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After growing your own backyard vegetable garden, keeping chickens can seem like the next logical step toward sustainability. Before building a coop, selecting breeds, setting aside space for a run or purchasing chicks, it’s important to know the regulations and restrictions in your area.
HOA on Arrival
Homeowner associations are the first line of authority when it comes to determining what happens in your yard. If you live in a neighborhood with an HOA, this is the place to begin. Find out if your HOA regulates structures and uses of property within the neighborhood. If your HOA prohibits chickens, you won’t be able to add them to your efforts.
If the HOA doesn’t have any restrictions, then city codes supersede county codes when it comes to backyard flocks. Knowing your city codes is important because they reflect details about urban agriculture specific to your community.
According to a 2012 report in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development titled “Welcoming animals back to the city: Navigating the tensions of urban livestock through municipal ordinances,” city codes not only determine whether or not you can keep chickens, they frequently specify other details you need to know. Ordinances define some of the following chicken-keeping policies.
Setbacks: This defines how far your chicken coop and yard need to be from the property line or from your neighbor’s house. For example, Ann Arbor, Michigan, requires that the coop and chicken yard be 10 feet from the property line and 40 feet from neighboring residences. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a 25-foot setback is required with no restrictions about distance from the neighboring residence. In Round Rock, Texas, you are only required to have a 25- to 50-foot setback from neighboring residences, making no mention of property lines.
Flock Size: Many city ordinances also define the number of chickens that may be kept. In San Antonio, Texas, urban flocks are limited to three birds. Seattle, Washington, residents may maintain flocks of eight hens or more depending on the size of the homeowner’s lot. In some cities, the number of individual animals is completely determined by the lot size.
In Eugene, Oregon, the city ordinance identifies that six urban hens older than
6 months may be maintained along with six birds that are younger than six months in age. This allows urban chicken-keepers to rotate new birds into their flock as others age beyond egg laying.
City ordinances vary widely on whether a rooster may be part of one’s flock or not. And some communities require that the rooster have separate housing. In addition, many city codes prohibit the slaughter of chickens in urban backyards.
Flock Housing: City ordinances might also identify whether a flock must be kept in a restricted pen, yard or movable garden tractor. Or whether, during daylight hours, hens can be released from their coop or enclosure to move freely in a backyard confined by fencing. In Cary, North Carolina, hens must be kept in a coop, pen or portable chicken tractor at all times, and flocks must be secured overnight to reduce the potential of predation. By contrast, in Escambia County, Florida, chickens may roam freely in fenced backyards between sunrise and sunset.
Permits & Fees: These also vary from city to city. In Westminster, Colorado, it’s unlawful to keep chickens without completing an application and paying a one-time $25 fee. Lindsborg, Kansas, also requires a permit that includes a $5 fee. The permit is valid as long as the permit holder keeps chickens at the stated address. In the case of Spartansburg, South Carolina, potential chicken keepers must also provide written permission from all property owners adjacent to the address seeking an annual permit.
Cleanliness: It’s a common expectation among city ordinances that chickens be kept in conditions with access to clean water, food, dry bedding and shelter. Coops should be cleaned regularly to maintain sanitary conditions for animals while reducing the impact of odors. And feed should be stored in secure containers to reduce attraction of unwanted vermin.
Waste: While most ordinances don’t set expectations about waste control, this is something you should consider before beginning. What will you do with the waste your girls produce? Do you have—or can you establish—a compost pile? Or do you plan to remove fecal matter, straw and bedding material by bagging and putting it out with your household garbage?
As with other livestock, waste is an ongoing issue. Your regular chicken care plan needs to include strategies you will use to effectively handle this flock byproduct. If you garden, note that fresh chicken manure is too hot to go straight onto beds. It should be composted with other garden waste and added to beds during the spring.
As a responsible chicken-keeper, advance consideration should also be given to solving small-flock challenges. If you live in a climate that gets very cold, how will you keep your flock’s water supply from freezing?
In short order, a flock can scrape their yard clean through normal scratching behavior. Will you install a substrate such as sand? Or will you regularly change straw to keep the pen from being too muddy while absorbing fecal matter? Some ordinances specify what the substrate or even a permanent floor should be inside chicken runs or coops.
And, before you buy, you might want to consider strategies for maintaining good neighbor relations, become familiar with potential predators and consider flock security. You will also need a resource for caring for your flock if you travel—so you might want to identify that person, too.
It can be helpful to find someone with an established flock who can mentor you. A local resource might also give you ideas about coop styles, predators in your area and other concerns encountered through their own experiences.
