With the popularity of urban farming steadily increasing, it's no surprise that many homeowners have decided to bring the community garden to their own backyard. Even in a large city such as Chicago, it's not unusual to spot a home with an intricate garden, or perhaps even a chicken coop. Avondale residents Christina Kapteyn and Kevin Dekkinga invited us to come out and take a look at their backyard-turned-animal-sanctuary which includes six chickens. Of course having a large yard is helpful, and the city's northwest side, with its plethora of old affordable homes on large lots, has become the hotbed for families seeking to bring a little bit of rural life to the big city. During our visit, we learned about what is involved in building your own coop, the ongoing upkeep with it, and how having a chicken coop can even be an asset and bolster a home's value.
Are you allowed to keep chickens in the city?
In Chicago, keeping chickens as pets is perfectly legal. It's important be a be a good neighbor though – no loud noises, smells or butchering. Like most things here, it's fine as long as the neighbors don't complain.
Why would anyone want to have chickens?
They're fun animals, full of personality and what other pet makes you breakfast? They're less work than a dog but more than a cat. Also, we'd been living in this house for three years, but it wasn't until we got our first flock that everyone wanted to meet us, and to see the chickens and the coop. We didn't realize it'd be an exercise in community building, but getting to know your neighbors has been great for us. Also, you're not going to make your money back on eggs. It's a hobby, but they are the best tasting eggs you can get.
How does someone get started with this hobby?
Don't jump into it until you've researched and explored all of the resources – books, the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts group, visit other coops, etc. You could also take an intro to chicken keeping class with Angelic Organics Learning Center or the Garfield Park Conservatory. They're not dogs or cats so be prepared to spend time learning about avian health and upkeep. They're barnyard animals and spend their time outside but generally they're pretty low maintenance. A great event to check out when getting started is the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts' annual Windy City Coop Tour.
So after you've decided you want to have chickens and have done the research, you should build a coop specifically for them?
It's important to build or buy a coop specifically designed for keeping chickens, because they have certain architectural needs. You can spend a good amount of money buying something premade, like the William Sonoma coop, or find your own plans and build it yourself, which is what most people do. You can you can purchase reused materials, for example at Rebuilding Exchange, and build your own for around $1,000. I purchased a Google sketch-up of the coop from a fellow enthusiast and built ours with a friend over a couple weekends last year.
After you've built the coop, what sort of upkeep is involved?
Every Saturday I come out and scoop their waste and rake all the sand in the run. It really doesn't take too much time. Everyday we give them fresh food and water. If we have to go away for a few days they'll be fine. It's kind of like one giant litter box.
What do you do with them in the winter?
In the winter, I wrap the entire coop in greenhouse plastic, which acts as a wind blocker, and there's also a heated metal base to keep the water from freezing. On really cold days, we have a red 100w lightbulb that goes into the coop. The chickens naturally have down coats and produce all new feathers for the winter.
So what happens when they get sick?
In order to protect the flock, if they see one that is sick or injured, they'll shun it or try to kill that particular bird. Every flock has its own particular pecking order which they decide early on. Even if it's the top bird that is sick, the rest of the flock will still try to take them out. If a bird looks sick, we'll usually bring them inside for some DIY veterinary care, or we call our local urban chicken consultant.
How does having a chicken coop affect your home's value?
We've had a broker tell us that it's a real asset. Of course not everyone is going to want a chicken coop in their backyard but for the right family, to them it's a big plus. There's more people looking to do the urban farming thing so for them already having an existing coop would be a huge benefit. Also, for us it was important, with having a family, to have a home that allows our son to know where his food comes from. We've also built a nice garden back here. The garden beds are made from recycled floor joists. It's old growth wood so it's more durable and will last longer. It's Chicago history in our backyard - it's pieces of homes. We use the square foot method for planting the garden because it maximizes what we can grow in a small space. Also the city had a great program that offered rebates on rain barrels, composters, native plants and trees.
So does having chickens bring you outside more?
Oh yeah, definitely. Between the garden and the chickens, we're outside all the time. On the very cold days I was out here with a hammer and chisel to clean up the frozen poop, but it still brought me outside. I guess dog owners would know how it is. Regardless of the weather, you're outside to take care of your animals.
So there's a whole chicken enthusiasts community in Chicago?
Definitely. Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts have a website full of great resources and a super active message board. Everywhere there's more people doing it and the Northwest Side seems like the hotbed for it. This year I'm helping to guide Fork and the Road's bike tour of the Windy City Coop Tour along with visits of popular fried chicken joints. We're calling it "poultry slam."