Not Barnyard, Backyard: Raising Chickens in the Suburbs

Suburban families flock to fowl for fun and friendship–and those fabulous fresh eggs.

The McDonald family collects just under two dozen fresh eggs each week from their three hens.
The McDonald family collects just under two dozen fresh eggs each week from their three hens.
Photo by Erik Rank

When Kelly Mcdonald’s daughter Lily saw the adorable baby chicks that had hatched in her preschool classroom, she pleaded with her mother to keep them. To everyone’s surprise, her mother said yes. Ten years later, the McDonalds are still keeping chickens and enjoying their fresh eggs and unique companionship.

“I had this moment when I saw myself raising chickens. My husband thought I was crazy—but when he found out his boss kept chickens, it stopped being crazy,” says McDonald, who lives in Montclair with her husband, Joe, and their three daughters.

The McDonalds now have three chickens, and they collect just under two dozen fresh eggs each week. Their neighbors also benefit; they get all the eggs the family can’t eat. McDonald estimates there are about 35 families in Montclair that keep chickens in their backyard. They keep in touch informally, trading tips through a Google group.

A decade ago, when the McDonalds started keeping chickens, the idea was novel; some friends and neighbors thought it was downright strange. These days, although there are no official figures, those who keep backyard flocks say their numbers are growing. Like the McDonalds, many chicken owners keep these fowl for the eggs. Most domestic chickens lay about two eggs every three days, says McDonald. The yolks tend to be darker and more orange than supermarket eggs, the whites firmer. Above all, the eggs are tastier. (I can attest to that; McDonald gave me a few eggs to take home.)

There are other benefits. Chickens eat insects. Scratching at the ground, a chicken can debug 120 square feet of yard per week. They also love to eat vegetable scraps (especially kale), and their manure can fertilize an entire vegetable garden.

In addition, chickens can bring hours of joy to their families—and provide an opportunity for children to watch nature up close. But McDonald cautions about getting too attached to these feathered friends. Backyard chickens typically have a life span of about five to eight years. Small flocks have little problem with disease, but backyard chickens are susceptible to accidents and predatory attacks. Some, says McDonald, have genetic defects that shorten their lives; others simply pass away from old age.

Alison Aiello, who keeps five chickens in her Montclair backyard, is part of the local Google group. She and her husband and their two children take turns caring for their chickens, which they’ve had for 3-1/2 years. On a cold day in late fall, the chickens were still active, but their egg production had slowed significantly. While chickens don’t need roosters to produce eggs (they’re unfertilized, which means they won’t turn into chicks), they do need some warmth. In the colder weather, (as well as when the chickens molt once a year), they produce fewer eggs.

“It’s been a learning curve,” says Alison. “But our neighbors decided to try it…so we did it together.”

Some chicken owners raise chickens for the different colored or sized eggs. For instance, the Ameraucanas breed produces blue eggs. Easter Eggers—a mixed breed—can produce blue, green or pink eggs. Bantams are smaller versions that lay smaller eggs.

“They’ve become our pets, and the kids love them. When our first chicken goes, it will be sad. But we’re so glad we have them,” says Aiello, as she shoos the chickens back into their coop.

Back in the McDonalds’ fenced yard, Kelly is watching two of her chickens, Raul Esparanza and Inferno, as they strut near their coop, making soft clucking noises. The birds are endearing, even if you don’t exactly want to pet them. McDonald says they don’t usually wander very far. All those cliches—like “the chickens come home to roost” (they go back into their coop at dusk) and “pecking order”—make perfect sense when you’re raising backyard chickens, McDonald says. She can’t put newer chickens in the coop right away because the older ones may start pecking at them. “It’s a lot like middle school,” she says. “But once they establish the order in there, it’s fine.”

The McDonalds raised their new chicks inside the house for six to eight weeks until they grow enough feathers to live outside. Their down keeps them warm throughout the winter. McDonald and her family have a professionally built wooden chicken coop that measures about 5-feet long and 3 feet high and snuggles up to the garage at the rear of their yard. Inside the coop are two wooden bars on which the chickens roost. Attached to the structure is a run that’s enclosed by chicken wire. The chickens go from the coop to the run through a small hatch that McDonald closes at night to keep predators out.

Predation is probably the number one issue for most chicken owners. In fact, the McDonalds’ first venture into keeping chickens was a total disaster. McDonald didn’t realize she had to shut the chickens in at night. The very first night there was a massacre in her backyard. Raccoons had gotten into the coop and killed all seven chickens. “I said, ‘Girls! You better stay inside!’ It took a while before we decided to try again,” she says. “It was very traumatic. There were a lot of tears. But we told the kids, ‘This is the cycle of nature.’ It’s a good lesson.”

Another time, a hawk swooped down and grabbed one of the chickens as it was pecking around the yard. Aside from trying to keep predators from attacking (usually at night), McDonald says it only takes about five minutes a day to care for her flock. She shakes out their food (a mix of milled grains), makes sure they have water and lets them walk around for a bit. Every night, she closes the hatch. A 50-pound bag of feed (specially ordered from a local pet-supply store) costs about $40 and lasts two to three months, she says. In the event of accidents or non-fatal attacks, wounds are treated with topical antibiotics. In winter, McDonald uses an electric ring—a common farm implement—to keep the chickens’ water supply from freezing.

There can be surprises. The McDonalds’ second batch of chicks inadvertently included a rooster. After several nights of the young rooster crowing at all hours—a wild screech from the immature male—they placed the bird in an animal sanctuary.

McDonald says each chicken has a unique personality. Some are calm, some jittery. “They’re not as cuddly as cats or dogs,” she says, “but they’re a lot easier to take care of. And they come running when they see me.”

The McDonald family still eats chicken for dinner—but they never butcher their own birds. And when they’re barbecuing some fowl near their flock, they make sure to call it beef.

Jacqueline Mroz is a Montclair-based freelance writer.

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