The backyard chicken trend hatched long ago -- the website BackYard Chickens has signed up 280,000 members since its start in 2000, and the New York Times noticed it a mere seven years later -- but that doesn't mean you're not still on the fence (er, chicken wire) about whether they're right for you. We're here to help you consider all the red tape a few fresh eggs, and some hen holding, entail.
The first thing to consider is whether you're allowed to have them at all. In many cases, homeowners must lobby politicians to reverse livestock bans and allow backyard coops. Meanwhile, many owners find themselves combating neighbors' negative perceptions about declining property values and other potential problems that can crop up with such fowl pets. (Yes, some folks think of them as pets, not just egg producers, and keep them long after their laying days -- which, as you'll see below, is another consideration.)
If you're committed to raising chickens, here are eight ways to get your ducks in a row before you let hens come home to roost.
1. Investigate the rules
Before you embark on your adventure to cultivate chicks, determine whether it's legal to raise them in your backyard and find out how many are allowed in your flock. Websites such as Backyard Chickens have compiled lists of laws around the country, but you should also check your community's municipal code in case national websites aren't up to date. Cities often outlaw certain animals, such as venomous snakes and crowing roosters, that they perceive to be a nuisance or a safety or health concern. Zoning laws will specify which and how many animals are allowed. Homeowner association covenants, conditions, and restrictions for your property may also clip your wings.
2. Build community support
If the birds are banned, you may find yourself trying to persuade politicians or HOA boards to reverse the laws. Build a case by arming yourself with information on the birds' benefits -- humanely treated chickens, more wholesome eggs, docile pets -- as well as examples of communities with chicken-friendly laws. Then, enlist as much support as you can from community groups that are likely to be sympathetic to your "cause," such as gardening, animal rights, or environmental organizations. Scour chicken-enthusiast websites that can provide fodder for your campaign. Sarasota, FL, for instance, legalized chickens after more than 1,000 people petitioned the Sarasota County Commission to allow the backyard birds.
3. Contain your flock
Even if you are allowed to house hens, you should avoid ruffling other people's feathers. Show smart pet ownership and good etiquette by keeping your animals in your yard and ensuring that they don't wander -- and make a mess -- throughout the neighborhood. Critics who balk at backyard chickens say cluckers can be noisy, their poop smells, and the birds and their food attract raccoons, foxes, mites, and other vermin. Salem, OR, resident Jason Caldwell got " mad as wet hens" when his neighbors didn't properly contain their backyard chickens and they riled up conventional pets like cats and dogs. So make sure your birds can't fly the coop (or at least the yard if they're free-range).
4. Find a coop design that others dig
When you choose a type of chicken containment, remember that a clean and attractive coop can have cachet, especially in a community that embraces organic and humane food sources and is already fowl-friendly.
Outbuildings such as storage sheds, coops, and barns that are small, function well, have correct permits, and in good condition can add value to a home, says Anthony Lamacchia of McGeough Lamacchia Real Estate in Waltham, MA.
"A home buyer will want to know: Does it have a well-defined use? Is it in good condition? Is it too costly to maintain or repair?" he says. Some new coops are worth $1,500 or more in California, according to Brita Craven, a member of local-foods advocacy group Rapid City Hens.
A stylish backyard coop could be a feather in your cap, especially if yours is on par with the ravishing roosts of A-listers like Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Even if you're not hobnobbing with Hollywood types, a nicely designed coop could be desirable in certain areas, says Michelle Holcenberg, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Orinda, CA.
Potential home buyers in rural areas and neighborhoods that embrace urban farming, for instance, might appreciate the extra "amenity" -- especially if it fits in with the design of the main home and they eventually want to raise chickens themselves.
Realtor Shannon Harrington of Staunton, VA, says when she sold a home in the "well-priced and sought-after subdivision" of Crozet, VA, the buyers got excited by a neighbor's chickens and wanted to get some, too.
On the other hand, a run-down, dilapidated coop will not only be an eyesore but can also be dangerous if it's unstable. "If the outbuilding is in need of extensive repair and has no obvious use, it can bring down the value of the property," Lamacchia says.
5. Protect your property
Experts recommend you carefully assess where on your property you place the coop and where in your yard you let your chicks wander. Chickens can destroy grass, gardens, and planting beds as they peck and scratch your yard to find bugs and worms.
Experienced "parents" recommend putting a fence around plants and trees you want to protect, or containing chickens to certain areas of the yard. They also suggest you establish two locations to rotate where hens roam, so your grass doesn't completely die off in any one area.
6. Remember resale
Real estate agents recommend placing the coop in a corner of your yard, where it's not in plain sight taking up the majority of your yard. Homeowners generally want a functional backyard and patio -- for dining and entertaining, or where kids can play -- that hasn't been taken over by birds.
Especially if you think you'll be selling your home in a year or less, then it's probably not the right time to let hens nest. You'll want your home, including the yard, to be in tiptop condition while it's on the market. It will be difficult to maintain if hens are pecking and pooping on the grass and patio.
One question a real estate agent is likely to ask a seller is, "Where will they put their chickens when the house is on the market?" Holcenberg says.
7. Plan an exit strategy
In addition to transitional placement, it would be wise to think about long-term plans. If you're starting from chicks, hatcheries and pet stores can't guarantee the sex of your birds. So determine ahead of time what you'll do if it grows into a rooster. You should also decide what to do once your chickens stop laying. Daily egg production starts to slow down when a hen is about 18 months old, although it can live as long as 15 years. Will you still want your pets once they are no longer producing?
In 2001, Minneapolis-based Chicken Run Rescue took in about 20 surrendered and rescued chickens. By 2012, the figures jumped to about 35 rescues and 475 surrender requests, with more than half of those because people did not want the birds once egg laying declined.
8. Be a good neighbor
When you own backyard chickens, it pays to keep your coop clean and be considerate of your neighbors. It would be unfortunate to invest in everything needed for hen upkeep, and then hear irritated neighbors squawking, calling for a ban on the birds.
Ocean Township, NJ, resident Angelo Koukoumis says when his neighbor wanted to sell, a Realtor told the neighbor the house "would have a better chance of selling" if there weren't chickens next door. So, the neighbor complained to township leaders and Koukoumis received a violation for not having enough acreage to legally raise chickens.
Even if the person next door is not sticking around, it still helps to be mindful of your chickens. You may want to go as far as temporarily relocating your chickens when the neighboring property is on the market. If the neighborhood is not one that's used to properties with backyard chickens, then having hens next door to a house that's for sale could deter buyers, Holcenberg says.
If a buyer is interested in a house but doesn't want a chicken coop that's on the property, he or she can ask the seller to remove the coop. This is similar to specifying in the contract that the seller exclude appliances from the property, she explains. However, if there are annoying chickens next door to the house that's for sale, there's nothing the potential buyer can do about a stinky coop or loud squawking except walk away from the sale.
Of course, when someone new moves in next door to you and your chickens, then it's important to establish a good relationship. Your new neighbors may be on the fence about whether they're OK with chicks in their hood -- in which case offering free eggs may help to endear them to you and your feathered friends.