City to peck at details of rules for keeping chickens
story by By Susan Frick Carlman ~ email@example.com || photos by Terence Guider-Shaw ~ for sun-times media August 30, 2011 9:36PM
Buffy the chicken rest's in the arms of Phyllis Rossow on Sunday in Naperville. Terence Guider-Shaw~For Sun-Times Media
Scratching for answers
Oak Park resident Jennifer Murtoff, an urban chicken consultant, addresses frequently asked chicken questions at her blog, Home to Roost (urbanchickenconsultant.wordpress.com).
Q: What’s the difference between a chicken and a rooster?
A: Nothing, really! Chicken is a generic term used to refer to both sexes. A hen is female; a rooster is male.
Q: Do I need a rooster to get eggs from my hen?
A: No, a hen will lay eggs regardless of whether or not a rooster is present.
Q: Where do you get chicks?
A: You can buy them in Chicagoland at the Feed Store, Harlem and 55 in Summit, or you can order them from a hatchery. Shipping is stressful, so I’d recommend the store route.*
Q: How many chickens can I have?
A: Check your village or city’s ordinances. Laws vary from locale to locale.**
Q: Do I have to have a coop?
A: Yes, absolutely. Chickens need to be protected from both aerial and ground predators.
Q: I have a cat. Will it kill my chickens?
A: A cat will probably not take on an adult chicken, but you might lose a chick or two. However, my cat when I was growing up she used to let the chicks ride around on her back. She never bothered them. Keep an eye on the cat and how it acts toward the birds.
Q: I have a dog, and I want chickens. Should I be concerned?
A: My opinion is that dogs are more of a threat than cats. It depends on the breed. My dog was a German shepherd/golden retriever mix. He grew up with the chickens, goats, sheep, and other animals. He knew they were his to protect and never harmed them. HOWEVER, keep an eye on the dog; behavioral cues can reveal a lot. Also if hens are around a dog that barks a lot, it will be upsetting to the birds and could interfere with laying.
Q: What do I do with the chickens in the winter?
A: Keep your coop in a place that is protected from the wind. Provide lots of straw or other bedding that will trap heat. Give the birds plenty of protein-rich food and fresh water. Some people put a red bulb (not white, which can create problems with laying cycles) in the coop to provide extra heat.
Q: How often do I feed and water them?
A: I recommend feeding twice daily. They should have fresh water every day, too. Be sure to scrub out their food and water dishes to prevent bacterial illnesses.
Q: Can chickens fly?
A: Not very well, but well enough to clear a fence.
Q: How do I catch a loose chicken?
A: Run fast! Try to corner it or wait until they roost for the evening. Chickens don’t see well at night.
Q: How many eggs does a hen lay per day?
A: A hen lays one egg a day.
Q: How many eggs will a hen lay per year?
A: It depends on breed, the age of the bird, and environment. Certain hybrid varieties (ISA Browns) will lay nearly year round, but this taxes the body. Well-nourished hens produce better than those who are nutrient deficient and dehydrated. A hen will lay best between 1 and 3 years of age.
Q: How difficult is it to keep chickens?
A: It’s been compared to keeping a dog — except you don’t have to walk them. You do need to feed and water daily and clean out the coop weekly or biweekly.
Q: Can I hatch eggs?
A: Only if 1) you have a rooster 2) you have a breed of hen that goes broody (or you have an incubator). Keep in mind, though, that 50 percent of your hatch will be male. Figure out beforehand what happens to the boys!
* Chicks also can be purchased at Farm and Fleet, which carries them in the spring and has a location in Montgomery.
** Naperville’s relevant regulations can be found in the city code under Title 10, Chapter 4, Section 6, on the city website, www.naperville.il.us.
Updated: November 30, 2011 12:23AM
Fido might have mastered the task of bringing in the morning newspaper, but that’s probably about all he brings to the table. That makes it tough to compete with Hattie, who takes the credit for the over-easy entree on the plate.
The eggs that turn up on Tim and Phyllis Rossow’s breakfast table come in brown or green shells, a function of their three chickens’ various breeds. Hattie shares her coop, in the couple’s yard near Modaff Road and 87th Street, with Hazel and Henrietta, all birds of a feather. The Rossows, who have shared their lot with chickens for the past three years, are among a growing population of suburbanites who find the feathered friends to be good pets — with benefits.
“They’re a lot of fun,” said Phyllis Rossow, whose trio of hens especially relishes spinach, grapes, cucumbers and tomatoes in their symbiotic living arrangement. “They get excited to see you, because you represent food.”
Along with St. Charles, Batavia, Oak Park and Chicago, Naperville is among few municipalities that permit residents, with a few conditions, to raise chickens at home. The city requires routine cleaning and regulates the placement of the coops and pens, but sets no limit on how many chickens can be kept and has no rules about details such as the keeping of roosters.
A handful of residents are calling fowl — er, foul — on the existing stipulations.
In an email sent last month to the City Council and Mayor George Pradel, two couples in the River Woods subdivision on the city’s southeast side asked for tighter regulations on the keeping of backyard birds. The homeowners say their neighbors’ 20-bird flock is just too large, and they want the code updated to draw the line at four chickens. They also are pressing for regulations that specifically forbid roosters; that prohibit coops from being placed fewer than 50 feet from the nearest occupied residence; and that require permits for owning the birds.
