Matt Wilson isn’t a farmer and his house isn’t in the sticks. He lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and we are chatting in his smallish urban backyard.
Wilson tosses cherry tomatoes to his four “girls.” The hens snag the fruit with their beaks and cluck contentedly as they indulge in the sweet flesh. These are street-smart and happy hens, says Wilson. They’re just as good at dodging hawks as they are at sunbathing on a lazy afternoon.
Wilson is just one of many people who now takes “backyard gardening” to a whole new level, bringing in a new kind of family pet that doubles as a feathered fertilizer.
The hens have the run of the place. His yard is fenced but sandwiched between driveways and neighbors.
Wilson got his flock a year ago, when the city passed an ordinance allowing hen ownership. Many other communities across the country have either passed or are considering similar rules.
A USDA report out this year calls urban chickens a “growing phenomenon.” About 1 percent of all the city households they surveyed had chickens. What’s more, nearly 4 percent said that while they don’t have birds now, they plan to get them in the near future.
Wilson knows it’s a trend. “They’re kind of like new hipster lawn ornaments,” he says.
Jim Thompson, with the ag extension office at Ohio State University, says a lot of people have been hearing or seeing chickens crop up in city backyards. “It’s something that they get excited about,” he says, and they want to try it out for themselves. He cautions that raising chickens does require a fair bit of work, but it’s definitely doable. “Probably not too different from keeping pets,” he says.
That’s how Matt Wilson views it. “Compared to our dog, they’re way less work,” he says, noting how they tuck themselves into the coop at night. “When the sun goes down, they walk in here and line up,” says Wilson, “and then I say goodnight and lock ‘em up.”
Chickens are hardy creatures, but they require upkeep and safe conditions or the flock, and potentially humans, could be at risk for disease. Concerns like this make some people less keen on allowing chickens into the city.
But Wilson says it’s all about doing it responsibly. “It’s not something you can just bumble your way through,” he says. “You should do your homework, but you don’t have to go to ag school.”
The hens are now part of his family. He says the birds even gathered around the picnic table last year during their outdoor Thanksgiving dinner.
Wilson’s ladies are certainly pets, but he also considers them a logical next step for urban gardeners.
“Everything I read just kept on emphasizing how chickens, and farm animals in general, are a great way to reclaim waste and turn it into food,” he says. He also likes how their composted droppings make a great fertilizer for his veggie beds. When he cleans the coop, he puts the used pine shavings and droppings into a compost bin, lets it cure for a couple months, and then spreads the rich, crumbly, and sweet-smelling compost onto his garden. “It seems like just growing vegetables is like listening to a band with no guitars or singers and just somebody playing drums,” says Wilson, “It’s not the whole story.”
It’s true. Chickens are good gobblers and will go to town on garden critters and veggie scraps. One of Wilson’s neighbors owns a microbrewery and unloads his spent grain in Wilson’s backyard. “The chickens go nuts,” says Wilson. While there’s no alcohol in the grains, there’s still a lot of good roughage and fiber.
This got Wilson thinking about the bigger picture, about how city folks can better deal with waste. “They would just put that stuff in the trash. Just bags and bags of it,” he says. “There’s all this opportunity for us to reclaim waste that the city generates.”
This sort of “urban enlightenment” is what backyard chicken enthusiasts say is so great about the birds. They give people the chance to see food and waste come full circle -- an opportunity in short supply in city life.
And the eggs are darn tasty, too, says 8-year-old Charlie Wilson. “Fridays we have breakfast for dinner and we always eat their eggs.” His dad agrees, saying eggs from a diner kind of taste like rubber by comparison. “These,” says the older Wilson, “definitely have this intense yolk flavor.”
There are health benefits to eggs from pasture-raised hens as well. The chicken’s short digestive tract allows all those vitamins and nutrients from their foraging to make it into their egg yolks quickly. Researchers at Penn State found eggs from pasture-raised hens had more vitamins E and A and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than eggs from commercial hens. Other tests have also found more vitamin D and less cholesterol and saturated fat.
Jim Thompson from the OSU ag extension office says chicken ownership is teaching more city folks about animal husbandry. They can even be a sort of “gateway animal,” says Thompson. Depending on rules and square footage, he says, you can keep a lot of things in the city, including goats, cows, sheep, bees, and turkeys.
As for chicken-owner Matt Wilson, his ladies have started him daydreaming about pigs. Just don’t tell his wife.