Real hens of Carmel: Urban ‘farmers’ flock to chickens as pets
It’s not a party fowl to keep the egg-laying birds for food or friendship, but no roosters allowed
By Adam Aasen
Two little girls run out into the back yard in their summer dresses with a bag of sliced white bread in their hands. They divvy up the crumpled bread to feed their pets.
A flock of excited hens scurry up – one black, one white, one brownish-red – with their funny chicken walk.
“Here, Penelope! Here, Root Beer!” they shout as they toss the crumbs.
“This is a daily occurrence. They will greet you,” said Tish York, mother of 7-year-old Maddi and 9-year-old Ellie. “These chickens will charge to see you when you come out. It’s so comical watching them.”
This family is part of a growing number of Carmel households raising their own chickens. Not only do they appreciate the fresh eggs and the responsibility it teaches their girls, but Tish York said the chickens are a part of the family.
“They have so much personality,” she said. “They really are so much like dogs in so many ways. Except dogs don’t give you breakfast.”
Throughout Carmel you’ll find chicken coops popping up in backyards. It’s becoming so common that one chicken owner recently asked the Carmel City Council to raise the limit of bird a homeowner can have from three hens to six.
Some people consider the limit too arbitrary, and even Mayor Jim Brainard said he’s open to changing the rules.
Raising the roost
Joshua Kirsh, a member of the Carmel Clay Park Board and the Carmel Plan Commission, decided a few years ago it would be fun to raise chickens in his backyard. He liked the idea of knowing where his food comes from, and he said he believes fresh eggs are healthier.
But Kirsh was so worried that he might be breaking some laws that when his neighbors asked what was living in his backyard, he’d say they were Chilean rabbits.
“When I got a letter in the mail about the chickens, I was terrified,” he said. “I said, ‘Oh boy, they are going to hit me with a huge fine.’”
Turns out, Kirsh just had to give away a few of his chickens to reach the city’s three-chicken limit, but like many others he was unaware of the rules.
Liane Jokl spoke to the city council about some of the practical reasons she believes the limit should be increased – including the fact that you can’t buy chickens in groups of three. Most of the time, the minimum is six and sometimes it can be more.
If a chicken dies and you have to replace them, Liane said, it can be tough to procure only one to replace it. And even if you can get just one, a young chicken needs a friend its age.
“They are a flock animal. They like to have a companion with them at all times,” she said.
Brainard said he wouldn’t mind if the council increases the number.
“I think someone pulled three out of the air. I don’t think there’s any magic number to it,” he said.
In the meantime, he said enforcing the limit is low on the priority list.
“Unless there’s a complaint, we have plenty to do already,” he said. “I’m not sending code enforcement to drive around town to count everyone’s chickens. Unless we get a complaint, we trust people to follow the law.”
Flocking to the trend
Carmel resident Rick Shannon has lived in the city for the past 12 years but only recently decided that he’d like to start raising chickens.
“I’m originally from the country, and I thought we ought to get back into it again,” he said.
So he and his wife, Mary Shannon, went on Craiglist and bought a used coop with wheels and some chickens for about $400.
He initially kept his new coop in the front yard of his Main Street house that sits just east of the high school. And surprisingly, the chickens were a big hit.
The Shannons said that during the three weeks the coop was in their front yard, they had about five to six people per day stop by and check out the chickens – and none had a bad thing to say about the coop.
Some people were just walking by, some brought their grandkids over to see the birds and one woman even wanted to know if the Shannons would sell her some eggs.
But eventually the city told the Shannons to move the coop into their back yard and out of sight.
Ian Smith started a Facebook page to connect with other chicken owners in Hamilton County and he said he loves talking about the benefits of owning chickens. He said the chickens will eat bugs and weeds in people’s yards. And some studies show their eggs have less cholesterol than store-bought eggs.
But most importantly, Smith started raising chickens in Carmel as a way to teach his young kids how to care for animals. His 10-year-old daughter will clean the coop once a week, while his younger kids will bring the chickens scraps to eat and collect any new eggs.
There also are environmental benefits. The Shannons compost their chicken poop – and they’ve done it without their house smelling like a farm.
“It’s great for your flowers,” Mary Shannon said.
York said she believes the eggs taste better and the times when they’ve eaten store bought eggs just hasn’t been the same.
“I didn’t think it tasted as good so I didn’t eat my scrambled eggs,” her daughter Ellie said.
But if you are raising chickens thinking you’ll save so much money buying eggs, that’s not the best strategy.
“It’s definitely not a cheap hobby,” Kirsh said with a laugh.
No ruffled feathers
Chicken owners say that people often think their neighbors must hate living next to a noisy chicken coop, but none of them have said they’ve had any problems.
York said her neighbors happily toss their food scraps into the chickens’ area.
“When we go out of town the neighbors say, ‘We’ll watch them. Can we babysit? Please?’” she said.
Smith said most chicken owners will go out of their way to give eggs to neighbors. He said noise isn’t much of an issue, unless you have a rooster, which is not allowed by ordinance. Roosters can crow nonstop at times. Hens only cluck when they are laying an egg and most say it isn’t too loud.
Some people think chickens can be dirty or disease-ridden, but Smith said that’s a misconception.
“It’s like dogs,” he said. “You can have someone who has noisy dogs that carry diseases, but if you are a responsible owner there’s no problem.”
York said the neighbors she’s most concerned about are wild predators.
York and her girls have become so attached to her chickens that she doesn’t want to see anything happen to them. Recently, when she opened her coop, a hawk swooped down and tried to attack her hens. She instinctively grabbed a tennis ball and threw it at the soaring bird to scare it away.
“My girls just love these birds so much,” she said. “I don’t know what we would do if the city said we couldn’t have them or if, heaven forbid, a predator got one. They really are part of the family.”
Tips for raising chickens in your backyard
Do your research on chicken coops. You need it to be sturdy enough to protect your chickens against predators. Noise reduction could also be a consideration. You’ll need about three square feet per chicken and pine shavings to create a floor.
Clean up any uneaten chicken feed so nothing rots or creates a problem.
Avoid some foods, including anything overly salty or sugary, dried or uncooked beans, avocado skins and citrus fruits. Don’t feed them raw eggs because it can train them to eat their own eggs.
Be kind to your neighbors. Offer them eggs and make sure the chicken food isn’t attracting rodents or pests.