If you are going to add chickens, you need to start by checking the local zoning laws. Make sure it’s legal to have chickens where you live and what requirements there are.  Please thoroughly research how to care for chickens, their probable lifespans, their needs, etc. Chickens are very long-lived, so they are not an appropriate choice if you aren’t ready to commit to years of caring for them.

Thinking about backyard chickens? Here’s what you need to know to raise chickens in the city

Raising a few backyard chickens can be a great way to shorten your food supply chain and enjoy the absolute best tasting eggs around. It doesn’t get any better than an omelet made from this morning’s eggs! But living in a city can have a real impact on how to raise backyard chickens.

First things first – check your city zoning and neighborhood regulations. Many cities permit at least a few chickens but not all do and some neighborhoods or HOAs specifically forbid chickens. Take the time to thoroughly investigate the rules and regulations for your area before you go any further.  You don’t want to be in the position of having to rehome your flock.

Here’s a related post about the Things I Wish I’d Known BEFORE IGgot Chickens. It’s a funny, honest discussion about the good, the bad and the beaky. I wrote it to be a companion to this article, so be sure to read both.

Raising Egg Chickens in the City

Disclosure: I’m an affiliate for, Azure Standard and other companies. Clicking on links in my articles and purchasing products may result in the seller offering me compensation. I only share products I use and enjoy. Affiliate relationships help me cover the cost of producing content for Hey Big Splendor.

Raising chickens in the city – how many chickens do you need to get eggs?

For most people, the appeal in raising backyard chickens is eggs. Though yes, your flock can and should be considered as pets, and entertainment. It might surprise you to know that even a solo hen will produce eggs. Strictly speaking, that’s  how many chickens you need for eggs. But in reality, you should have at least two hens in your flock, and three is better.

Why do you need so many chickens?

Chickens have a complex social system. Though there may be skirmishes between hens, and even aggressive interactions, they’re social animals and they need companionship. Practically, hens tuck in together on the roosting bar and that helps the whole flock stay warm in cold weather. Two or three hens isn’t much more work than one hen, though adding more chickens does increase their output, both in eggs and in manure.

Do you need a rooster to get eggs?

No. Hens lay eggs without any help from the roosters. The only reason you need a rooster is if you want more chickens, via fertilized eggs. In urban areas, roosters are often prohibited because of all that crowing. Which doesn’t just happen at down, by the way. Roosters can be great pets, and they often help to herd and protect their hens from predators, but they are not essential and can cause problems in the city.

Awesome! I’m getting three chickens and then I’ll never have to buy eggs again!

Well….not quite. Prolific layers still only produce around 300 eggs a year. And while that might still sound like enough eggs for you household, there’s some bad news. Hens typically slow down or stop laying completely in winter. That means you’ll be up to your eyeballs with eggs nine months of the year and egg-less the other three. It is possible to install lights in your henhouse, which will cause your flock to keep laying over the winter. Most small scale chicken tenders choose to let their girls have a rest, however, and buy their eggs in winter. This is really the more humane course and I highly recommend it.

How to raise chickens in the city – where do city chickens live?

The answer to this question might surprise you. But even in the middle of a teeming city, your chickens need a sturdy, predator proof coop. Chickens, and their eggs, are very appealing to possums, raccoons, snakes, rats, mice and other city creatures. If your chicken coop and the chicken run (more on that in a minute) aren’t sturdily built, with strong latches, one or all of those animals will get into the coop and they can and will kill your chickens.

The coop also needs a strong roof, to be weather-proof, free from drafts and to have ventilation around the top. Chicken manure produces ammonia, which is very harmful to birds if it builds up in the coop. There should also be at least one window in the coop and a roosting bar that’s at least 18 inches above the floor and long enough for all your birds. Allow 12″ per hen on the bar.

Oh, and when your chickens are babies, they’ll probably have to live in your house.

Baby chicks have to live in the house?!

On a property with a large, heated chicken coop or warm barn, baby chicks can and do live outside*. But unless your chicken coop has electricity and is fairly well insulated, you’re going to find it hard to keep them warm enough for the first couple of months. Newly hatched chicks, especially those without a broody mother hen to care for them (read, sit on them) will die if they get too cold. And at that stage, “too cold” means under 95 degrees, 24/7.

To learn more about preparing for new chicks, see What to Eggpect and Getting Ready for Chickens.

*these chicks still have to be kept warm via heat mat, plate or lamp

Keeping baby chicks warm

That temperature drops by five degrees each week, until it eventually intersects with the outside daytime temperature. For many people, even on farms, it’s just easier to keep the babies indoors for the critical first weeks. The chicks should live together in a small enclosure, called a brooder. It can be a large cardboard box, or a plastic tote or something similar. The brooder will need a constant heat source for the babies. Many people use a heat lamp, which the chicks huddle under. I think a better option is this heat plate. It’s simple a flat panel that lays on the floor of the brooder and maintains a constant temperature. The babies will hang out on it when they’re cold and move off when they’re warm. Unlike heat lamps, there’s no fire risk and no risk the babies will end up burned.

