City Chickens

Learn how to keep chickens in urban and suburban spaces—and how keeping a flock can connect you with humankind.

Dalia’s early morning flock chores always lift her spirits and bring peace to the day ahead.
Photo by Dalia Monterosso

My chickens need my attention every day. Each morning, regardless of weather, I must venture outside to tend to them. I confess that, even at that early hour, I’m often already exhausted by the looming responsibilities of my business and household. With the subtle sounds of nature in the background, I begin my chores by rinsing out and refreshing the flock’s water dishes. Next, I dispense their feed into a few small bowls, which I place in various spots about the yard. (This is helpful for my mixed flock.) Finally, I open the coop door to release my birds, and a whirlwind of feathers rushes past me. It’s not long before I’m humming a personalized tune for each chicken, and my attitude softens.

It's a daily surprise how much this brief morning meditation lifts my spirits. In a time when respite from the troubles of our world seems out of reach, the value of this experience isn’t lost on me.

I’ve been a backyard chicken educator for many years. Since the beginning, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that there’s truly no other animal whose relationship with humans spans as far and wide as that of the chicken. They’re a part of our common history, culture, and even spirituality. This is why I call them “humankind’s most amazing common denominator,” and I feel that my bond with them brings me closer to understanding my fellow humans. In 2017, I expressed this sentiment in a TEDx Talk at Western Washington University, called “I Dream of Chickens.” And it’s true, I really do! I dream of them bringing us closer together as people, and I dream of them helping us take better care of this planet we share.

Photo by Dalia Monterosso

But my kinship with chickens didn’t happen naturally. My mother, the child of a newly industrialized Guatemala, remembers her grandparents having chickens. But when she was a child, her family left their village and moved to a tenement in the city, where they weren’t allowed animals. In 1965, after her nation fell into civil war, she and my dad were forced to leave Guatemala and emigrate to the United States. By the time I was born, they had settled into a home in the suburbs, and they worked far too much to have time for a vegetable garden, much less poultry. That’s how it happened that I grew up disconnected from my food. Many different roads can lead to this circumstance; therefore, I’m certain my experience isn’t unique to my family. Like many of you just now getting into raising chickens, I wasn’t introduced to them until well into adulthood.

Chickens now join me in the conquering of each day. They serve as quasi-nutritionists and therapists in an environment where the disconnection to nature has become ordinary, and my brief connection with it extraordinary. Although they live alongside my modernized residence, with its Zoom calls and quick meals, their needs still arise from millennia of grazing the Earth and keeping a small, Jurassic foot on the wild side of the animal kingdom. Because of this, I try to make their lives as close to their natural tendencies as I can. Attempting this with limited space brings some unique challenges. That’s why a big part of my passion is to show those in urban and suburban areas how they can best care for their chickens, despite not having pasture for them to peck and scratch.

Feed your chickens a balanced and varied diet of feed, healthy scraps, sprouts, fodder, and healthy treats.
Photo by Dalia Monterosso

Pasture-Raised in the City

 Raising chickens on pasture has several advantages. One of them is that the eggs are healthier; another is that the chickens themselves are often healthier. Chickens raised on pasture have access to an endless supply of vegetation, a diverse collection of beneficial microorganisms in the soil, and a wider space in which to avoid disease. By contrast, raising chickens on a smaller lot, where the entirety of their lives often occupies the same space, can bring forth parasite infestation and illness. But I don’t ever want this to discourage anyone from enjoying chickens in a non-rural environment. We can do plenty of things to mitigate these problems and gift our chickens — and, in turn, our families and communities — some of the benefits that pasture-raised poultry and their keepers enjoy.

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