SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — In urban areas across the state and the country, chickens raised in backyards, not farms, have become easy-to-care-for pets, attracting families, singletons and anyone who likes to eat omelets around the clock. Gardeners also are keen on fowl.
On a quarter of an acre, behind a popular bakery and next to an apartment building, six hens have the run of Pam Remy’s fenced-in backyard. The librarian’s decision to raise a flock two years ago in South Portland was not for fun or for eggs. “I wanted to start planting here.”
Chicken manure is filled with nutrients that can coax plants back to life. Commercial products and even “chicken manure tea” is marketed to growers as a natural fertilizer.
Remy, whose yard in this thickly settled neighborhood was sandy, rocky dirt, has proof. Lacking healthy soil for plants to thrive, a landscaper gave her two options: spray a thick layer of compost over the worn-out soil or get chickens.
She went with chickens. Was it a good bargain?
“They are workhorses,” Remy said, as her hens dig up dirt, relieve themselves freely under trees and naturally fertilize her yard.
On a recent sunny day, she pointed out the payback. “See that green over there? It wasn’t here last year.” Thanks to her hens, she soon will plant blueberries.
There are many reasons people living in dense neighborhoods raise chickens in Maine. Amid the burgeoning urban agricultural movement spreading out across the nation, chickens are high on the pecking order in cities like this one, where six are allowed with a permit.
“I have always dreamed of living on a farm. This is a tiny little taste of it,” said Peg Keyser, a photographer and former TV weathercaster who is on her third flock of birds in a small yard near Willard Beach.
“You can live in a neighborhood where houses are close and tight and while you can’t have a cow or horse, but you can have chickens,” Keyser said.
However other cities, such as Bangor, don’t allow chickens in residential areas.
Because urban hens are in a controlled area — South Portland’s ordinance requires chicken be fenced in by day and housed in coops at night — raising city birds can be more manageable than free-range chickens roaming sprawling acres.
“It is easier to police them. I can glance out my window and keep an eye on them. It helps to work at home,” said Keyser, who spun her flock into a business: Hard-Boiled Hens calendars.
What you should know about raising urban chickens
Though Keyser, like many backyard enthusiasts, knew nothing about raising chickens at first, resources to help are plentiful. One place she frequently turns to is the blog FreshEggsDaily.com.
Lisa Steele, author of the blog and the book by the same name, has an online chicken care guide and answers questions to her 500,000-plus monthly readership.
The top tip for keeping chickens in an urban area? “Don’t annoy your neighbors,” Steele said.
Here are seven more tips from Steele:
Research the law. Don’t assume you can have chickens because your neighbor has them.
Once your town or city grants approval, get it in writing.
Do the math. Calculate how many chickens you need. Think of your egg consumption, which typically is four to five eggs per chicken per week. Most cities don’t allow more than six hens, but three may be all you need. “They are social animals, so three is the minimum you should consider. A good starter is six,” Steele said.
Construct your coop intelligently. Don’t buy or build a huge, gigantic coop. Smaller coops are easier for birds to stay warm. Think 3 to 4 square feet of floor space per chicken. Check out Urban Coop Co. for ideas. Make it attractive. “You don’t want an eyesore for your neighbors,” Steele said. “Plant some flowers or a rose bush — landscape it.”
Get organized. Locate a feed store or tractor supply store near you in advance. Find a vet that can handle sick birds. Some will, some won’t. “Talk to your vet. Start the conversation now,” Steele said.
Contact your neighbors. Be courteous and let them know you are getting chickens — and promise eggs. “Gifting them with eggs creates a goodwill thing going forward. It goes a long way,” Steele said.
Nix the roosters. They are loud and get up early. Even if your city allows them, skip the rooster. You don’t need them for eggs or protection.