The spread of suburban chickens in the Chicago region

Are suburban chickens different than chickens living in other places? Residents of more Chicago area suburbs now have an opportunity to find out:

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

Once a novel concept, more and more suburbs are permitting residents to raise backyard chickens. Among the latest is Rolling Meadows, which enacted regulations in 2019 allowing them, after rejecting the idea in 2014 and 2018. Others include Bartlett, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glencoe, Grayslake, Highland Park, Schaumburg and Wheeling,

American suburbs have an interesting relationship with nature, or “nature.” Are chickens part of the natural realm or part of the human transformation of land into sprawling subdivisions dominated by single-family homes and cars?

There are clearly ideas in suburbs about acceptable wildlife and animals that are not as accepted. Dogs and cats are in. Coyotes are present but are viewed as a threat. Canadian geese are generally disliked. Bison are rare so therefore interesting when roaming suburbia. Chickens are somewhere in the middle. Here is how the same article describes the different opinions:

Suburban proponents of backyard hens laud their benefits, such as a source of healthy eggs and an affordable food option.

Opponents, however, worry about the possible impact on neighbors, from the noise and odors to concerns about attracting coyotes.

Are chickens enhancing the suburban experience or detracting from it? More Chicago area communities are coming down on the positive. How long until the majority of suburbs allow chickens or are there significant barriers facing suburban chicken expansion?

The scale of American shipping illustrated in one broken-down semi with 14,000 chickens

Americans are used to highways, semi-trucks, and breakdowns. They might not be as familiar with what can be in some of the trucks that break down:

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Loucks, a mechanic at Super Truck Service in west suburban Addison, didn’t think anything of the call. But when he got to the semi, he found 14,000 live chickens in the trailer…

He couldn’t tow the truck the nearly 30 miles back to the shop because tipping the trailer up could be even more dangerous for the chickens, Loucks said, so his team chained up an axle and had the semi drive back to Super Truck Service on eight wheels instead of 10. That meant driving 35 to 40 mph down I-90, which wasn’t a very safe option either, Loucks said.

After returning to the shop at 562 S. Vista Ave. in Addison, and with the temperatures rising, Loucks said the first thing he did was grab a garden hose as he started to “water the chickens,” despite being afraid of birds.

Three things stand out to me in this short story that might be easy to ignore since vehicles break down all the time:

  1. The number of chickens on one truck is astounding. Ask people on the street how many chickens would fit on a truck and I wonder how many would be close to this number.
  2. While this is a large number of chickens, this is just one truck. Therefore, this is just a drop in the bucket in the number of chickens in the United States. According to Statista, there are over 1 billion chickens in the United States.
  3. There are numerous ways to ship goods and animals. Moving all of this requires a lot of infrastructure behind the scenes that helps get eggs and chicken to grocery shelves. Put #1 and #2 together and you need a lot of ways to transport everything.

The United States is a large country with a big economy and a critically important set of structures and vehicles that get things where they need to go. Semis and other trucks are needed to help make this possible.

Keeping chickens at McMansions

Here is an explanation of recent efforts to allow raising chickens in Stonington, Connecticut, an area known for things like McMansions:

Having chickens in the back yard was fairly common when I was growing up in the ‘50s in Westport, Conn.

We kept a flock and so did our neighbors, who eventually had nine children. At the time, chicken feed came in cloth sacks with calico print patterns and we girls often wore summery skirts my mother made us all from the repurposed material.

Westport has changed a lot. Most people equate it now with movie stars, Martha Stewart and McMansions. What hasn’t altered is its acceptance of backyard chickens…

In Stonington, it takes three acres – to have two chickens. Legally.

Certainly, there are many chickens living under the radar here. But why not make them legal? And why not let more people “share the joys of chicken keeping?”…

Like Westporters – and in a growing number of communities around the country — those who wished could gather the freshest possible eggs from a backyard coop, use the poop for fertilizer, reduce the number of ticks and other insects in their yards, feed their flocks kitchen scraps and add another piece of self-sufficiency to their lives.

This discussion about raising chickens has occurred in numerous American communities in recent years, particularly with more people interested in knowing where their food came from as well as cutting costs in light of the recession. But, can chickens and McMansions go together?

1. McMansions are generally associated with wealth and higher property values. Chickens might eat into the image.

2. McMansions are sometimes associated with big houses on smaller lots. This doesn’t necessarily leave much room for keeping animals or having large gardens or doing much at all with the yard.

3. Allowing chickens might help improve the image of McMansions with critics. One big criticism of the homes is that they are not environmentally friendly. Imagine big homes making space for free range chickens, having green roofs, being powered by solar panels or geothermal sources, or being very energy efficient (passive homes or net zero energy homes). Perhaps chickens (and other livestock?) could help McMansions be more green.

In the end, fighting over allowing homeowners to keep chickens mirrors the debate over McMansions themselves: how much latitude should individual homeowners have with their own property?

Colbert: watch out for “egg McMansions”

In discussing a recent stance by Iowa House member Steve King, Stephen Colbert suggests chickens don’t deserve McMansions:

Now, King is fighting a California law that would give egg-laying hens more room in their cages and trying to keep it from becoming national law.

“Damn straight,” said Colbert. “This is just another case of the left-wing loons in California imposing their deviant values on the heartland. I’ll bet those California chickens don’t even have to be married before they have an egg.”

