Although I absolutely adore having backyard chickens, living with chickens isn’t for everyone. The magazine articles that promote chickens as a cool new green trend typically don’t mention the downsides that come with owning an urban flock. I had a friend seriously considering getting baby chicks back in January 2010 when she saw how much benefit and pleasure we got from our hens. When I shared my flock experiences with her, I tried not to candy coat it. Below is basically all bad the stuff I shared with her about keeping backyard chickens. I wanted to help her make an informed decision so that she didn’t needlessly invest many months of work and lots of money in a hobby that could later turn out to be more effort than she was expecting. Sadly, I think I talked her out chickens.
- Noise– All chickens, not just roosters, make some noise, especially once they reach point of lay. I have yet to meet a flock, that on the whole, never made a peep or could be kept stealth and hidden 100% of the time. However, a small flock of hens makes less noise than a typical well cared for, properly trained family dog. My dog barks if their is a reason to; same with my hens. The one main difference with hens, they don’t make noise at all hours of the night like a dog could. They will vocalize if they think they saw a hawk, they try to dash across the yard, or someone laid an egg. Depending on how many hens you have, times the noise by that number. With five hens laying, you will hear the egg song about five times a day, for about a minute or two each time. Some individual chickens are quieter than others and some breeds are typically less talkative, but once pullets start to lay, they all get more vocal. My bantam Cochins are generally pretty quiet, nevertheless, they make sure to always announce egg time to the neighborhood.
- Vacations-We have to arrange a pet sitter that doesn’t mind caring for chickens and cleaning droppings under a roost. Not all pet sitters are willing to deal with chicken poop or would recognize if a hen isn’t acting normal. Usually, my neighbor across the street and I help each other out since we both keep chickens. However, sometimes she goes out of town during the same school breaks that we do and that’s when it gets complicated.
- Droppings– Free Ranging chickens will poop on the back porch, patio, outdoor furniture, or driveway if they have access to those areas and don’t have other areas that they would rather be in the yard.
- Flies-Poop attracts flies, including chicken poop, just like any other pet poop not cleaned up right away, especially in the warm months. Fly traps stink like rotting meat so I don’t usually use them. Daily clean up is important to keep down fly populations, whether it is the dog poop or the chicken poop. One advantage: our small flock of chicken’s and their daily poop is far less smelly than the poop from my big golden retriever and I can compost the chicken poop. I also added metal window screening on top of the hardware cloth on my coop openings to keep flies and mosquitos out. This added to our initial set up costs and construction time, but it has been worth it to me.
- Garden Damage– Chickens can damage tender plants with their vigorous scratching and dust bathing, as you can see in the above photo that they have done this under the mandrine orange tree. Hens enjoy searching under the mulch and kicking it out of garden beds as they look for goodies to eat. They will nibble and sample all of the plants. When they find a plant they like, they will eat it unless it is protected with some kind of barrier. Since switching from large fowl breeds to Bantam Cochins, we have noticed significantly less garden damage, but they still do some.
- Early Risers-Chickens get up with the sun, and most chickens call to be let out if they are used to free ranging. In the summer, around here this means opening the coop door as early as 5:45AM. I am not a morning person, but since I live close to neighbors, for the first year we had chickens, I had to go outside to let the chickens out as soon as I heard them. Few pet sitters are willing to come by that early, or any earlier than 7 or 8AM. I always felt guilty going away for a weekend, knowing that my neighbors were being annoyed by the endless calls by the hens to be let out until the pet sitter arrived. In my opinion, it is not fair to urban neighbors, to force them to put up with the noise of a squawking hen that wants out. For this reason, I am a big advocate for automatic coop door openers. I feel it is a must have for city chicken keepers. If they chickens are getting out when they want to, they are far happier. My automatic coop door opener/ closer was the best investment I made in my coop.
- Dust – Chickens make dust within their living quarters. With indoor or garaged confined chickens it is especially noticeable. When we brooded chicks inside the house, their room needed almost daily dusting. I still dust the coop every couple of months or so to keep us and the hens healthy.
- Free Ranging – Once a hen get a taste for free ranging, Beware! My first flock gradually trained me to let them out all day from sun up to sun down. If I didn’t let them out, they would relentlessly and loudly rant about it until I did. My neighbors could always tell which days I didn’t let them out.
- Late Nights -Before I had my automatic door opener, any night we stayed out after dark, I had to remember to ask a neighbor to come over to close the coop.
- Predators – Even though we aren’t in a rural environment, we still have all sorts of critters visit our yard, day and night. They all like to eat chicken. We lost a hen our first year to a hawk. At the house across the street, a another hen was killed, by what they think was probably a raccoon, one night when they forgot to close the coop. It is gruesome to deal with, but predator attacks are something that can happen even in the burbs. Vets that treat chickens are expensive and hard to find.
- Dogs-dog owners that choose to keep chickens have the added responsibility of training their dog to behave good with their chickens. Some pet dogs, especially hunting breeds, only see chickens as cool playthings and can easily maim or kill them. That same neighbor that was considering getting chicks owns a young, high energy Brittany, a dog breed specifically bred to hunt birds. I think that was the tipping point in her change of heart.
The fact that craigslist.org occassionally has postings for entire flocks with their coops included, reveals that some people get into keeping chickens without being fully informed. I would highly recommend anyone considering chickens do extensive reading at their local library or online at sites like community chickens or backyardchickens before taking the plunge. Join a chicken keeping group like Meet Up Los Angeles Urban Chicken Enthusiasts. I think it is helpful to talk to as many folks as possible that have had chickens for more than just a year or so; these folks probably have had their chicken honeymoon wear off and will be more open, honest, and informed about the downsides of owning chickens. Despite the hassles and expense of pet ownership (just like with my the dog and cat) I love my urban flock of backyard chickens and enjoy having them hang out with me as work in the garden and the delicious fresh eggs they give us. I hope to always have a small flock as long as I have a yard to keep them in.