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from the book by Stephen Green-Armytage

Urban Chick: Chickens in the City

There are more chickens than people in the United States. (And that’s just counting the chickens in large, commercial facilities.) In 2006, the U.S. people population topped 300 million, but there were already 450 million chickens (pdf) in large facilities.

While some of these commercial facilities are better than others, most concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) use tight confinement of chickens to increase efficiency and production. Such concentration leads to a lot of manure, which carries polluting amounts of arsenic, ammonia and other chemicals. (The $40 billion a year industry is adeptly covered in the engaging new PBS documentary, The Natural History of the Chicken.)

This pollution and the often inhumane treatment of CAFO raised poultry are reason enough for many urbanites to raise chickens in their backyards.

Some cities have welcomed the urban chick. Portland and Seattle created ordinances that allow and regulate yard fowl. Both cities allow three chickens per household. In Portland you can also keep three pygmy goats or ducks, but no roosters. They tend to be too noisy and aggressive.

Ironically, other cities in the Rocky Mountain West no longer allow chickens.

Recently in Missoula, the rather obscure ordinance against chickens in the city was used against city residents, Morgan and Taylor Valliant. The couple had not considered the existence of such a rule and relied on asking their neighbors for permission to raise chickens in their yard. The neighbors seemed supportive at the time, but one of them covertly reported the couple to animal control.

Animal control investigated the Valliants according the City’s ordinance that only allows city residents to raise chickens if they live on an acre or more, or if their house was annexed into the city after 1989, the owner had chickens at the time and kept them ever since. The couple didn’t fall into any of the exceptions, and were raising chickens illegally.

According to those who raise chickens in the city, ordinances like these ignore the many benefits of urban chickens. Like the Missoula couple, owners benefit from fresh eggs and even companionship. Parents raise their children with an animal that provides food and connections to the origins of food. And urban chickens provide a way to live more sustainably.

Chicken owners even claim that there are benefits from the chicken waste that adds up so quickly in CAFOs and creates so many problems. In small quantities (such as those produced by three chickens) the excrement fertilizes the area. According to Seattle Tilth, chicken droppings also makes an excellent compost when mixed with shavings or straw.

And just as chickens have a strong social structure, they can also provide one. Much like growing a garden in your front yard, or having an accessible fruit tree, chickens often provide more eggs than a small family can eat. The best option then is to give them away to neighbors.

But there are less obvious ways to bring chicken lovers together. Seattle Tilth holds a Chicken Coop Tour, which is a “self-guided stroll through urban hen houses.” Coops tend to look more like architectural wonders: saloons and condos. These tours also provide information and secret-sharing about ways to get chickens to lay more eggs or which organic feed is best. The Portland organization GrowingGardens also holds an annual Tour De Coops.

But oddly, here in the west, a place based on so many ideals of self-sufficiency, a few city ordinances don’t allow it. The Missoula couple has just ten days to give away their layers. But their story has the community talking. Even Missoula’s mayor, John Engen, agrees with the chicken bandits. As he told the Missoulian last week, “It seems that if we want to be a town that does its part for sustainability, this is something we ought to consider, I think we want to allow folks to use their good judgment and move toward more sustainable food practices.”

While there are still more chickens in commercial factory farms than there are people in the United States, Missoula’s lucky, urban chickens might just get a little more room to stretch and peck and fertilize.

Look for the Spade & Spoon column here every Tuesday. If you have article ideas for Spade & Spoon (, email

About Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel

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  1. I was going to build a chicken tractor for some urban hens last summer and my plan was halted only because I realized chicken live for a long time and I had foul commitment issues…what if I move? I phoned the city and animal control and got the same response from both: that if you are respectful, ask your neighbors, keep it clean and offer eggs, there really won’t be a problem because both governmental entities have more important things to tackle.

    I think it is pretty tragic. Chickens are amazing. Their poop is like gold, the way they scratch the earth is perfect tillage and they eat invasive pests! That is all so Missoula…let’s change this law.

    my blog:

  2. Where is the rest of the story?

  3. Allison MacLeod

    Check out

    Dedicated to Outlaw Chickenry.

    And Poultry Showmanship.

    Get the bumpersticker.

  4. James van Hemert

    Chickens also eat your household biodegradable trash. UP to 9 pounds per chicken per month. The municipality of Diest in Flanders, Belgium gave 2000 households free chickens so that they could reduce the waste stream.
    In Denver it is illegal to have chickens.

  5. Chickens are alot of fun to watch, very relaxing. They have very distinct personalities and pecking orders. They are great pets, hens are not noisy and most neighbors would not notice you had them until they were laying their eggs then they tend to cackle quite abit, but it is fun to watch them scratch and peck for their food. They are very beneficial and should be accepted. To be able to scramble up a fresh egg right out of the nesting box is a real delight not to mention how good it is. Our food sources are becoming more and more questionable and worrisome. Raising your own or local is always better and safer.

  6. I assume cities that allow urban chickens have studied it carefully but I wonder about possible public health issues in era of avian flu risk and novice “farmers” who might not be attentive or know or follow safety practices. Anyone with experience/expertise on this?

