“Chickens – the pet you can eat.” OK, that probably isn’t the best chicken catchphrase, but then again chickens don’t really need any selling these days. It seems that everyone either has chickens, wants chickens (or wants more chickens), is thinking about getting chickens, or knows someone who has chickens. And why not? Chickens really can make wonderful pets. Hens are generally quiet, they don’t cause allergies in most people, they eat pesky backyard bugs, they provide copious contributions to your compost pile, and best of all you can eat them. I mean, eat their eggs. How many other pets give so much?
But before you get too far down Chicken Daydreams Road – before you start combing the internet looking at pictures of exotic chicken breeds, before you start preparing your backyard for their arrival, and even before you start thinking about a coop – you need to know whether you can even legally keep chickens. Laws vary from city to city, from outright bans on backyard fowl, to restrictions on the number of birds you can keep, to, of course, bans on roosters. Even if your city allows chickens, your neighborhood might not – Homeowners Associations (HOAs) are not known for their friendliness toward these co-called “barnyard animals.”
Of course, here in Allandale, we don’t have an HOA, so that’s at least one less hurdle to jump, but you need to read the city code carefully. Section 3-2-116 of the Austin City Code says that “[a]n enclosure used to keep two or more fowl must be located at least 50 feet from a residence or business, excluding the residence or business of the fowl’s owner or handler.” To find out what exactly that means, I contacted city staff, and I have to tell you that their answers were not exactly encouraging. The city defines “residence” not as your neighbors’ actual houses, but as the property line. What that means is that unless your yard is more than 100 feet wide and 50 feet deep, you can’t legally have a chicken coop in your backyard. Furthermore, you can’t really free range your chickens in your backyard either, as staff told me that in that case the “enclosure” is defined by your fence, which, since it sits on the property line, cannot by definition by more than 50 feet away from that property line. Of course, one staff member pointed out, that only applies to people who keep more than one chicken; but who wants to keep just one chicken?
You should also take a minute (or, if you’re like me, lots and lots of minutes) and try to find the title to your home, since the title may contain additional restrictions on keeping chickens. When we moved to Allandale, I checked our title before we bought the house to make sure there were no such restrictions. There weren’t, so I assumed that the entire neighborhood was the same. However, one person recently commented on the list-serv that his deed did forbid chickens. So do be sure and check yours.
But what to do with this information? If your lot is less than 100 feet wide, if you want to free range your chickens in your back yard, or if your deed forbids chickens altogether, should you just get chickens anyway? Should you lead a bunch of innocent little chickens into a life of crime? I mean, sure, it starts with chickens that are merely illegal, but next thing you know they’ll have formed a gang and will be roaming the neighborhood looking for trouble. Only you can decide if you can live with that on your conscience.
If you do still want to get chickens, it is crucially important that you consult your neighbors before you start making plans. Even if you live in one of the few houses in Allandale with a large lot and no deed restrictions, you still want to talk to your neighbors before getting chickens. Listen to their concerns and do your best to address them. And don’t be above using free eggs to bribe them! After all, who doesn’t like free eggs?
Of course, you shouldn’t forget to consult the other members of your household. In my experience, there is no kid in the world who doesn’t love the idea of keeping chickens, so that’s one hurdle jumped. Your spouse may take more convincing. Have I heard of people who just brought home chickens one day without breathing a word to their spouse? Yes, I have, but I’m not sure that is a door I would recommend opening – after all, if you bring home chickens this week, who knows what he or she will bring home next week?
You also want to consider your other pets. In my experience, cats and chickens get along just fine, meaning each feels an obvious sense of disdain toward the other, and they don’t really interact much. Dogs, however, are a different story. Dogs love to chase things, chickens love to squawk and run away, and dogs REALLY love to chase things that squawk and run away. Even smaller dogs have been known to chase chickens. All of which makes for an amusing game of animal tag, until the dog actually catches the chicken. This is not to say that all dogs will see your chickens as a juicy dinner, but even the best dogs have been known to give in to that irresistible urge on occasion, and even that one occasion can decimate your flock. If you have a dog and want to get chickens as well, you should do some serious thinking about how you will keep everyone safe.
And don’t forget, your pets have opinions too; it wouldn’t hurt to ask what they think. The discussion might go something like this:
YOU: “Spot, what do you think about getting some chickens?”
SPOT: “Woof” (or “meow,” obviously depending on the species). Translation: “No way are we getting a bunch of dumb birds who can’t even fly and who will probably try to steal my food and peck my paws.”
YOU: “Great, it’s settled then! We’re getting chickens!”
Next column: setting realistic expectations.