Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Backyard Chickens: Now You're Clucking

Posted on June 2, 2010

Backyard Chickens: Now You’re Clucking.

The chicken is an animal as ubiquitous as dogs and cats.

Sure, you don’t actually ‘see’ chickens clucking around town like the others, but meat and eggs get to your table somehow. With a population well beyond 15 million, there are more chickens in the world than any other bird.

Along with cattle, pigs, livestock and other poultry, chickens in our country are typically at the mercy of any number of man-made “influences”: antibiotics, growth hormones, ultra pasteurization, and factory farming. Personally, I’d love to make a difference with all these animals, but I just don’t see myself making room for a steer in the backyard. In reality, egg-laying chickens seem more realistic and more my city-dwelling speed.

Homegrown Revolution author Kelly Coyne says home grown chicken eggs are a revelation and I couldn’t agree more. Considering that we’ve become completely disconnected with where our food comes from, it seems reasonable that locals are now interested in a throwback to times when you knew nutriment origins. Not only are they free ranging they actually have been studied for nutritional value. According to Mother Earth News–besides having propensity for stronger shells and rich, deep yolks–pasture-raised hens compare favorably to confined hens through a number of measurements:

•1/3 less cholesterol

•¼ less saturated fat

•2/3 more Vitamin A

•2 times more omega-3 fatty acids

•3 times more Vitamin E

•7 times more beta carotene

Before you write me off as a crazy chicken lady, know that I’m not standing along on this one. According to a recent New Yorker article by Susan Orlean, the chicken is the ‘it’ bird, and is making a comeback. They’re not all that alien in backyards either. Up until the 50s, it was popular to keep a few chickens around. They were cheap, easy, and pretty tolerant of weather conditions. So it’s not a ‘weird eco-habit’ but instead is a “movement across North America,” according to’s ecological trends monitoring.

The Current Rules

Here in Hampton Roads, it’s possible to grow your own by means of a backyard garden and against the law to raise your own poultry for eggs. Every city across the nation differs on poultry allowances or restrictions. If you’re inside city limits in Norfolk then you are absolutely not allowed to have a single hen. If you want four dogs and cats, go for it.

Maybe this is the code because our city-folk think that a metropolis is no place for chickens. I’m wondering if they know that New York City considers chickens pets and not only allows them but doesn’t have any restrictions on the number allowed.

Here’s what the City of Norfolk code actually states:

Sec. 6.1-7. Keeping of certain animals within the city.
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to keep in any building or on any premises within the limits of the city any livestock or poultry without a permit issued by the director of public health. Such permit shall designate the location at which said animals shall be kept and the number of animals to be kept at said location.

(b) It shall be unlawful for the owner or any person having charge or control of any livestock or poultry to permit said animals to be at large within the limits of the city.

(c) The provisions of this section shall not apply to slaughterhouses lawfully operating within the city, authorized shows or exhibits, except regarding strays from the above-listed operations, licensed kennels, veterinarians, animal shelters or humane societies, licensed temporary exhibits, licensed pet shops or licensed/authorized training facilities. No other exceptions or exemptions to this section are authorized.

(Ord. No. 39,717, § 2, 8-31-99)

Sec. 6.1-8. Limitation on keeping of dogs or cats.

(a) No more than four (4) adult dogs and four (4) adult cats may be kept in any one dwelling unit or premises within the city limits.

Sec. 6.1-8.1. Limitation on keeping of rabbits.

No more than four (4) adult rabbits may be kept in any one dwelling unit or premises within the city limits.

(Ord. No. 40,877, § 1, 11-5-02)

I know what you’re thinking. It says by permit I CAN have chickens. Well, unfortunately, this permitting is controlled by the Department of Health and is intended for the sentinel chickens that the City has on surveillance for disease control. Having city chicks for personal use is banned. It’s a program that is operated by the Department of Environmental Health and the few chickens residing inside Norfolk city limits are frequently tested, or bled, for mosquito-borne diseases.

Laws Elsewhere

Though there are many counties and cities that do allow urbanites to offer a cozy home to chickens, Virginia isn’t really a fowl-friendly state. A few chicken-related regulations from our fine state courtesy of

•Alexandria, VA. It shall be unlawful for any person to keep or allow to be kept within the city, within 200 feet of any residence or dwelling not occupied by such person, any fowl, a provision that essentially precludes chicken keeping.

•Fairfax County, VA. Chickens over 2 months are classified as “domestic fowl” and are allowed on any lot of 2 or more acres. Chickens are allowed only on lots of two acres or more, and hen houses cannot be closer than 100 feet from a neighboring property line.

•Falls Church, VA. Chicken keeping falls under requirements for stables, which must be 40 feet from a residence and have the written permission of the city manager, said Becky Keenan, the city’s animal warden.

•Frederick County, VA. Frederick County, Virginia laws only say you must keep fowl fenced.

•Henrico County, VA. Poultry permitted if kept 400 feet from adjacent property.

