What the cluck? Tri-State residents say chickens are at top of urban agriculture pecking order

CINCINNATI - As the popularity of urban agriculture has grown, so has interest in backyard chicken-keeping. Throughout the Tri-State area, hundreds of households are happily raising small flocks of hens.

The 270 members of the “Cincinnati Backyard Chickens” group on Yahoo! share information on everything from local ordinances to coops and feed suppliers. And 145 people belong to The Southwestern Ohio Backyard Poultry MeetUp group based in Miamisburg.

Why choose chickens?

For fans of the practice, raising chickens preserves a connection with our agrarian past, offers a chemical-free way to control garden pests, teaches children about food production and animal care, and can produce a steady supply of fresh, flavorful eggs.

Compared to store-bought eggs, eggs from backyard chickens often have less cholesterol and fat and more Omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamin A, Vitamin E and beta carotene.

Urban chicken aficionados say as pets, chickens can not only be fun to watch, but they give something back. In the book, “A Chicken in Every Yard: The Urban Farm Store’s Guide to Chicken Keeping,” Robert Litt and Hannah Litt note, “The sense of responsibility for and connection with the natural world that children develop from caring an animal is immensely valuable. If that animal happens to offer eggs in exchange for the care, the bond created is even more powerful.”

Jennifer Durbin of Silverton has been raising chickens in her backyard for more than five years. She said her eight hens are lovely to have around.

“If you’re going to have a pet anyway, why not have one that can also provide breakfast?”

Durbin got started after noticing a coop and some hens in a residential backyard on the way to dinner in Glendale. She grew up around animals and had chickens as a 4-H project.

“My grandfather, like many urban families, had chickens in Deer Park from the 1920s until he died in 1962,” Durbin added.

“Chickens make great pets,” said Hyde Park resident Lauren Woods. “They are easy to take care of.”

About two years ago, her family bought seven chicks from Mt. Healthy Hatchery and named them after Harry Potter characters. They incubated the chicks in the basement for about six weeks, until they were old enough to live in a flower-box-topped coop that an architect in the neighborhood designed for them.

The Woods children enjoyed nurturing the chicks and have noticed that each chicken has a distinct personality.

“There is definitely a pecking order,“ Woods said.

She recently observed that the hen at the top of the pecking order had successfully scared off a raccoon that  intent on raiding the hen house.

Until they got their chickens, the Woods family didn’t typically eat many eggs. But they says eggs laid by their own flock look and taste different. Many hens raised in backyards eat the type of omnivorous diets they were born to consume. Along with organic feed, they eat lizards, insects, and grass. Some eat vegetable scraps from kitchens.

Poultry people

Interacting with other members of the Cincinnati Backyard Chickens group has inspired Woods to pay closer attention to the quality of all the food she feeds her family. She has learned to avoid genetically modified foods, and now grows her own vegetables, makes her own bread, and uses raw honey instead of sugar.

Carolann Krimmer of Hyde Park was already concerned about food quality when she decided to raise chickens two years ago. She has a vegetable garden, makes her own ketchup, mustard, and pickles, and does a lot of canning, cooking, and baking. Her philosophy is that if you do a little bit more work now and spend money on organic food, you will spend less of medical care later in life.

Her flock of seven hens produces about three or four dozen eggs a week. She sells some eggs, gives some to friends and neighbors, and uses them in her cooking.

“You can definitely taste the difference, and baked good turn out better," Krimmer said. “The kids enjoy having the birds around. It teaches them where their food comes from. And taking care of pets is character building.”

Hatching how-to

Getting started can be more expensive than you first think. While the chickens themselves cost less than $4.00 each, you will need a coop to protect from predators such as raccoons, possum, hawks, and even cats. Experts say the coop should be bug-resistant, easy-to-clean, and able to keep the chickens warm in the winter, cool in the summer.

Choosing the right breed is also important. There a dozens of breeds from which to choose. Krimmer used an online breed-selector tool to help her find three breeds that were well-suited for her goals and living environment.

Other factors to consider include access to vet services and a pet sitter who can care of your chickens when you go away for a few days.

“Like any pet, they get sick or injured and there aren’t many capable chicken vets around,” Durbin said. “Most owners have to do their own vet care: foot surgery, vaccinating babies, worming, dosing with antibiotics. Having chickens is not for the squeamish.”

Woods said that once you get everything set up, and the chickens are living outside, they are easier to maintain than a cat.

Being a good neighbor

The regulations for keeping chickens vary from city to city.The Cincinnati Backyard Chickens group maintains a database of local ordinances for 40 Ohio communities including Anderson Township, Blue Ash, Cheviot, Evendale, Glendale, Loveland, Madeira, and Wyoming.

The database on the University of Kentucky’s Poultry Extension site for Small and Backyard Flocks lists ordinances for Alexandria, Erlanger, Fort Thomas, Fort Wright, Covington, Bellevue, Newport and other communities throughout Kentucky.

The online community BackyardChickens.com has a list of ordinances for all 50 states.

Most ordinances require that coops be kept sanitary and free of obnoxious odors; waste must be disposed of properly; and, fowl must not be allowed to wander off your property.

Some cities prohibit dyeing chicks or selling chickens or eggs for profit. Other communities limit the number of hens that can be kept, prohibit the keeping of roosters (for noise-control purposes), or require that the animals be kept in enclosures at least 100 feet away from neighbors’ dwellings.

Before Lauren Woods bought her chickens, she contacted the Cincinnati Health Department.

“I spoke to the person who would come to our house and examine the cleanliness if anyone complained,” Woods recalled. “I asked them what they would be looking for so I could make sure my chicken operation was in compliance. Everything she outlined, I was already doing.”

Woods also informed her neighbors about the family’s plans to raise chickens. When the family inadvertently received a rooster with chicks they had ordered, they kept it only for about a month. The rooster’s crowing wasn’t loud, but it was frequent.

One backyard chicken-keeper said most of her neighbors aren’t even aware that she has chickens, and the ones that do want eggs.

Tips for new chicken owners

“Be sure you know what you are getting into before you start and ask questions from people who are experienced with chickens,” advised Vicki Muething of Gorman Heritage Farm.

“We do receive phone calls from people offering to donate their unwanted chickens to us. I believe they thought chickens would be fun, but didn’t realize the world involved. Like any animals, chickens are a responsibility and not a project to be started on a whim.”

“Also, be sure that you and your children are fully trained in safe handling procedures for chickens and eggs,”  Muething said. “Washing hands after handling chickens is very important, and please don’t allow your children to kiss the chicks!”

Woods and Krimmer suggest visiting other chicken-keepers before you get started, simply so can observe what’s involved in maintenance and see how your children interact with the hens.

Gorman Heritage Farm, Imago Earth Center, and other local farming and garden organizations offer classes.

Holli Palmer, who lives in Hartwell, has been raising chickens for three months, inheriting some pullets that her nephews raised from chicks:

“If you are truly interested, go for it. They are not demanding, they are fun to watch, and they are a great addition to the yard,” she said.

Want to check out chickens?

Families can get up close and personal with poultry during the Chickens in the Garden program offered by Hamilton County Parks.

Held at Glenwood Gardens, several 15-minute sessions allow adults and children to learn about the birds’ anatomy, where they live, what they eat, what type of eggs they lay and more. 

  • When: Friday and Saturday at 10:45 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sunday, August 25, at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. 
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