David Laird, whose rooster-less flock inspired the email, said its authors are the only ones in the neighborhood who have raised any objection to the birds he has kept in the yard for the past two years. He said he works hard to keep up the chickens’ living quarters, cleaning the coop every day.
“That’s what the ordinance says,” Laird said.
One of the neighbors who complained to the city — and asked that his and his wife’s names be withheld from this story, to avoid additional friction with the people next door — said odors from the coop were a problem during the hottest periods of last summer, when there were fewer than a half-dozen chickens on the property. While there are about three times that many chickens next door this year, odor and noise haven’t been problems, he said. Still, the residents say the city should be proactive about a hobby that appears to be catching on.
Councilman Paul Hinterlong, who came out at the neighbors’ invitation to have a look at the situation, said there didn’t appear to be serious odors or mess in the area, but there might be a few too many birds.
“It does look like it’s starting to overpower his yard now,” Hinterlong said.
He wants to hear what the staff has to say about the matter, and then discuss it.
“I know it’s becoming more and more popular … as people try to eat healthier and more organic,” he said. “It’s something we need to take a look at before it gets out of control.”
Without universal registration requirements, there is no way to know how many people keep chickens. However, at least 300 enthusiasts are part of an online local chicken-rearing group that was started after the failure of a 2007 proposal to ban chicken raising in Chicago. More than 200 people have taken chicken raising classes at the Chicago Urban Initiative of Angelic Organics, a nonprofit that educates area residents about agriculture, since November 2008.
Martha Boyd, program director at the Chicago office of Angelic Organics, calls the 300 online group members the “tip of the iceberg” as a quantifier of backyard chickens.
“Those are people who are speaking English, using the computer to communicate and interested in networking around this stuff,” Boyd said. “There are an awful lot of people in addition to them who keep backyard chickens because they’ve always done it and don’t care if there’s a movement.”
A closer look
Naperville City Council member Bob Fieseler raised the chicken issue at the board’s Aug. 16 meeting, and staff members plan to have conceptual information ready for the council to review when it meets Sept. 20.
“It seems like it’s enough of an irritant and an unusual kind of situation where we should explore and at least get some facts,” Fieseler said last week. “And if there is some need for an ordinance provision, then that should come before the council.”
According to John Rutkowski, operations manager for the city’s development services team, nearby communities have a variety of rules governing backyard chickens. Some jurisdictions prohibit roosters and peacocks, both of which tend to be noisy, or limit the number of fowl that can be kept.
“We’re just starting to look at other communities to see if there are places where we need to refine our ordinances,” he said.
Naperville requires that chickens be kept in well-maintained pens, coops or similar enclosures placed no closer than 25 feet from the nearest occupied residence, and that feed be kept in rodent-proof containers.
“If you’re going to have it on your property, it has to be centrally located,” Rutkowski said. “And (the code) specifies it must be kept clean, sanitary and free from refuse ... Basically, our ordinance requires that it be swept every 24 hours.”
That should be plenty, according to Jennifer Murtoff, an urban chicken consultant and Oak Park resident who keeps a blog titled Home to Roost. Reasonably consistent animal husbandry practices, she said, will keep chicken smells from getting out of hand.
“You might be looking at cleaning the coop out two times a month,” Murtoff said.
As a kid in south central Pennsylvania, she once had a flock that numbered about 200 chickens, including the season’s new crop of chicks. She understands the concern about rooster noise.
“It’s not restricted to the morning,” she said. “You can wake up at 2 or 3 (a.m.) to crowing.”
Rossow isn’t surprised that the matter has turned up on the City Council’s table. When she and her husband were researching the possibility of putting in a coop, she looked into the city’s existing ordinances, and they spoke with their neighbors to ensure they would have no objections to the new tenants.
“They kind of signed off for it before we purchased anything,” she said.
Marcie Schatz, business group leader for the Napervile development services team, told council members that chicken head counts appear to be a concern. While the city used to field one chicken-related complaint every year or so, now it’s more, she said.
Rutkowski said when callers report problems, they most often involve debris or odors.
“In certain instances it is just their presence. They don’t want to see chickens in a neighborhood or residential location,” he said. “If we can ensure that it’s clean and it’s kept sanitary, then we can continue to allow that use.”
Murtoff agreed that some people just don’t like the idea of chickens next door, but said objections based on expected hygiene issues are usually unfounded.
“There’s the concern about drawing rats and vermin in, but quite frankly, people leave pizza out in the alleys,” she said. “Most people will go to great lengths to keep vermin out.”
Fines for violating Naperville’s ordinance range from $35 to $200, but Rutkowski said it doesn’t often come to that.
“In a lot of instances people will just relocate the chickens so maybe they’re not in as close proximity to people who just don’t want to see chickens,” he said.
Laird said he doesn’t see a need to change the current rules governing chickens.
“Naperville has probably been instrumental in the establishment of chicken ordinances around the area,” he said. “It seems to be a growing movement.”
If he had it to do over, though, he would first put up a fence and then build an enclosure and a chicken run.
“I’m sure (the neighbors) feel like their rights have been infringed upon because they bought a house in Naperville and they didn’t plan on having a chicken coop next door,” he said.
That’s what troubles Fieseler, who sees a property-rights thread in the chicken discussions.
“I guess an over-arching issue for me is whether the neighbors had some reasonable expectation that this would be happening,” he said. “I can’t imagine people looking for homes in Naperville and thinking, ‘OK, I should look out for chickens and roosters.’”
The Chicago Sun-Times contributed to this story.