City Chickens!

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

I went to visit some city chickens yesterday afternoon. Chickens! I have a fascination with chickens, but alas, it is not legal to keep them in Toronto. And even if it were legal, I do not have a backyard. Some people do keep chickens on a roof, but between the raccoons, possoms, my cat, and the neighbour’s cats, I don’t think it would be a happy life.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

And watching these chickens I can see that they have a scratching behaviour that roof chickens would not be able to indulge in easily.

I learned something new about chickens yesterday that gave me pause for thought. Chickens eat plants! Yes, they eat insects. And yes, they eat weeds. But they are not discerning about either, which means that if you’ve got a chicken and a garden living together you can expect the chickens to take a bite or two (or several) from your prized plants. The chickens I visited were penned off into a very large roaming area (the largest I have seen for 3 chickens) and they had still managed to strip the leaves off of most of the foliage in that area within just a few short months! And that’s on top of their regular diet which includes lots of greens.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved
Good to know. Maybe I’ll shift my urban livestock dream to ducks.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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34 thoughts on “City Chickens!

  1. I’m the proud keeper of the three chickens Gayla visited yesterday. I can attest to the ravenous appetite of chickens when it comes to plants! I’d read that chickens are great in the garden because they eat pests. Right, but man do they ever eat plants, too!

  2. I having been itching to get some chicks to raise!! I mean between the free eggs, pest control, and just the cuteness of it all, I would think its totally worth it. My family and I are just waiting to buy a house with a nice yard for a coop… I don’t think the landlord would be as excited as we are ;)

  3. I rented a house on my mothers farm, and she raised chickens. They were fantastic! You cannot even compare store bought eggs to just laid that day eggs. And we had zero kitchen scraps, they live to eat. Plus my oldest son just loved them, there were many and would flock around him. But now we’re living in the city (Calgary) and it’s illegal here too to have backyard chickens. I don’t understand the logic (hens aren’t noisy like roosters), but maybe one day this will change, and I’ll be building my coop as the ink dries!

  4. We’re having our public hearing on Buffalo’s chicken ordinance tomorrow afternoon! It’s expected to pass. If we do get it, it’ll be just about the first smart thing we do before Toronto.

  5. that’s so sad that it’s illegal to keep backyard chickens in calgary and toronto. i don’t get that at all. you should petition on the evidence that there are many us cities (like mine, seattle) that happily allow backyard chickens, just no roosters.

  6. We had chickens sometimes when I was a kid and they will destroy a garden like nothing else. Ducks aren’t much better but I think they’re cuter, IMO.

    Although they are more work because you have provide them with large amounts of clean water and they too will eat plants and they dig way deeper in wet Earth looking for bugs.

    Other animals we had were rabbits, goats and even a cow once. And yes, we had them in Chicago. Can’t decide if my family was really ghetto or just ahead of its time in urban agriculture and urban livestock husbandry.

  7. We have 3 city chickens, and I love them and their eggs and their adorable playful behavior… right up until they start going after our cherry tomatoes. We bought them thinking they’d be amazing pest control, and we do have very few bugs around our roses. But, man, they can decimate a broccoli plant AND its aphids in record time. Plastic netting, it’s all about plastic netting!

  8. We have a flock of free range chickens and haven’t had problems with them destroying plants, they do have a large area to range though. And we do have a good fence around the vegetable patch just in case. We also have Muscovy ducks and haven’t had trouble with them in the plants either, and they take care of the flies and other bugs. I wouldn’t be without my chickens or my ducks.

  9. The Natural History of the Chicken is an awesome video for anyone interested in any aspect of chickens!

  10. There’s a few fast growing plants you can have around, like established comfrey etc, but the scratching is the main worry. It’s cruel to keep them somewhere they can’t scratch in as it is deeply instinctual for them, but you can use it to your advantage as well. We use our girls as “tractors” at times, to turn areas of soil we’re preparing. We keep them in their own little area with citrus, bananas, passion fruit, comfrey and grass. They keep it neat and tidy. :)

  11. I grew up with chickens in a suburban back yard. My dad (who was the son of farmers) had a big pen and the chickens were allowed out when supervised only (coyotes being just one of the reasons.) We just shooed them away from the vegies and fenced off just planted areas. I even taught them tricks. Someday I hope to have them again. A few years ago I read a charming book called “Still life with Chickens” by Goldhammer. The author gets a house, builds a hen house, gets chickens, has trouble, etc. Highly recommend!

  12. I have had a flock of Backyard hens for going on 8 years. I love my hens. Each and every one are spoiled rotten. In fact I just adopted 3 more Sunday from a woman who couldn’t keep hers anymore.

    I share the garden with them, but do keep them out of my raised beds with some pretty and pretty low to the ground decorative fences. It all works out. Manure > Garden > Chickens > Manure and then Eggs to me!

  13. No personal experience, but I’ve read good things about guinea fowl as backyard poultry… apparently they’re less voracious with the veg. :-)

  14. I have three chickens too. They’re great for preparing the ground in the early spring and in the autumn, so they roam the garden every season but summer. In summer they have to be penned. The low fences would work for veg, but they dig up my flowers as well so I have to pen them. The eggs are lovely and they’re very good at eating the children’s leftovers.

  15. Sandi,

    Your children leave leftovers?
    Mine eat like CHICKEN…
    I may have to “pen” them,
    away from the kitchen.

