Raising 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 raising 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 I got 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.
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.
How many chickens do you need for eggs?
For most people, the appeal in raising backyard chickens is eggs. But most city ordinances limit the types and number of livestock allowed in backyards, so you may be concerned that you won’t be able to raise enough hens. Good news – even a solo hen will produce eggs. So strictly speaking, the answer to how many chickens do you need for eggs is…one. 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 dawn, 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. It’s best to avoid a rooster if you live in proximity to other people since they likely won’t appreciate his singing efforts.
How many eggs does a chicken lay?
The best egg laying chickens produce 250-300 eggs per year, in their prime years.
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.
Disclosure: I’m an affiliate for Lehman’s Hardware, 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.
Backyard chicken coops
It 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 best chicken coop has a strong roof, is weatherproof, free from drafts and has 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 backyard 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.
*these chicks still have to be kept warm via heat mat, plate or lamp, unless there’s a hen to sit on them
Keeping baby chicks warm
Even in the dog days of summer, keeping chicks in 85-95 degree conditions 24/7 is a challenge without a mother hen. 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 should have 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.
How much space do backyard chickens need?
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 eggs. Allow one nest box for every 3-4 hens, though they may end up sharing a nest.
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. Be sure to check the rules in your city and neighborhood. Some places have limits on the size of chicken coops or where they can be placed on a city lot. They may also have rules against free ranging or other containment requirements.
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.
Option 1 – A larger coop
The larger coop is pretty much just like it sounds. The coop is bigger to give the girls room to move around and spread their wings when it’s not possible for them to have outdoor space. Add 10 square feet per bird, for a minimum total of 14 square feet per hen, not including the egg box(es). 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).
Option 2 – A small coop with an enclosed outdoor run
The coop itself is still pretty close to that interior minimum but the hens have easy access to an enclosed outdoor area (the chicken run). Ideally, the run has walls and a roof and the walls extend at least a foot underground to keep rodents from digging in. The most secure chicken runs are covered by 1/4″ 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 or picket fencing. 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.
At a minimum, the chicken run needs to be 4-5′ tall to keep your hens from flying over. The enclosing fence needs to be very sturdy and tightly woven so the flock can’t squeeze out the gaps.
Some chicken tenders only let their flock in the run during the day and they close the hens in the coop at night. In that case, it’s vital the coop be impregnable but less important that the run be as much of a fortress. But if you plan to allow your hens free access to their run, please use hardware cloth and bury it around the perimeter. That will keep your girls safe when they’re sleeping and vulnerable.
Below, our chicken coop and the enclosed run underneath it. As you’ll see, we added a picket fence around the coop area later, to give the girls a place to ‘free range’ more safely.
Option 3 – free ranging 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 substantial risks in letting your flock run free all day long. 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.
If you let your hens free range, you need to keep them within your own yard or garden. It’s simply not safe or fair to turn them loose in an urban area. And be sure they can’t escape your yard by digging under a fence or flying over it. 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 access to a run or lots of safe free-ranging time, then chickens might not be a good fit for you right now.
The hybrid life
You can do a combination, by the way. My hens have unlimited access to a fully-enclosed 4’x10′ run, which is built under their coop. They also get a few hours of ‘free ranging’ every week in a special fenced area of my yard. That fenced in area isn’t as secure as their run, so there is some risk to them from aerial predators in letting them use it. But it dramatically increases their quality of life, so I feel like the risk is worth it.
You can see our coop and the picket fence we recently put around it in the photo below. The picket fence keeps our puppy, pictured, from getting too close to the chicken run and helps keep the chickens contained during their free range time. It keeps them in one place and it keeps the puppy from bugging them but that picket fence isn’t secure enough for the hens to be unattended all day long.
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 dry 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.
The best chicken feeder to prevent waste
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 this five gallon bucket style feeder, and I highly recommend it.
It holds around a month’s worth of grain (about 20 pounds) and is waterproof. The cone keeps the hens from roosting on it. It works great and I know the flock always has access to food. Two hens can eat at a time without competing.
