Field Trip: Chickens in the Yard

Keeping backyard chickens is a pretty hot topic these days. It’s now legal in most U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, however, according to this list, it’s legal in only five minor Canadian cities. Stories and debates pop up in Canadian media all of the time, but they seem pretty pathetic, especially when you look back over that list and see some surprising U.S. cities on it.

Jane, Jesse’s mom has been keeping chickens for around 10 years. She has a great set-up in an old tobacco kiln with a dirt floor, plenty of sunlight, nesting boxes filled with beautiful straw, and a large fenced-in area outside. She keeps chickens for eggs and they easily supply all of her needs as well as those of her four kids, their spouses, and five grand-kids. The cost of keeping her flock of 10 is low, and she looks forward to visiting them every morning and evening.

Once the birds learn to nest and lay their eggs in the chicken coop, she lets them run free, scavenging for grubs and fertilizing the yard. This really reduces their need for feed and gives them a much more natural and balanced diet. Just take a look at their eggs. The yolks from their summer eggs are a deep orange and more flavourful than any factory-farmed egg you’ll eat.

One thing Jesse and I are constantly educating people on are the basics of egg production. In most cases you will get an egg a day from a productive hen. There’s also the fact that no, a chick won’t form from an egg if you left it there in the chicken coop. Hens lay eggs regardless of the presence of a rooster. But if you had a rooster, which Jane has, those eggs would technically be fertilized. But then the hen would actually have to brood, or sit on those eggs to provide the conditions for the chick to develop. That brooding instinct has mostly been lost, and modern farms almost always use incubators to allow chicks to develop. In fact, you actually have to search out breeds that still have a brooding instinct.

So why a rooster then? Well, when Jane first picked up the pullets, or immature hens, you couldn’t tell the gender, and a rooster slipped through. But he’s not a bad thing to have around, since he’ll establish a pecking order that without him would have seen a hen assume his position, and she’d probably stop laying eggs while she took care of business. So, if you’re going to have one unproductive chicken, it’s nice to have such a handsome one.

If you are interested in keeping chickens or want to study up on some theory (in the case that it’s illegal where you are), a definite must-read is Keeping Chickens with Ashley English. It’s the only chicken book you’ll ever need and covers everything from preparing for chickens, to selecting breeds, to recipes. Everything is presented in a beautiful and logical manner. Charts organize important information into easy to read sections such as one that tells what you need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly, annual and biannual basis.

One section is dedicated to building coops and above, you can see her plans for a chicken tractor, which is a movable, floorless coop which allows the chickens to have contact with the ground and all of the nutrition it provides. Ashley keeps a beautiful blog called Small Measure and you can get the daily scoop on her flock and other enviable aspects of her life there.

Jesse is a bit of nerd when it comes to coop designs. He wanted to share a few and his absolute favourite is this vintage camper inspired coop. But there are others like the Scandinavian-inspired Kippen House, the overly-molded Eglu and the suitably-shaped Nogg. There are even some beautiful, truly architectural coops.

People generalize about the messiness of keeping backyard chickens, but like anything, it’s relative. Would you keep 20 dogs in a small urban backyard? Probably not. Maybe three chickens would be perfect, and you could keep them in a modern, easy-to-clean coop. It’s also exciting to see what the eggs look like. They almost never look like anything you’d pick up in the supermarket. We were particularly excited the first time we saw the deep red of Jane’s Welsummer eggs. And what the hens lack in overtly warm affection, they’ll make up for in toasty warm omelettes.


  • I had chickens for almost a year…The only reason I was allowed to have them is they say I was grand fathered…because I've had racing pigeons for 25 years…To make a long story short…The chickens met a questionable end when raccoons (I think) managed to get into my coop….I only had three…but it kept us and various neighbours in eggs…and yes they lay approx. 1 egg per day…Most if not all Canadian cities will not allow you to keep a rooster..I've always loved chickens!!!

  • Love the gorgeous photos! We're lucky enough to have an organic farm – including chickens, just up the block – otherwise we would have them in our yard. I love them! We visit them all the time!

  • That's great Tricia, we have my mom's, so we wouldn't get any, even if they were legal here.

    Matt, racing pigeons? I had no idea.

  • We live on a farm, so space and regulations aren't big issues, but I wish every municipality would allow backyard chickens. Noise will not be an issue if there is no rooster, and chickens should not cause odour issues if properly cared for! I never have to wrinkle my nose when I go in our coop of 15 birds.

    I think there's no comparison between store-bought eggs and fresh, organic, free-range ones from your own hens! Other people seem to agree, since we sell so many of our eggs (legal from our farm gate) that we can barely keep enough for ourselves.

    And until we got chickens, I never know how endearing and amusing they were! They always put a smile on our face when we visit the coop, and reward us with delicious eggs on top of it all.

    We ended up with three roosters this year (we thought there was only one but as you note, it's hard to sex chicks!) and I'm glad we added them. So far they are co-existing peacefully, and I enjoy watching them dote on the hens.

    This is getting too long! :) Anyway, there are various groups out there working to change the rules about chickens in cities. I encourage everyone to get on that bandwagon. As with dogs or cats, with responsible ownership, chickens should not be a problem in a city backyard.

  • We can now have chickens in Vancouver, and I'm hoping to build my coop this April. I'll be doing a reproduction of our house, unless of course I give up and make it simpler. HA!

    I'm going to look up that book – you seem to be fond of that writer and I haven't come across her books in BC lately. On my way to check out her blog!

  • We love long winded comments!
    Mom's chickens are now in full swing. The three eggs above were all we had at the time, but now they're all producing. We're looking forward to making our own homemade mayo!

  • I grew up with chickens in the yard and so some day dream of having my own…when I get a yard…or do you think my condo board will mind if I start raising chickens on the rooftop patio?…seems logical to me.

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