    There is a Toronto blog called torontochickens(dot)com – I’m sure a lot of you Toronto YGGs met the blogger at Seedy Saturday in the spring…

    Cluck. Cluck.

  16. Love those beautiful chickens! I’d want to have some, for eggs and as pets, but then I’d never be able to eat chicken again.

    Ooh, I bet chickens would thrive in a penned-off green manure/future garden area. You’d plant some alfalfa or clover or another good “green manure” cover crop plant, and the chickens would go to town, scratching/aerating your soil for you and producing lots of chicken poo that would eventually fertilize the soil. Hmm, this could be a whole new method of crop rotation… each year the chickies would trade spots with a garden patch!

  17. Balcony chickens does sound like an awkward one! I’m not convinced ducks would be any easier though, and I think they still eat your garden. My mum says ducks are cuter, but my aunt says chook poop is smaller. It’s a bit of a trade off I guess :)

  18. It is legal in Madison, Wisconsin to have up to 4 hens within city limits. For anyone trying to get it legalized in their city, this website might provide some resources. Also — they created a film about raising city chickens!

  19. I was the proud owner of 5 backyard chickens until recently, when they were massacred by a raccoon or possum in the middle of the night! I always gave them my veggies and fruits that were extras or leftovers, and they had a large pen to live in that kept them more than happy. I, too, discovered that chickens are amazingly destructive and if let out on their own will tear down not a few, but all, of your prized plants. I recommend chickens to everyone just watch out for those animals who think they are tasty!!!

  20. I’m loving all of your chicken stories! And living vicariously through them too. And yes, the poo stinks but it makes the very best fertilizer.

    Can I just have ducks AND chickens? Ha! Not in this apartment.

    Patience: That’s awful. Condolences. I have heard some horror stories about what raccoons and possoms will do to chickens.

  21. Here in Victoria, you can have backyard chickens. One family near my home have the most beautiful chickens. On my walks in the neighborhood I find myself heading in that direction just to see them. One day, I noticed them out with the owner as he gardened and they followed him around like pets. Quite a sight!

  22. Hi there! Love the site. I just got 30 baby chicks, and have been reading up on chickens and talking to fellow chicken owners. I’ve learned that while it’s true chickens will eat plants, they generally do so only after they’ve eaten all the insects in a given area. Plants are not their first preference. So a lot of chicken books actually recommend letting your chickens loose in your vegetable garden a couple of times per year –usually before planting and after planting–a great way to keep pest infestations down. Though it’s crucial the chickens are supervised. If left to their own devices, they will strip plants of leaves and fruit….but only because they’ve run out of bugs to eat. Also, you don’t want to give them easy access to a garden, because once they learn that’s where all the insects are, they’ll want to frolic there all the time. Had to share!

  23. Maybe it is time to invest in a beehive if you don’t have space for a chicken or two? I seem to remember reading about all the “illegal” beehives in Toronto. I think Foodshare Toronto also has some in their community garden.

  24. Martina: Keeping bees has long been on my life to-do list. I’m hoping to get my first training within a collective though, rather than doing it as an individual. It’s a bit dangerous because we have raccoons and other curious critters up here all the time and I’m concerned they’d get too curious and cause a ruckus.

  25. I have recently raised 25 day old chicks that are now 2mnths old. Being my first time, it has been very exciting watching them grow.

    I have 2 outdoor pen areas, one is covered for winter use. I grew beautiful grass in them that the chickens managed to destroy within a week. They have left nothing but dirt behind that they enjoy dust bathing in. Funny they love the dirt so much?

    Unfortunately I can’t let them free range as I am huge on flower and veggie gardening and also don’t have any fencing for the highway frontage.

    My whole chicken experience so far has been fantastic and I would recommend keeping chickens as pets/layers.

  26. I lived in T O when farm animals in your yard was legal.BUT, do to the way people treated the privilege of having animals in their yard and the lack of consideration for their neighbours, it was lost several years ago.(For those of us old enough to remember when,livestock could be bought any weekend in Stouffville)

  27. greta story and thread. I’ve been thinjking about keeping a few chickens fro a while now, but have yet to act. Could someone enlightenb me as to what you do witht the chickens to get them through a Canadian winter? Is heating an outside coop expensive? Any pointers would be appreciated.

  28. I let my flock of nine out for strictly supervised sessions for an hour or so on fine weekends in the winter when much of the garden is either fallow or only has mature plants in it. Never in summer, they’d do too much damage to the vegetable seedlings. When I’m weeding they’ll be practically sitting on my feet hoping for grubs, or pecking me in the butt trying to get me to move ;)
    Note that they do not just scratch at the dirt, they will dig giant holes everywhere as well if the soil is soft. They prune everything that grows into their pen, even spiny artichoke leaves. I’ve found they are great for making compost – I throw all weeds, prunings and grass clippings into their pen, even the stuff they don’t particularly like to eat like comfrey. Perennial weeds like bindweed don’t stand a chance of regrowing, whereas if I put it in the compost heap it will quickly infest the whole pile. Everything gets shredded, trampled and pooped on, and every few months I shovel out the top 10 cm to put in the garden, and dig over the ground in the pen to stop it getting too compacted (this is usually cause for great excitement among the girls as they can get at the worms then).

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