Backyard Chickens in Philly: Renegade Poultry Farmer Speaks Out

Chickens are illegal in Philadelphia on parcels of land smaller than three acres. But as Philly Mag reported back in 2010, an urban chicken movement is gaining momentum in Philadelphia. It’s very possible that some of your neighbors are keeping a few discreet laying hens in the back yard. We spoke with a chicken owner in Germantown about her flock.

Meghan lives in West Germantown with her husband, two kids, a salt water fish tank, and a black labrador. She also has seven chickens living in a coop in her front yard.

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She got the chickens two years ago, adopting some from a neighbor and buying the the rest as chicks. The birds are now between 2 and 5 years old. They’re a variety of breeds. The light orange Buff Orpingtons are her favorites. They’re friendly and they’re good layers, and she said she’d get only buffs if she were to start over. She also has a Rhode Island Red, a Lace Wyandotte, a Black Australorp and two Barred Rocks.

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She has never lost a chicken to a predator. One died a natural death about a month ago. Two have died from heat exhaustion, but she thinks she has solved that problem by setting up a fan to cool the coop. On the hottest days, she puts a mister nozzle on a garden hose and props it up so that it cools the chicken run.

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She was planning to get some new chicks from her sister, who also lives in the neighborhood, but her sister’s entire flock was taken out by an opossum that snuck into the coop and she needed all the chicks to replace them.

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“I think it’s good to have new chickens each year to keep the average age younger,” she said.

Mehgan’s chicken system is pretty seamless. She doesn’t let them free range, although they escape occasionally. She puts so much straw in her chicken run that she doesn’t have any problem with odor, and only has to muck it out once a year or so. She tosses all her kitchen waste into the run. The chickens eat most of it, and what they don’t eat decomposes quickly.

Aside from compost, Meghan’s chickens eat feed sold at Weaver’s Way Co-op in Mt. Airy. The co-op is living up to its reputation as a community hub by serving as an educational center for would-be chicken owners.

Since some of Meghan’s chickens are older, they no longer lay an egg a day. She gets between 4 and 7 eggs a day in the summer, and only about 2 eggs a day in the winter when the shorter days cause chickens to lay less frequently. Some chicken owners add a supplemental light source to keep their hens laying all winter long, but Meghan said even with a timed light in their coop from 5pm to 8pm every night, she still gets fewer eggs.

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Urban chicken proponents generally agree that a rooster is pushing tolerant neighbors too far. They’re noisy, and can be more aggressive than hens. So Meghan’s entire flock is female.

Why get chickens? Meghan’s family had chickens when she was growing up, along with ducks, geese, and even pigs. It didn’t seem that outlandish to her, and there’s good support from her neighbors. And it’s something she and her sister do together.

They both keep chickens and bees, and they both garden. And it’s part of an outdoor lifestyle in a part of Germantown where packs of kids roam the back yard. Meghan’s older son, who just finished fourth grade, is good at catching escaped chickens, and the kids enjoy the eggs.

Is she worried about getting caught keeping illegal chickens? Not particularly. The city seems to want to turn a blind eye, and will only come after you if a neighbor complains. She said the police have come through her yard chasing burglars more than once (it is Germantown, after all) and they’ve never said anything about her chickens.

Meanwhile, her multicolored flock is quiet in their shady run. They’re red and orange and white and black, and they follow visitors around looking for treats.

“The chickens are the easiest of all my pets,” said Meghan. “And they give me eggs.”

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