From their delicious, nutritious eggs to their potentially expensive lifestyles, backyard chickens entail certain positive and negative effects for the environment and their human caretakers.

Before tackling the pros and cons of backyard chickens, it is necessary to bust some myths:

  1. Myth: You can only own chickens if you live on a farm. Fact: The City of Ann Arbor allows residents within city limits to raise six chickens in their backyards (up from four in previous years), hence the phrase backyard chickens, which refers solely to chickens raised in an urban setting.
  2. Myth: You risk finding a dead chick when attempting to eat an egg laid by a backyard chicken. Fact: Hens can only lay fertilized eggs – that is, eggs with chicks inside of them – if there is an active rooster present. Because roosters are not allowed within city limits, a backyard chicken (if raised legally) will never lay an egg with a chick.
  3. Myth: Eating your backyard chickens after raising them is a horrible, scarring, guilt-ridden experience. Fact: It’s actually very enlightening and humbling, and stresses the naturalness of the food chain. It reminds you that you owe your very existence to other organisms, not to mention that supermarket poultry meat was once just as alive as your chickens were. My family ate our first backyard chickens for Thanksgiving dinner, which further created an atmosphere of gratitude around the meal. Also, there are humane ways of culling a chicken, which you do not need to do yourself, and certainly not in your backyard; there are farms that will process your chickens for you, or, if you want to be involved, they will walk you through the various steps.

Now, for the meat (pun intended) of the matter:

While raising a backyard flock of chickens may produce images of softly-feathered, matronly hens sitting serenely atop a neat assortment of freshly laid eggs, the reality is far from this utopic idea. Chickens lay eggs soon after sunrise, and, depending on the time of year, this could mean the wee hours of the early morning, when the entire neighborhood is asleep. Unfortunately, the process of preparing to lay an egg and actually doing so usually entails a loud cacophony of screeching and clucking, especially if the nesting box is already occupied by another hen and the chicken has to wait her turn. While my family’s subtle inquiries with neighbors on any sleep disruptions have yielded reassuringly negative results, this may not be the case for all backyard chicken keepers. Then, after laying her egg, a chicken can accidentally step on it or, if she has developed a taste for eggshells (a real issue), she may peck at it. This obviously creates a slimy mess and prevents the chickens’ owners from eating the eggs.

While on the topic of chicken owners, I can say from experience that those who eat their chickens once they stop laying are, if they choose to tell the outside world, very prone to judgment and gasps of horror in reaction to this act. This is the main reason I cannot call our chickens pets, because it implies they are very nearly family members, much like a dog may be called a pet and an irreplaceable element of the family. Obviously, there is an issue when you refer to your chicken as a pet to somebody, and then a week later, mention that you ate it for dinner. I (attempt to) solve this problem of being viewed as a heartless person by describing my chickens as useful beings for which I am very thankful (just as I am very thankful for a refrigerator), but with whom I am not emotionally attached.

To examine the cons of backyard chickens from a more scientific perspective, there are various environmental concerns involved with raising them: failure to rotate the chickens’ run (the fenced area in which they are allowed to roam during the daytime) results in a buildup of manure and bacteria. During heavy rainfall, this waste can get washed into local bodies of water. Because of the manure’s high nitrogen and phosphorous content, this can lead to an overgrowth of algae in the body of water, leading to the suffocation of aquatic organisms and dead zones, in which aquatic organisms can no longer live. Furthermore, as chickens are kept confined to one area of the backyard, they will consume all of the grass and vegetation inside of their run; this destabilizes the soil and increases the risk for erosion. Another environmental concern involves inorganic waste – keeping a backyard flock creates trash, like empty feed bags, that ends up in incinerators or landfills. Finally, the grains that go into the chickens’ dry feed usually come from commercial farms, which, without going into too much detail, often employ monocropping, pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers to increase their yield and profit – at the environment’s expense.

Next, from an economic standpoint, chickens only lay eggs for approximately two years, but can live to be fifteen years old. Keeping them for the full extent of their lives means contributing resources, like time and money, without a tangible return.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “So, why go to the trouble of even having backyard chickens, if it’s so detrimental to the environment, your reputation, and your wallet?” Well, the majority of these issues can be easily prevented – don’t refer to your chickens as pets if you plan on eating them, rotate their run regularly, and don’t keep them past their laying years. Beyond neutralizing these potentially negative effects, however, there are very real benefits to keeping chickens.

Arguably, the most important substance chickens produce is not their eggs, but their manure: often referred to as “black gold,” chicken manure is the highly valuable, because it contains the highest concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium than any other manure. Luckily, a hen produces about two cubic feet – forty-five pounds – of it every year. This fecal waste, along with the chickens’ nitrogen-rich feathers, can be used to make a compost completely infused with nutrients over the course of six to nine months. Chicken manure can also be used as fuel for methane digesters, which create natural gas for stoves and heaters.

To produce this magical manure, chickens, of course, need to eat, and are beneficial when doing so – they snack on weeds, plant-destroying insects (like grubs, larvae, and beetles), and especially food waste; a single hen can consume up to seven pounds of the stuff, like apple cores, per month! This prevents a large amount of food waste from reaching landfills and incinerators.

Along with manure and their taste for destructive insects, chickens are great for gardens by helping to aerate topsoil – when looking for bugs, they scratch at the dirt with their feet, which actually turns leaf litter and other dead biomatter.

Next, the eggs and meat are an obvious benefit, because they provide a healthier alternative to standard grocery store fare. Backyard chickens’ diets consist of a wider variety of foods, which also contain more nutrients than do commercially-raised hens’ diets, and this translates to higher-quality eggs and meat from a backyard flock.

Just when you thought chickens couldn’t get any better, there are many opportunities for reuse involved in raising backyard chickens: old windows and boards can be used to build the coop, office papers can be shredded for their bedding, their eggshells can be crushed and fed to them as a calcium supplement, and the potassium-rich water left over from boiling eggs can be used to water plants.

Finally, chickens are a wonderful source of entertainment. Their quirky mannerisms, like jumping for flying bugs, their fat bodies somehow managing to look graceful, have left me laughing out loud. When I was younger, my brother and I used to hypnotize Espanola, our most docile chicken at the time, into lying motionless on her side for indefinite amounts of time, until one of us snapped above her head and she sprang up onto her feet, looking bewildered and discombobulated.

Though raising backyard chickens can feel at times like a curse, with their messiness and dramatic egg-laying, the blessings they provide to gardens, the environment, and their human caretakers tip the scale of pros and cons far in their favor, and I would wholeheartedly recommend keeping a flock to anyone.