  7. Here’s a recipe that should work equally well on urban chickies as it does on wild turkey. I tried this on a bird that I took near Plevna a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what you do:

    –Debone all the meat and cube.

    –Cook up a package of bacon.

    –Place deboned meat in a crockpot to a depth of 2 inches.

    –Crumble bacon over meat, add salt and pepper, and pour can of Progresso Creamy Chicken, Long Grain and Wild Rice soup over meat.

    –Add onion flakes.

    –Repeat layers until crockpot is full.

    –Before serving make up large portion of long-grain and wild rice.

    –Place bed of rice in bowl and add cooked meat with sauce on top.


  8. I’m all for locally, decentralized raising of food, but any proposals to lift the urban chicken ban must prohibit ROOSTERS!

  9. Allison MacLeod


    The latest news stories about this disease have backed off from their earlier treatment that made the new bird or avian flu strain sound like it will be the next pandemic. Knowing a bit about chicken diseases, I know that various strains of Avian flu have been around for centuries. Many of the outbreaks of this newest strain have been caused by the tranportation of waste from industrial chicken factory farms.

    There are some basic rules for poultry care that will help protect your backyard flock (and you).

    Keep your flock separated from wild birds in a fenced yard with netting overhead will reduce the chance of transmission -bird flu is just like any human flu, the germs have to come from another animal.

    Viruses can be found in excrement, feathers, blood, spit and nasal secretions, avoid contamination.Wash your hands with soap and water after touching any bird.

    After handling your chickens, do not touch any food, your nose, eyes or mouth before you wash your hands.

    Cook chicken flesh and eggs thoroughly.

    When a chicken dies, put on rubber gloves before touching it, wrap it tightly in a sealed plastic bag and dispose of the bird properly.

    Observe basic flock and personal sanitation as described in the ‘preventing avian flu’ and other articles below.

    check out the other stories at

  10. Thanks for sharing the info Allison.

  11. There are some serious health considerations to consider when raising chickens! Salmonella is spread via chickens and eggs more than any other food! The highly acclaimed “poop that is like gold” is also rich in salmonella that easily finds its way into your home!

    Thankfully, Allison’s previous post touched on many recommendations from the CDC for raising chickens. Another HUGE issue to consider is the contact with children and those individuals with compromised immunity. In the Billings Gazette, the story of the Valliants included a picture where the mother is holding a CHICKEN AND her YOUNG SON!!! Obviously, she is unaware that children under the age of five can become CRITICALLY infected with this disease.

    It appears to me that people are jumping into this without understanding what they are doing! Please be thoughtful of ordinances and health in urban settings!!! It may seem appealing to share eggs with your neighbors and to let the local kids visit and pet your chickens. Don’t set yourself up for a lawsuit if something goes wrong.

  12. Salmonella is scary, but let’s be realistic about a kid holding a chicken. According to the CDC, 40,000 people are infected with Salmonella annually in the US. I just looked up the US population and we are currently at 301,801,077. That means there is a .01% chance you will get salmonella. And, it is passed to people through ingestion of animal feces…not by merely holding a chicken, right? I understand being careful and all, but I don’t think we need to be afraid of pet chickens. I think if we just exercise common sense caution and wash our hands and cook our meat, we are totally fine!

  13. Allison MacLeod

    Regarding Jen’s comment…salmonella is a concern, of course. So is e-coli, camphlobacter and the penumonia caused by exposure to airborne dust from poultry droppings. But I’ve had chickens in my backyard for 30 years and never have had any of these problems.

    Much of the disease-causing microbes in commercially raised eggs or meat is caused by providing industrially-raised birds with feed that is tainted. Big producers routinely use meat by-products (think the inedible leftovers and “downers”) from factory farm raised beef, pigs and chickens. They feed low doses of antibiotics to supress the disease, so the bacteria then becomes antibiotic resisitant.

    This feed causes the chickens to become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria and then in turn produce droppings and eggs that are tainted with the microbes.

    Whenever you handle animals or birds it is wise to maintain basic sanitation, washing your hands etc. But I do not worry too much about these diseases because my birds eat clean feed, are exposed to fresh air and can scratch in the dirt. I only use antibiotics when the birds are sick, which rarely happens. In my 30 years I have used antibiotics exactly once.

    No chicken deserves to live in a factory environment where they are subjected to crowding, never seeing daylight or catching a bug. It is our factory food production mentality that has lead us to producing eggs and meat that are so tainted by the methods in which they were produced we cannot safely eat them except when they are overcooked.

    Transferring industrial ag fears to the backyard is a lapse in taking responsibility for one’s own nourishment.

  14. Sorry for the long post folks. I can’t help but address the misinformation floating around out there! I should point out that I get my information from the CDC. (Special interest groups, advocates, etc either pro/con are naturally biased.)

    “Salmonella contamination of food causes about 40,000 cases of foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But since mild cases may not be diagnosed or reported, the actual number of infections may be up to 30 times greater.”

