Chickens, chickens, and more chickens … big fat hens, nesting on a bright yellow background along with the message “3 BR/2 BA and Chicken Coop (We get you.)” have populated Chicago-area billboards, transit posters, digital, social media, and television ads in rotation for much of 2018.
Garnering in excess of 175 million mass media impressions, the chicken-centered campaign from local realtor Baird & Warner was designed to communicate that the realty company really “gets” what homebuyers want these days: including that backyard chicken coop.
“The whole premise revolves 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 recently bought a home in Lake Bluff with his wife Greer, partly because the village allows chickens. Relocating to the Chicago area from Colorado, “We narrowed our home-buying search to communities that would let you keep chickens,” he says. “For so many reasons: Greer is into organic, locally-grown, sustainable food, and likes the fact that raising our own chickens will provide our family with fresh eggs. 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 has had enough requests from homeowners interested in raising backyard poultry to hang a campaign on it indicates that the trend has far from peaked.
In fact, Jennifer Murtoff, owner of Home to Roost LLC (htrchickens.com), the Chicago area’s leading urban chicken consultant, says city hens are more than a trend.
“Backyard chickens are part of a lifestyle choice,” she says, explaining that many of her chicken-consultation clients are urban and suburban families who view their backyards as ecosytems working in a natural loop. “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. It all works together.”
The USDA’s most recent study analyzing urban chicken ownership focused on Los Angeles in 2010 and was broadened to include New York, Denver, and Miami in 2012. At that time, just under 1 percent of households had chickens, but another 4 percent said they planned to get chickens within the next five years—a time-marker we just passed. That 300 percent increase in backyard chicks has certainly happened, fueled by American families’ widespread adoption of the more holistic lifestyles Murtoff points to.
But while such a full-out integrated backyard system is a good goal, for homeowners preparing for first time chicken ownership like Hendrick, 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 is reading books, visiting websites, and talking to chicken owners who have 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 started hosting a small chicken club.
“We would all get together and bring an egg dish and talk chickens,” she says. When neighbor Jim Konecny opened his chicken breeding business, the two started co-hosting the Barrington Chicken Club. “It really grew fast,” says Sheyka. The group has more than 100 attendees now 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 ready-made 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. “So you can’t leave them to free range unattended, and you have to ensure that the coop you provide is sturdy and secure,” says Annie Tandy, who lost three of her first flock in Western Springs to a fox.
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 Gardens—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.”
Whether rented or owned, one thing is certain…chickens are here to stay, and lay, and play.