When your chicks are grown, it makes a great heat mat for starting seeds.

The plastic brooder bin with ceramic chickens inside

What if I don’t have a lot of room in my yard for a chicken coop?

From a bare bones perspective, each chicken needs at least 4 square feet in the coop. So a three hen coop needs to be at least 12 square feet. It also needs at least one additional square foot for the nest (egg box) where the girls will deposit their egg. The egg box should be somewhat separated from the rest of the coop as hens prefer some privacy when it’s time for the big event. Assume your backyard chicken coop needs to be at least 3 feet by 4 feet, plus the egg box. Egg boxes are often built as a little pop-out on the side of the coop.

That doesn’t seem so big! I can just tuck that in anywhere.

Not so fast. That’s just the indoor space the hens need. The space where they will roost to sleep and where they’ll lay eggs. That’s not enough space for your hens to actually have a decent life. There are three options for giving your flock enough space for them to live well. A larger coop or a small coop and an enclosed chicken run are two options. The third is a small coop and a lot of free ranging time.

The larger coop is pretty much just like it sounds. Add 10 square feet per bird, for a total of 14 square feet per hen. The coop would need to be at least 140 square feet, not including the egg box. If you go this route, add a few windows if you possibly can. Chickens get bored and bored chickens are loud and sometimes aggressive. Using vertical space for additional perches, roosts or chickens swings can help, too.

Ideally, though, your hens will get some outside access. This can be accomplished with an enclosed chicken run or by letting the hens roam around your yard (free ranging).

An enclosed chicken run for city chickens

Effectively, there is a larger, enclosed space connected to the chicken coop. Ideally, the run has walls and a roof and the walls extend at least a foot underground to keep rodents from digging in. Most chicken runs are covered by hardware cloth, which is a fine, very sturdy, metal mesh. It’s too small for even mice to get through and it’s much sturdier than chicken wire.; The hens can’t get out, nothing can get in, and they have a protected outdoor area. Strictly speaking, the chicken run doesn’t have to be covered but it’s really best if it is. That protects the flock from hawks and other aerial predators.

What about free-ranging my backyard chickens?

If your hens free range, that means you let them out of the coop in the morning and they spend all or part of the day in your yard or garden. They love this, because as previously mentioned, chickens get bored. And in a perfect world, all chickens would be able to roam, scratch, graze and hunt insects at will. Unfortunately there are risks in letting your flock run free. These risks include the usual predators, as well as dogs, cats and humans, plus traffic if the hens escape your yard.

There is also the issue of your yard, garden, patio furniture, porch steps and anything else the flock can get to. They will scratch up anything and everything. Left unattended, they will devour your garden and then dig up the plants. Hens will roost and poop on your deck chairs. In short, they are not the most considerate guests. Be prepared to fence off any plants or areas you don’t want ravaged. And be sure they can’t easily escape your yard. Your neighbors might be enthusiastic about your chickens, until they find the flock going to town in their yard.

How many hours a day do backyard chickens need to free range?

If free-ranging is their sole access to the outside, they really need 4-6 hours a day, most days. Will they live and lay eggs otherwise? Yes, but they’re not going to be happy and unhappy hens cause a lot of problems. And make a lot of noise. In my opinion, it’s not fair to the hens or your neighbors to pack them into a small coop without reasonable access to outside space. If you can’t provide them with 14 square feet of space per hen, or lots of safe free-ranging time, then chickens might not be a good fit for you right now.

Urban chicken raising - hen in the nest box

What do backyard do chickens eat?

Nutritionally, chickens need a pretty specific ratio of macro nutrients. Commercial chick starter (hatch day to 16 weeks) and adult hen (layer) feed is specially formulated to meet these needs at all life stages. You really cannot go wrong with a high quality commercial feed. Expect an adult hen to eat about 1/4 pound of food per day.

Having said that, you can also buy whole grains and mix up a batch of feed for your hens. See How to Feed Your Flock Homemade Food for more information. It is vitally important that whatever their primary food source is, it meets the requirements for protein, carbohydrates and calcium, especially during laying season and molting.

Other Ways to Feed Chickens

You can also give your chickens kitchen scraps, vegetables, fruits, herbs, most seeds and nuts and a lot of other foods. Look at these as treats and/or supplements, though, and make sure they have plenty of their standard feed. Don’t feed chickens raw potatoes, citrus, fats or fatty foods, or uncooked rice or beans. It’s also best not to feed them starch carbs or processed “junk” food.

Also, chickens are omnivores. So don’t be shocked if your girls eat insects, worms or mice. Or snakes. Or try to eat dead wild birds they find in the yard.

