Photo: Andreana Bitsis

Fowl Play: A Chicken Concierge Tells All

How urban chicken farming became the new rooftop garden.

For fresh eggs, going no further than your backyard is a tempting ideal. But who can the first-time urban chicken farmer in Boston, Dallas, the San Francisco Bay Area, and other cities turn to for help?

Enter the chicken concierge.

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For eggs and fertilizer for your soil without the headaches, chicken concierges can relieve chicken-commitment anxiety by cleaning coops, chicken-sitting when owners travel, offering feed delivery, and consulting on how to buy a coop, where to place it in your backyard, what breeds to buy and where, chicken health problems, rehoming chickens after their egg-laying prime is over, and getting rid of roosters (males don’t lay eggs, but telling boys apart from girls when they’re downy chicks isn’t easy).

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

Laws on chicken-raising vary greatly by city. In greater Boston, Khrysti Smyth, owner of Yardbirds Backyard Chickens, is known as “The Chickeness” offering “chicken consulting services” that range from getting a permit to autopsies to determine the cause of a chicken’s death (hopefully, no real foul play was involved). She leads “Chicken 101” classes, talks at events from Boston’s Urban Homesteading Festival to the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference, and helps create the urban agriculture-focused zoning in Somerville, a nearby city. She even stars in the YouTube video made by the city of Somerville that is required viewing for a chicken-farming permit in the city (“C” Is For “Chicken”).

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

Smyth’s video offers a helpful FAQ about chickens (did you know that hens can live up to 10 years, and that they only lay eggs for three to five years and produce most eggs in the first year?) and how to raise them in Somerville.

For example: You must live where you keep them. Written permission from the landlord is needed if you’re a renter. At least two square feet per chicken in a coop is required; at least four square feet is required if it’s a pen. Chickens aren’t allowed in front or side yards next to the street. Manure can’t be visible at the property line, and must be composted with hay bedding or leaves in rodent-proof containers.

“Be proactive with your neighbors,” Smyth advises in her cameo. “I spoke to all my neighbors, gave the number of birds I’d have and the schematics of the coop, and promises of eggs – which are always a good bargaining tool.

Now, half the neighbors stop by to say Hi – even if I’m not home!”

Photo: Molly Beauchemin

Other tips from The Chickeness?

Don’t skimp on the chicken coop. “Spend the money to do it right the first time,” she insists. Doing it on the cheap can result in sick birds as well as pest and predator problems later.
Don’t skimp on space inside the coop, either. For healthy, happy chickens who have room to walk around, she recommends having 10-12 square feet per chicken– way beyond the five square feet per chicken minimum for acceptable composting.
Find a vet before your chicken is sick. “Chickens often hide the fact they’re sick until they’re nearly dead.” Waiting until the bird is sick is like trying to borrow from a bank when you truly need the money: by then, it’s often too late.
Decide if you want maximum egg production now, or egg-laying spread out over a longer period of time. Hens have a total number of eggs to lay in their lifetime, and tend to lay eggs in spring and summer. If you also want them to lay eggs in winter, lighting on a timer to produce 14-16 hours of “daylight” will trick them into thinking it’s not winter. Or you can give them a rest in winter, and rely on their natural seasons. As a result, they may still lay eggs in their eighth year.
Egg-laying breeds to consider: Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas and Cochin Bantam. Other than that, chickens function beautifully as pets (they are social creatures, Smyth points out) and they also offer eggs. What’s not to love?

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