Raising chickens not just for the farm anymore

Kathleen and Rob Schultz raise chickens for both eggs and meat on their 4 acres in south Indianapolis.

Their flock is divided into two camps: the layers, with names like Pearl and Millie, and the roasters, who remain nameless with the exception of two turkeys they jokingly call Christmas and Thanksgiving.

"We are friendly with them, we treat them with the utmost respect, but as far as forming a bond with them, that is not something we do," Kathleen says of the broilers.

The layers, on the other hand, become like pets. One even enjoys house privileges. "A lot of folks think chickens are just mindless birds that have no sense of worth," she says. "That couldn't be further from the truth.

"They have their own personalities. They know their names. Some of them follow us around like a dog. They will come when called and they will get in your lap and cuddle."

Chicks in the city

The Schultzes are among the hundreds of Central Indiana city dwellers raising chickens for eggs, meat and fun. The trend is called "backyard chickens" or "urban chickens," and in Indianapolis, at least, it's legal.

For as little as $300 to $400, homeowners can buy a few chickens, some basic equipment, build a coop and be on their way to a supply of fresh eggs and the occasional Sunday dinner.

They also make good entertainment, says James Wells of Indianapolis.

He has learned firsthand the meaning of phrases such as "pecking order" while watching his hens and rooster interact in his yard near 71st Street and Lafayette Road. The hens, he says, establish a hierarchy amongst themselves, while the rooster dominates all of them and also breaks up fights between hens.

"If you like watching people, you'll like watching chickens," Wells says.

Keeping urban chickens in check

In Carmel and Fishers, chickens aren't allowed on any property less than 5 acres. One Carmel resident received a variance three years ago, amid protest from his neighbors. That person has since moved away and took his chickens with him.

"This is no place for people with chickens," says Robert Pratt, one of the protesting neighbors. "If you want to raise chickens, that's fine, but I think you need to be in a rural area where people are used to that sort of thing."

Pratt says he raised chickens 40 years ago on 5 acres near the corner of Old Meridian Street and Grand Boulevard. "At that time, that was country," he says.

Processing chickens for personal use in Indianapolis also is legal, either by wringing their necks or chopping off their heads because those methods are "quick and it is common practice," says Terri Melton, a processor with Indianapolis Animal Care and Control. "As long as they kill them humanely, we don't get involved."

City animal laws regarding proper food, water and shelter, namely Chapter 531 of the city code, also apply to chickens. Coops larger than 120 square feet require a permit.

Roosters optional, predators a problem

Robert Dickinson, who lives in Woodruff Place on the city's Near Eastside, bought his first chickens three years ago on impulse while visiting a Rural King farm store in Evansville. He taught himself how to raise them through Internet research, and trial and error.

The first thing many people don't realize is you don't need a rooster unless you want to hatch your own chicks, Dickinson says. "Your hens will do just fine without a rooster," he says, explaining that hens lay eggs with or without one.

But if you buy chicks, he points out, you may end up with a rooster accidentally because determining gender is difficult until the chicks get older.

Hens by themselves are pretty quiet, Dickinson says, aside from squawking about once a day when they lay an egg, at which point he says "they get a little wild."

Even in the middle of the city, predators are a problem. He lost a chicken to a raccoon last year and caught a possum in his coop before it killed anything.

"I've got a hawk that comes by and looks at my chickens in the afternoon," he says. The key is to have enough shrubbery for your hens to hide under when they see a hawk, he says. "They'll keep a lookout and squawk and let the others know if there's something in the area," he says.

His two dogs and cat pose no problem, however. "My cat sits in the middle of the chickens and doesn't bother them at all," he says.

Keeping the chicken coop clean is Dickinson's most important advice for prospective urban chicken ranchers. "You don't want to be offensive to your neighbors," he says.

Cost to raise chickens varies

The cost of raising chickens varies widely depending on the number of chickens, the quality of the coop and run. The Schultzes have a heated, lighted coop and use veterinarian Beth Breitweiser of highly rated All Wild Things Exotic Animal Hospital. "She is awesome," Kathleen says.

But Kathleen also says they try to give their chickens the best of everything and people can spend less. "They are like our children, so to speak," she says.

Other chicken owners say they rarely if ever need a veterinarian. They buy vaccines at feed stores and do the injections themselves.

"I can't justify spending money like that," Wells says. "I had three injured chickens. If they lived, they lived and if they didn't, they didn't. If you are going to have a veterinarian bill, get a new chicken."

Chicken owners laugh when asked whether raising chickens helps them save money. "It's a hobby," Dickinson says. "It's an expenditure, but a small expenditure. It's about quality of life."

For more information go to backyardchickens.com.

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