•Montgomery County, VA. A chicken coop can be no closer than 100 feet from neighboring structures where people live or work.

•Prince George’s County, VA. If you live in the following residential zones, you will need a special exception to keep chickens: R-80, R-55, R-35 and R-20. If you live in the rural residential zone R-R, you will need a special exception if your lot is smaller than 20,000 square feet.

•Richmond City, VA. No person shall keep, place or maintain fowl on any parcel of real property in the city which contains less than 50,000 square feet in area.

•Richmond, VA. Can only keep chickens if your lot is 50,000 square feet or larger.

•Fairfax City, VA. Chickens are allowed in residential districts R-1 and R-2. Animals can be kept no closer than 100 feet from a property line.


Obviously, raising chickens isn’t something I have experience in, considering it’s not possible for me to have hens, but from what I read the dirt on chickens is that they’re incredibly easy to raise. At their peak they will give you about an egg per day, and then will average out at about three per week. Chickens give you pest control, fertilizer, and eggs, of course. Chickens are also weed eaters, slug slayers, and tomato worm squishers. In short, they’re your best garden companion.

Chickens are social cluckers and they like to cuddle at night to keep warm. A reasonable flock for a city dweller would be between three and six hens.

Bottom line: an urban chicken is a pet that provides.Want one (or three)?


If that last section didn’t sell you on backyards chickens, you might be worried about noise, smell and a few other so-called “chicken issues.” The low-down on chickens is that they don’t really make too much noise at all. Roosters are the loud-mouths; hens just cluck cluck cluck around peacefully. Chickens would pose no greater noise violation and provide less audio than most barking dogs.

Just like man’s best friend, chickens aren’t overly stinky either as long as you take care of them. Let’s face it: dog waste isn’t a treat for the nose, but if they’re picked up after, it’s not a problem at all. Same goes for hens. Pick up after them, keep the coop clean, and you won’t have a smelly situation.

In conversation with a local Norfolk resident about city chickens, he calmly asked, “Won’t they fly into the neighbor’s yard?” Having never thought of this as a potential concern or objection, a scouring of and the Internet was in order. Heck, I didn’t know if they could fly into a neighbor’s yard. Apparently, they really can’t. They’re like little hovercrafts. Usually, chicken flight is sparked when they think they’re in danger or if they are looking for a place to roost. You won’t find a chicken migrating or soaring like an eagle any time soon.

Chickens have a life-span averaging five to ten years and sometimes longer. Unfortunately, they are feathery treats for a few zealous predators like raccoons and hawks, making it ever so important to protect your domestic fowl with a finely constructed chicken run.

A great way to shoo predators from your newly acquired chickens is to enlist the help of your other domestic friends. Cats and dogs, depending on their personality, get along with chickens fairly well and can help keep them safe. With the exception of baby chicks, hens can easily co-habitate with other family pets. Baby chicks are like the best furry little snacks for cats and dogs so definitely keep an eye out.

Situated along the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it’s surely a concern that nitrogen runoff will further pollute our waterways and defeat current endeavors to clean the bay. Just with cat and dog waste, chicken waste should be disposed of properly, i.e. don’t leave it lay. Fortunately, chicken waste has far superior disposal method. It can be composted for primo fertilizer offering among the highest concentration of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium levels.

Chicks Rule! (Let’s get the law changed in Norfolk)

Motivation for having a city coop is distinct and personal: reconnecting with your food source, healthy and local eggs, a gateway pet to bigger and better farming, a teaching tool for tots, a garden companion, or simply a fun, full-filling experience. Ask anyone who has kept chickens: they’ve got plenty of personality. Some are comedians, and some will love you to death, following you all around the yard like puppies.

As Susan Orlean thoughtfully notes in the New Yorker, “Even people central to the chicken world are predicting what might supplant chickens, if and when chickens run their course. Dave Belanger, of Backyard Poultry, says goats; McMurray’s Bud Wood thinks ducks. But chickens seem to me steadier than that. They have already survived hen bubbles and cholesterol scares and the enormous social change that chased them out of the back yard; they will survive diapers and jewelled coops and an uptick in ducks. The chicken, that thing with feathers, always sunny and useful, will endure.”

The way I see it – If writers are already discussing what the new ‘chicken’ will be after this supposed fad passes, then Norfolk is way behind in not even allowing us to partake in the chicken revolution. What if ducks or goats are next and we totally missed the chicken boat?

With interest piqued among many wanting to create an urban homestead, laying hens are a kind of a necessity. Alongside beehives, wouldn’t it be nice if homesteaders had the option to add a small flock to backyard gardens?

Instead of settling for clandestine coops, a group of like-minded locals bringing unique and differing expertise has formed. We are starting the process of changing the Norfolk city code in favor of egg laying hens. We’re only one meeting in, but it looks promising.We’ll need some help though. If you’re interested in bringing chickens to Norfolk, please email and join the Facebook group.

Until then, keep on clucking.

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