Since 2018, the North Shore has gone chicken crazy, with big fat hens popping up on real estate billboards and in backyards from Highland Park to Lake Bluff.
The trend is not only here to stay but has been further amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. With more people at home to tend the “coop” and an egg shortage in some communities around the nation, backyards are going to the birds.
Garnering in excess of 175 million mass media impressions, a chicken-centered campaign from local realtor Baird & Warner when the trend ramped up more than a year ago was designed to communicate that the realty company really “gets” what homebuyers want these days: including that backyard chicken coop.
“The whole premise revolved around trends we see in the marketplace, with some of the most fun being vinyl, chicken coops, and yoga rooms,” says Peter Papakyriacou, senior vice president of marketing and communications at Baird & Warner. “It’s all about finding that perfect home for people; that’s something an app or technology alone can’t do for them. And that’s the name of our campaign:
‘We get you’.”
“They certainly get me,” laughs Matt Hendrick, who bought a home in Lake Bluff with his wife, Greer, two years ago partly because the village is one of the few on the North Shore to allow chickens. Deerfield began issuing chicken permits in 2013 and Highland Park got on board last May with an ordinance that allows single family homeowners to set up coops in their backyard.
Relocating to the Chicago area from Colorado, Hendrick says the couple narrowed their homebuying search to chicken-friendly communities.
“Greer is into organic, locally-grown, sustainable food, and likes the fact that raising our own chickens will provide our family with fresh eggs,” he says. “Beyond that, we just think chickens are beautiful creatures and they have such sweet demeanors. We believe raising them will be a good experience for us, and for our young children.”
That Baird & Warner had enough requests from homeowners interested in raising backyard hens to hang a campaign on it even then, perhaps these home-grown hobby farms are part of our “new normal.”
Jennifer Murtoff, owner of Home to Roost LLC (htrchickens.com), the Chicago area’s leading urban chicken consultant owner, says it’s increasingly becoming a lifestyle choice.
“Chickens eat the family’s kitchen scraps, as well as bugs and pests in the yard. Chicken waste enriches the soil and their eggs feed the families that care for them,” she says, explaining that many of her chicken-consultation clients are urban and suburban families who view their backyards as ecosystems working in a natural loop. “It all works together.”
For homeowners like Hendrick preparing for first-time chicken ownership, the initial learning curve includes questions about what kind of coop to build or purchase, how to feed and maintain the chickens, and which breeds to purchase.
To get there, Hendrick read books, visited websites and talked to chicken owners who had years of experience raising the birds.
“You really do learn a lot by talking to others who have chickens,” says Helen Sheyka, who has been raising chickens in Barrington Hills since 1994. To share what she learned over the years and learn from others’ experiences, Sheyka began hosting a small chicken club.
“We would all get together and bring an egg dish and talk chickens. It really grew fast,” says Sheyka. At last count, the Barrington Chicken Club had more than 100 attendees from around the North Shore and northwest suburbs.
Online groups such as the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts are also helpful forums for information and connection, and Murtoff does house calls or phone calls as part of her business.
Some of the most important early decisions backyard chicken owners must make revolve around the coop itself. “There are a lot of readymade ones out there that may look really cute, but turn out to be impractical,” says Nancy Vick, a backyard chicken owner in Evanston. “You need a coop that’s sturdy, well ventilated—but draft free in the winter, and it must be as predator proof as you can make it.”
Keeping chickens safe from predators that normally live in and around urban environments has been the biggest challenge for most backyard chicken owners. Red tailed hawks, raccoons, mink, foxes—even skunks and dogs will attack unprotected chickens.
To make the coops easier to maintain, Murtoff—who teaches classes on coop and, chicken selection, and basic chicken care at places such as the Morton Arboretum and the Chicago Botanic Garden—recommends building a coop that has a human-sized door and a chicken run tall enough to stand in without stooping.
Selecting bird breeds that do well in Chicago’s cold climate is another important consideration. Konecny says any chickens in the English or American breed categories are good.
To get acclimated to having hens before investing in a permanent coop, some chicken owners, such as Vick have signed on with Urban Chicken Rentals, a company that allows you to rent three hens, a coop, feed, and supplies on a month to month basis.
“It’s like training wheels for chicken ownership,” says Vick. “I learned so much from the rental that helped me make more informed decisions when I was ready to build a coop and get my own hens.”