In general, chickens don’t eat mindlessly, so you can trust them to free-feed their pellets or grain. They will, though, scatter feed around if it’s not contained. This particular feeder must be level or the hens can rock it back and forth, shaking out extra food. But when it’s on a level surface (I use two patio paving stones), the girls pop their heads in to eat but can’t dislodge extra food. When you feed them a mixed grain food, they will inevitably try to scratch out the grains they like best – this feeder makes that more difficult.
It’s not a good choice if you use wet or fermented food or if you feed crumbles or mash. But for pellets and grains, it’s an excellent choice.
The best chicken waterer for a small flock
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.
It’s not perfect but it’s very good. if it’s not on a level surface, the water can slowly leak out over the side. Like all waterers, the chickens will find a way to get dirt and debris in it, so be prepared to clean it out often. But it holds enough water for 5 chickens to drink freely for 3-4 days, even in hot weather. A built-in float lets the water continually fill the drinking area without overflowing.
Important note- Earlier models of this feeder had a flaw in the design – that flaw allowed the internal float mechanism to fill with water, leading to rapid water loss. That flaw (a seam) has been changed and all the new models have a single piece float. Mine has the single-piece float and I have never had problems with the float filling with water or failing to do its job.
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 city?
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 economic 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 require you order a minimum number of chicks, often 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 because chickens produce most of their manure while sleeping. 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.
The best chicken coop bedding
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. You’ll have to scoop the coop daily and the sand won’t do much to help absorb or offset odors.
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. If you won’t be able to compost it, check that it’s legal to dispose of it in your city garbage.
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. The poop board also needs to be cleaned daily.
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 and replaced 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.
Backyard chickens can mean backyard rodents
All that chicken manure, plus chicken feed, can attract mice, rats and other problematic guests. Keeping the coop and run clean will help keep them away and some people swear by mulching with oak leaves and chips.
But even a spotless coop isn’t always enough to keep rodents at bay. This is especially true if you live on an alley or near a large water source. These pests aren’t just distasteful, they can also hurt your flock. Be prepared to handle unwelcome rodents when they inevitably show up.
Fair warning, I’m about to speak very graphically about this issue – and bluntly, if you’re not able to handle the idea of dispatching rodents, you probably shouldn’t get backyard chickens. If you yourself aren’t able to take care of rodents, make sure someone else in your household is able to and willing to do so.
Avoid broadcast poison because your flock (and other animals, like wild birds) may inadvertently ingest it. Poisoned rodents don’t die immediately and if they are eaten by your chickens, raptors or other animals, those animals will become ill or die. Rodent poison is a huge threat to native birds and raptors, so be a good citizen and avoid it.
Speaking of avoiding things – don’t use glue traps. They are horribly inhumane and often snare other creatures instead of rats or mice. Once stuck, those creatures spend hours terrified and in pain – it’s a terrible fate.
So I can’t use poison or glue traps – how am I supposed to deal with rats and mice humanely?
You’ve basically got two options. One is to use GOOD spring or spin traps. But be prepared for the fact that even the well-made traps aren’t foolproof. You can end up with a partially trapped rodent that you’ll need to dispatch as humanely as possible. Sorry if that grim reality is hard to hear about – trust me, it’s even harder when it happens.
Another option is to spring for an electric trap. They’re pricey but humane and effective. The chamber is baited, the rodent enters and is electrocuted. Simple, effective, quick and reusable. It runs on batteries, which need to be changed after a discharge. The kill chamber is far enough into the trap that other small creatures can’t accidentally wander in and the specialized bait means only mice and rats are going to be interested in climbing in.
I know that when you started to read an article about raising chickens in the city, you didn’t expect to end up here. But the reality is that your coop will almost certainly bring in some unwanted rodents. And after a certain point, it might be your job as a chicken keeper to get rid of them – it’s best to know that upfront and have a plan rather than be surprised.
There are a lot of benefits to raising backyard chickens, even in the city. They can be fun pets and the eggs are a delicious byproduct. But there are definitely challenges in raising chickens in urban environments and it’s important to plan for those before you bring home those adorable chicks.
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