    ***” Of 110 processed free-range chickens from three organic producers that were tested, researchers found that about 25 percent tested positive for Salmonella, which is slightly higher than the rate typically found in commercial chickens.”***

    “Each year in the United States, salmonellosis causes approximately 1.3 million cases of foodborne illness, 15,000 hospitalizations, and 500 deaths.”


    To address the comment: “And, it is passed to people through ingestion of animal feces…not by merely holding a chicken, right?”…

    WRONG!!! Anything in contact with the feces causes contamination! That includes eggs, chickens, feed, your hands, shoes, the kitchen sink where you washed your hands…….the list goes on and on! Young children are notorious for putting their fingers in their mouth! This is the very REASON why many states have banned the sale of chickens at Easter!

    Hey folks, no industrial ag fears here! I was born, raised and continue to live on a farm. I’ve eaten homegrown beef, grew up on fresh milk and thrived off of food from our garden! That said, I would be NEGLIGENT to assume that I am any safer than the general public!!! Even in the cleanest environment a healthy looking chicken can have salmonella thriving in the reproductive system. This is ONLY detectable by testing, a growing practice in commericial flocks!!!

    Yes, common sense is important but unfortunately people don’t recoginize when they lacking it! My mother was pretty proud of her flock, yet she was NEVER stupid enough to assume she could feed her family an undercooked chicken!

    BTW Allison, I would be interested in the source of your information.

  15. Allison MacLeod

    Sources for my information include

    All of which make for some pretty gross reading if you eat commercially raised meat.

    There’s more information if you read articles at

  16. …And check out my site,! 🙂

  17. Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel

    UPDATE for Missoula residents.

    The City of Missoula is currently taking a survey about raising chickens in the City. You can share your thoughts by taking the online survey at:

    Also, the City is taking comments and will hold a public hearing on Monday, August 27, 2007, which will precede city council action.

    The proposed ordinance amendment can be reviewed at: (opens pdf)

  18. What about the people who live in the city because they have allergies to cerain animals or just didn’t want to live next to them? Lets keep the city chicken and farm animal free for them. Chickens are disgusting animals and they stink to high heaven.

  19. Dogs are smellier than chickens by a long shot. More dangerous, too. Cats spread disease ands catch songbirds. And I’ve never lived in a city that wasn’t crawling with rats and mice after dark, leaving dangerous contamination everywhere they roam.

    By comparison, chickens are quiet, not as smelly as any of the above and lay eggs. They are quiet companions and can eat your table scraps instead of sending them to a dump.

    We live in a natural world, surrounded by life from the smallest virus to the current worldwide population explosion of homo sapiens.

    By the way, my allergies are worse when I’m in a “clean” city environment. To each her own.

    Cheers for chickens!

  20. We are just completing a battle with our local city council (most would list their occupations as farmers) over our hens. We bought a house (next to the mayor) and he appears to hate chickens. We checked the ordainances and they allow them, we removed the rooster as he was a surprise in 8 chicks bought as “girls”. It breaks my heart as this rural community of 1000 in the middle of Eastern Colorado does not allow the residents to raise some of their food nor enjoy the company of chickens.
    So can anyone help with how we would go about changing the ordiances? Thanks for any input.

  21. Sherry
    So sorry to hear about your problem. It does sound like your next door neighbor the mayor is causing you grief.

    Your letter is unclear about whether chickens are legal in your area. If the ordinances do not allow chickens, you need to start by contacting the planning or zoning board and asking for a ‘Conditional Use Permit’ to keep the birds. It would help your case if you were on good terms with a local school that would like to have you come and talk abou keeping chickens as part of the bigger picture of a life friendly to the earth (they eat food scraps, provide fertilizer and eggs, etc.) If it is denied, you will always have an appeal option, through the planning commission etc. all the way up to the city counci, where in a fair world the mayor should recuse himself because he lives next door. During the appeals process you usually can continue to keep the birds.

    If raising your chickens is not illegal, then deal with the neighbor/mayor directly and ask what his or her specific problem is. Noise? Feathers? Poo? Etc. Then fix it.

    Try Mad City Chickens for more advice. Cheers for Chickens!
    Allison MacLeod

  22. i have serched every were i can .including contacting the city for laws on raising chicks. i live in colorado and live in the city.
    i can not find any laws that say i can or can not have chickens,or ducks in the city can anyone tell me were to find these laws or point me in the direction .

  23. What general area do you live in Ken? I am in rural eastern colorado in a small town but live next to the mayor who is trying to sell his house. We even went to court over his verbal complaint of us having chickens in our back yard. The ordinance states that we are allowed chickens. The city council voted that chickens are considered animals and must be on an acre. It has been a real mess. I also got a nuisance ticket over my bee hive which by that time was empty and had to move it even though the judge stated the mayor had no case. But we now get to hear his three dogs barking every time we step out the back door. Ours is an extreme case but please check out the ordinances before you invest in chickens. For your neighbors too… don’t get a rooster.
    Check zoning laws too you might not be zoned for agriculture or commercial. Look into ordinances and state laws.
    Good Luck, hope you get to enjoy having a few pets!!!