Start a Revolution
If you find you live in an area with restrictions on small flocks, you might want to rally support for an ordinance review. This process can be both exciting and challenging at the same time.
You will certainly learn more about how city management works if you decide to engage your community in a conversation. Here are some ways to get involved:
- • Review current ordinances so that you are familiar with established policies and restrictions.
- • Meet members of your local city council and learn about how ideas are presented for consideration.
- • Attend a city council meeting and find out how to be put on the agenda in the future.
- • Find advocates who can support your cause; these might include a current or former city council member, other people interested in keeping chickens, a resource for educating the council on benefits/issues, someone from a neighboring council who can speak to their community’s implementation process.
- • Find city ordinances online for comparably sized communities providing samples for review by your city council.
- • Seek ways to create a positive presentation that opens dialogue and ultimately results in new ordinances.
Leaping Before You Looked
If you jumped into chickens before researching these details, you might find yourself facing disgruntled neighbors who complain resulting in fines. Depending upon your community, you might be given 72 hours to resolve your flock issues up to and including getting rid of them. After the 72-hour grace period, you might receive citations and even monetary fines. It might be costly to resolve chicken issues after the fact, so do your due diligence and be prepared before you begin.
City Slickers: Breeds That Fit Small Spaces
There’s a simple loophole to keeping chickens in small spaces: bantams! Bantams are breeds of chickens that are smaller than standard-size birds; some weigh only a few pounds. There are “true bantams,” which are breeds only available in the bantam size, such as Seabrights, and then there are bantam varieties of standard-size breeds, such as a bantam Plymouth Rock. Some of both types are offered in this list of city favorites.
The great thing about a bantam for an urban or suburban flock is its tiny footprint (so to speak). They eat less, take up less space, cost less to care for and their housing is smaller. And yet they’re just as easy to care for as a flock of standard hens.
Barred Plymouth Rock Bantams
Like their standard-size counterparts, Barred Plymouth Rock bantams pack a punch of personality and make one of the most perfect backyard chicken breeds you could add to your flock. The Barred Rock bantam is friendly and personable. Hens are great layers of brown eggs, and both sexes are great meat birds. For a bantam, the breed is rather cold-hardy, so it’s a wonderful addition to a backyard flock in a colder climate.
Buff Brahma Bantams
Like their standard-size doppelgängers, the Brahma bantam is gentle and quiet, cold-hardy
and makes a great overall pet. Brahma bantam hens lay well, like other breeds in this list, make excellent setters and mothers. The Buff Brahma bantam sports a bright-golden body with black tail feathers and black-laced hackles; it’s quite a stunning bird!
Like the Silkie listed later, the Cochin bantam is an ornamental breed, prized for its calm disposition—which makes it an excellent breed choice for a family flock—and its fluffy appearance. Also called Pekin bantams, this breed originated from China, and when allowed to hatch eggs, the hens make wonderful mothers. Like other ornamental breeds, bantam Cochins are not rock-star layers, but they require very little space and their range of color varieties—buff; partridge; golden laced; barred; mottled; and black, white and red frizzle, to name a few—mean you’ll always have some beautiful birds in your flock.
Mille Fleur D’Uccle Bantams
If you’re looking for a showy, eye-catching bird, the Mille Fleur d’Uccle bantam might be the gal for you. The name translates from French meaning “thousand flowers,” and indeed, the Mille Fleur’s plumage appears to bloom before your eyes, with the most beautiful feathers appearing after the bird’s first molt. The breed has both heavily feathered legs and a bushy beard, to boot. The Mille Fleur is considered a “true bantam,” meaning there isn’t a standard-size counterpart. As an ornamental breed, don’t expect an abundance of its tiny eggs to grace your nest box, but if you have an eager up-and-coming 4-H member in your family, this bird might be a wonderful addition to your flock come show time. Mille Fleur d’Uccle are sweet and friendly birds.
Ah, the sweet and silly-looking Silkie. The “lap dog” of the chicken world, as it’s affectionately known, is a petite bird that makes the perfect pet chicken. Given its gentle temperament, it’s an ideal companion for children, and its demure size and no-fuss attitude lends well to microflocks in either urban or suburban areas, where confinement is necessary for safety or to meet city or homeowner association regulations. Its fluffy appearance is attributed to its unique feathers: The barbs and shafts of the feathers don’t “lock” to create a stiff feather like other chicken breeds and birds. Instead, the feathers resemble the down of a young chick—in appearance and to the touch. Silkie hens are fairly good layers of cream-colored eggs, often go broody, and when allowed to hatch eggs, the hens make excellent mothers. Silkies thrive in warm climates where heavier breeds might suffer.
—Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Chickens magazine.