The law mandates that a poultry cage must measure 200 square inches, which Colbert called an “Egg McMansion.”

“This is a chicken Xanadu,” he said. “It’s way bigger than the cages I keep my interns in.”

Two quick thoughts:

1. It sounds like Colbert is primarily hinting at two traits of McMansion. First, they are big homes. They have lots of space. For chickens, that apparently equates to 200 square inches. Second, also suggesting the homes are like Xanadu also plays out the wealthy and luxurious aspects of McMansions.

2. Since Colbert is poking fun at King, this might be the commentary: conservatives and others might want themselves and other Americans to have the opportunity to own McMansions and large homes, but they don’t want to extend these privileges to other living creatures.

Building chicken McMansions in the Atlanta area

McMansions may not just be for people: they can also be for chickens.

Leonard and the twenty residents of his Chicken McMansion will be a featured stop on a tour of Atlanta urban chicken coops that will take place in early October.

Anne-Marie Anderson is a tour organizer, a woman whose Decatur back yard chicken coop is a step down from Leonard’s — despite its plant-growing green roof, rain barrels and way more space than her chickens need.

“On a scale of one to ten, this one is about a seven,” Anderson says, gesturing toward the upscale coop in her sloping back yard. “You can tell when a chicken is happy. They strut and they look happy and they cluck.”…

Anderson says her coop cost about a thousand dollars to build. Leonard says his chicken coop probably cost twice that. Not that he’s competitive.

Here is what I don’t understand: the term McMansion is typically used as a negative term. That does not appear to be the purpose here. The term is used to imply a large and expensive home, similar to the common usage for McMansion, but this is seen as good things for chickens. Indeed, can’t the builder/owner of a McMansion chicken coop charge more for chicken eggs and meat having had more space? Therefore, in the world of chickens, it appears that a McMansion is a good kind of house.

Chicken regulations in Naperville

More suburbs have had to deal with this issue in recent years: should suburbanites be allowed to keep chickens? Here is the latest from Naperville:

The majority of Naperville council members voted Tuesday to make no changes to an existing ordinance that governs the keeping of fowl in the city, which states the birds must be kept 25 feet from neighboring homes and cleaned regularly.

City staff presented a proposal Tuesday that would place further regulation on chicken coop keepers, requiring them to obtain a permit for the birds and construct larger perimeters around the livestock. But council members opted to maintain the status quo that has regulated chicken ownership for years…

While both residents — neighbors, in fact — who spoke during public forum were on opposite sides of the fence on the issue, they agreed the council’s decision came as a surprise…

But the council’s decision has no effect on those who live in subdivisions, some of which have their own bylaws that govern the keeping of livestock.

While the article suggests at the end that there are only a few formal complaints about this a year, I suspect this is an issue that will continue to pop up. This is a classic NIMBY issue: will nearby property values decrease if a neighbor keeps chickens? It is also interesting to note that Naperville’s guidelines don’t apply to subdivisions, presumably because they have Homeowner’s Associations that already tackle this issue. (Naperville has an unusual number of HOAs – noted builder Harold Moser helped pioneer this in the city.)

This reminds me of My Blue Heaven, a study of the working class Los Angeles suburb of South Gate. In the early days of this suburb, it was common for residents to own animals and build their own homes. I suspect this sort of activity would not go over well in more middle or upper class suburbs.

If you are curious, here is what Naperville’s municipal code says about “fowl and livestock”:

1. Housing: All fowl and livestock shall be kept within a pen, coop, building or other enclosure sufficient in size and strength to confine such animals to the owner’s property, except that livestock may be tethered securely to a fixed object outside the enclosure, but only if the animal is so confined to the owner’s property.

2. Zoning: Fowl and livestock may be kept in any area in the City except as otherwise provided by this Chapter or the City’s Zoning Ordinance.

3. Restrictions:

3.1. No livestock shall be kept, housed, maintained or pastured within a distance of two hundred (200) feet of any occupied residence other than that of the owner.

3.2. No pen, coop, building or other enclosure used for the purpose of housing fowl (with the exception of homing pigeons) shall be erected or maintained within twenty-five (25) feet of any occupied residence other than that of the owner.

3.3. Every person maintaining a pen, coop, building, yard or enclosure for fowl or livestock shall keep such area clean, sanitary and free from all refuse. Such areas shall be thoroughly swept at least once every twenty-four (24) hours and the dirt and refuse shall be disposed in a clean and sanitary fashion.

3.4. All feed for fowl or livestock shall be kept in containers that are rodent-proof until put out for consumption of fowl or livestock.

Another report suggests Naperville is somewhat unusual in not regulating this issue more closely:

Homeowners on both sides of Laird’s Rivanna Court property are urging the Naperville City Council to re-examine a decades-old city law that puts no limits on the number of chickens one can have, as long as the pen is cleaned once every 24 hours and is kept at least 25 feet from neighboring homes.

Naperville is one of a few municipalities — including St. Charles, Batavia, Oak Park and Chicago — that allow residents, with a few conditions, to raise chickens at home. But in an email to council members, Laird’s neighbors stressed the city is “no longer a rural farming community but residential with nice homes and smaller backyards.”

I wonder if this is one of those issues in Naperville where formal regulations are unnecessary as social pressure would keep too many people from having chickens. One resident in the story suggests that his chicken coop was opened at night by others. I would guess that could be a lot of disapproving glances and talk if someone started building a chicken house.