Frequently Asked Questions

~Don't you need a rooster for eggs?
~Are chickens loud?
~What about predators or pests?
~What about diseases like Avian Flu?

~What about wintertime?
~Don't chickens smell?

~What do chickens eat?
~Can I use the chicken manure as fertilizer in the garden?
~How many eggs can we expect?
~What's this about an "Urban Chicken" movement?
~Aren't chickens mean?

Q: Don't you need a rooster for eggs?

A: No, you don't. Hens lay eggs without a rooster. The eggs you buy at the store are unfertilized and no rooster is around those hens. You only need a rooster to hatch chicks. Roosters are illegal in South Portland.


Q: Are chickens loud?

A: Roosters are loud, and they aren't allowed. Hens, on the other hand, are pretty quiet: on average, normally quieter than most dogs, parrots, or macaws. They generally make a soft chuckle or cluck. Occasionally, when they are showing off an egg they've just laid, or when disturbed, their clucking is slightly louder. They're asleep in their henhouse by dark.


Q: What about predators or pests?

A: Since South Portland's ordinance stipulates that the hens must be in a completely enclosed, predator-proof enclosure, and locked in a solid henhouse at night, the hens will not attract predators any more than a rabbit in a hutch. As far as rodents go: It is food that attracts rodents, not the chickens. If you have wild bird feeders in your back yard, you run the same risk. Keep all feed in metal garbage cans, with secure lids. Feed birds in small doses, so as not to have a large amount of food left over. If you feed your birds scraps/ protein, make sure it is eaten and not left in the bedding. Cats, dogs, hawks, raccoons and other predators: The key to safe chickens is a sturdy, impenetrable coop. Raccoons in particular are such clever, determined critters. Make sure the structure is secure (enclosed top, fencing buried below ground under the sides, secure latches on doors or other entryways), keep all birds locked in at night, letting them out into the run only during the day. Cats normally have a healthy respect for adult hens; dogs will chase them if they are left to roam. If you let your birds out into a fenced yard, you are required to keep them under supervision at all times.

Q: What about diseases like Avian Flu?

A: Avian Flu of the type that is contagious to humans has not been found in North America. Any type of avian influenza is spread by contact with the contaminated feces of other birds, primarily migratory waterfowl. So the key issues are sanitation and contact with wild birds. Unlike rural farm birds, which "free range" and might, for example, drink from a pond shared with Canada Geese, "backyard chickens" in South Portland will be kept in an enclosed pen with little contact with the migratory birds. In addition, should avian flu ever reach here, it would more likely spread in situations where birds are maintained in unsanitary conditions, such as the large commercial "factory farms" where chickens are crammed together in filthy cages.... not where chickens are kept as pets in well-maintained coops cleaned as regularly as any suburban pet.

Salmonella is the other primary concern associated with chicken and eggs. Again, this is an issue of cleanliness and chickens kept as pets are unlikely to cause any problems. In fact, Consumer Reports magazine reports that 71% of all supermarket chicken and eggs are contaminated with salmonella: eating your own backyard eggs, where you have control over the sanitation, significantly reduces your chance of exposure. In terms of exposure from pets, chickens are no more likely to carry it than parakeets, and pet reptiles are far more likely culprits. Good hand-washing practices are always important after handling animals.

Pet chickens, unlike cats and dogs which are prime vectors for rabies and tick-borne diseases, actually keep your yard healthier by eating ticks and other insects.

Dr. Donald Hoenig, the Maine State Veterinarian in charge of animal health issues for the State, endorses backyard chickens, and feels they can peacefully coexist in dense neighborhoods. He also confirms that the public health risk is minimal when the chickens are properly cared for, the same as the health risks associated with keeping any other animal as a pet. You can read his comments here, and here.

Dr. Richard J. Brzozowski, Extension Educator at the University of Maine Coopertive Extension responsible for statewide programming in poultry science, also endorses allowing pet hens in South Portland. You can read his letter here.


Q: What about wintertime?

A: Choose breeds that are known for their cold-hardiness, such as one of the many Heritage Breed chickens bred in New England and Canada in the 1800s. Here's a good breed-selection chart. Less hardy breeds are susceptible to frostbite, especially of the combs. Many people insulate their coops (be sure to put an inner wall up so the hens won't eat the insulation.) More coop-design tips are here. The main problem is keeping the water from freezing, which may be accomplished with a heated dog-bowl, a bird-bath or poultry-waterer de-icer, or a heat lamp or ordinary light bulb over the waterer.


Q: Don't chickens smell?

A: The amount of chicken manure produced by six hens is roughly equivalent to the dog droppings produced by a medium-large dog. And, unlike dog or cat poop, chicken manure can be easily composted into fabulous garden fertilizer. That said, smell will depend on the caretaker. Just like any other pet or animal, hens need care--cleaning out the dirty bedding in the coop, keeping it dry and having a clean/dry area of sand or dirt for the birds to take dust baths in. These practices will all help to keep your birds happy, healthy and odor free. See the "Care" page for more information.


Q: What do chickens eat?

A: They will eat just about anything! There are commercial poultry foods (regular and organic) available at local feed stores, or you can make your own mix. People feed chickens corn, oats, wheat, rye, soy, fresh greens from the garden (weeds as well), table scraps (they love spaghetti!), worms and other bugs. They will "mow" your grass if allowed in the yard, and the more greens they eat, the yellower the yolks will be, and the higher the Omega-3s in the eggs!


Q: Can I use the chicken manure as fertilizer in the garden?

A: Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, so it is considered "hot". It will need to be composted before putting it directly onto your garden. once it has broken down, it then becomes perfect food for the garden.


Q: How many eggs can we expect?

A: A typical hen will start to lay eggs at about 5 months of age. The eggs will start out small, then get increasingly larger. During the first year of laying, the hen (if she is a good egg producer) will lay one egg, almost every day in the warmer months. The birds may then go through a "molt" in the late fall/ winter months and stop laying. Then they will start again in the early spring. You can encourage egg laying through the colder months by keeping a light on a timer in the henhouse to add "daylight" in the early morning (ideally for a total of 14 hours). As the hens get older, they will start to lay fewer and fewer eggs. although they will be bigger eggs. While commercial egg farmers "retire" (!) hens at just a few years old, backyard chickens can continue to lay for many, many more years.


Q: What's this about an "Urban Chicken" movement?

A: In the last 8 or so years, more and more communities have been relaxing their zoning laws to allow chickens to be kept as pets in urban and suburban areas. As part of the growing awareness in this country of living “green" more and more people are interested in growing at least some of their own food in kitchen gardens, and in raising a few hens for eggs. The "movement" probably began in the Pacific Northwest, and has spread across the country as people realize that owning a few hens, kept as suburban pets in pretty garden coops, is a good idea. Some people want organic eggs and garden compost, others are concerned about food security, others want to "eat local" to save resources, and others wish to enjoy the lovely, fun pets hens can be. There have been lots of news articles written about this growing trend, increasing in primarily upscale neighborhoods. Here is a collection of news stories for more information.


Q: Aren't chickens mean?

A: Just like any animal, it's all in the upbringing. If you took a bunch of parrots, cockatiels, kittens or puppies and stuck them in a pen with minimal human contact beyond food and water, they probably wouldn't be very good pets. Just like these animals, chickens that are hand-raised from chicks can be wonderful pets. They come when they are called, enjoy being held and are beautiful and even affectionate pets. Check out the links area for websites like "My Pet Chicken" and "City Chickens" for more information.

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