A great chicken trick is to dry their eggshells, grind them in the food processor and then feed them to the flock. This gives them calcium and grit, which they need to make food move through their digestive system. If you don’t want to give them egg shells, then you’ll need to buy them chicken grit and have it available freely with their feed.

There are a number of options for chicken feeders. Pick the option that works best for your girls, and be ready to tweak things if need be. I use a five galloon bucket style feeder. It holds over a month’s worth of grain and is water proof. It works great and I know the flock always has access to food. In general, chickens don’t eat mindlessly, so you can trust them to free-feed their pellets or grain.;

Chickens need fresh water

There’s not much to this. Buy a chicken waterer that holds at least a gallon of water and put it in the coop or the run. Choose a heavy model that won’t fall over easily. If your flock are constantly tipping it over or kicking bedding and debris into it, consider hanging it a few inches off the ground. In summer, check it often since they will drink more in hot weather. In winter, it may freeze, so be sure to keep an eye on it. It’s essential chickens have access to clean water at all times.

What do I need to know about raising backyard chickens in a town?

We’ve covered urban chicken coops and feeding and water your chickens.  Let’s talk about how to make the experience of raising chickens in a city yard optimal.

Quiet chicken breeds make good neighbors

Choose your chickens breeds carefully. Some chicken breeds are just louder or more dramatic. Noisy, unhappy chickens can cause all kinds of problems, including conflicts with neighbors. Pick breeds known for being mellow or quiet. My barred rocks are great egg layers but they’re loud girls. By contrast, my Rhode Island Red and Gold-Laced Wyandottes are very quiet and the Wyandottes are very calm. Buff Orpingtons are another good laying hen with a good temperament for the city. Ask around and see what people who keep chickens in similar urban environments suggest.

I’d also suggest that friendly chickens are easier to manage in an urban environment. Nice chickens who come when called (or at least who don’t run off) are easier to corral if they do manage to escape to a neighbor’s yard.

Chickens don’t lay eggs until they’re grown

Don’t expect your hens to provide eggs until they’re at 16-20 weeks old, and it might be longer than that if they hit maturity in winter. From an economy standpoint, the longer you have to wait for eggs, the longer you’re feeding them without any return. On the other hand, the less time you have to keep fragile baby chicks in your home (especially if it’s on the small side), the better. So although many people get their chicks in late winter or early spring, it might be worth trading earlier eggs for warmer outdoor weather.

Order chicks from a reputable seller who offers city or urban sized flocks

Many hatcheries who sell chicks via the mail have minimum orders, and those orders are well above the limit in most towns. Be sure you purchase from a company that will sell you a smaller flock. And note that some hatcheries will send spare chicks, just in case some of them don’t survive the journey (it happens, sadly). While this is very generous, it can be a problem if those spare babies put your over the limits for your zone. My order last year included two extra chicks. While this was a fun surprise, it also means our flock is now maxed out. Since hens stop laying well after about age 5, we’re potentially going to have to re-home or cull some of our ladies when they hit middle age, if we still want eggs. I suggest noting on your order form if this is a concern for you, or buying your chicks in person during the spring. Many feed and pet stores have them on site.

The chicken coop is going to get smelly

Chickens make manure, and most of that manure ends up inside the coop. This is especially true when your chickens have less room to roam. Out in the country, a waft of aroma from the coop probably won’t be an issue. But in closer quarters, it can be pretty unpleasant. The only real solution to this is cleaning the coop often, and using lots of fresh bedding. There’s really no other workaround, especially in summer.

Many people with city chicken coops use coarse sand in the coop because they can scoop the poop just like a litter box. If you do this, be sure to get the correct grade of sand and be aware that frozen sand can be too hard for hens to land on safely.

Other people use wood shavings in their coop. The nice thing about shavings is they help insulate the coop in winter, and the manure will slowly compost along with the shavings. When it’s time to clean the coop, however, you really have no choice but to scoop out the bedding and manure and dispose of it. Be sure you have a plan for your coop bedding. If you have space, you can add it to a compost pile and let it age. Don’t put it directly onto plants, fresh manure is too high in nitrogen. There also may be gardeners near you who will take it off your hands for their compost pile.

A “poop board” is a flat board that is placed under the roosting bar. It collects most of the manure (chickens do a lot of their…output when sleeping) and the dried manure can be scraped off the board and disposed of.

Plan for poop outside, too

If your hens have an enclosed run, it will also get poopy (and probably muddy) and require some type of bedding. Straw or wood chips work great for this but they’ll need to be shoveled out periodically.

You may find some combination of these bedding and poop management systems works best, and you might need to try out a few things to find the best option. Always wash your hands after cleaning the coop or handling bedding, manure or the chickens themselves.

This is not an exhaustive guide, of course, but it’s a good place to start if you live in a town or city and want to add chickens.

How to raise chickens in the city

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