You don't need to be a farmer to have chickens. Keeping chickens for eggs in an urban setting is fun and educational for kids (and adults), provides companionship and access to fresh, nutritious eggs, and can even be useful for gardening. So what are you waiting for?
Why do people do it?
It is now well-established that chickens allowed to free range and supplement their diets with grasses and bugs produce tastier and nutritionally superior eggs. For instance, a Mother Earth News study in 2007 revealed that, compared to commercial eggs, pastured eggs contain 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene.
But besides the better quality eggs, there are other good reasons to keep chickens.
For instance, Jacob Komisar, a teacher in New Haven, CT, spent over a decade as a vegetarian. He and his wife started keeping chickens as a way to provide ethically-raised, nutrient-dense animal protein (eggs) for their family and to educate their son about the proverbial circle of life.
Jacob explains, "I just believe that we've become entirely too disconnected from our food as a society. There was a time when every family had a few chickens (for both eggs and meat). It's not a big investment, and when compared to similar quality eggs and meat it's actually not any more expensive."
Only two of Jacob's chickens are currently laying and they produce about 10-12 eggs per week. The flock consumes about one $12 bag of feed per month (which he buys in bulk — 6-month quantities at a time to save money), which brings the cost of the eggs to about $0.72 per dozen (that was not a typo — but it does take into consideration that 3/5 of the feed goes to the non-laying hens).
Is it practical?
The flock of five chickens that lives in the Komisar yard, the size of which Jacob describes as "typical for the very urban New Haven area in which we live," reside in a 12'x12' chain link dog run and sleep in a re-purposed cedar dog house (which he snagged for $10 on Craigslist) to which Jacob added nesting boxes and a roosting pole.
He has received nary a complaint from the neighbors: "The vegan-anarchists in an apartment on the other side think it's cool. There's an older lady who lives behind us who said that she grew up on a farm and liked seeing the chickens running around my yard."
As far as legal issues, in some cities like Long Beach, CA and Port Saint Lucie, FL the laws regarding chickens are a bit archaic, but in many cities across the country it is perfectly legal to keep chickens. But it doesn't hurt to check your municipal code before you start.
Where do I buy chickens? A coop? And food?
The internet is a wonderful resource for finding local chicken keeping supplies. These days, there are more and more specialized urban homesteading stores like the Biofuel Oasis in Oakland, CA and the Urban Farm Store in Portland, OR which provide supplies for chicken keeping and offer classes and can direct you where to buy chicks.
There are many breeds of chickens and it is worth it to get the breed that is right for you. For instance, some breeds are better scavengers and can thrive on a mostly scavenged diet, while others will fail to thrive without a full grain regimen. Some breeds lay more eggs than others, etc. It might take a little research, but don't just buy the cheapest chicken you can find on Craigslist. You're likely to have problems and to be disappointed.
It's all fun and eggs until...
Keeping a backyard flock is not always as bucolic and Rockwellian as it might seem. It can be treacherous at times. "My wife heard bizarre noises from the coop at 1AM and made me go out to see what was going on," Jacob relates. "I found myself face-to-face with what I can only imagine was a 350-pound raccoon. I figured I'd try to kill it, but I was inside our 12'x12' chain link dog run with it, and thought it would probably get really angry some time before I managed to dispatch it."
How did the Mad Max in Thunderdome cage fight end? “I ended up just picking up a stick and poking it a lot until it left so I could figure out how it got in. But after many incarnations, my chicken run is now more secure than Fort Knox.”
An excellent book on backyard chicken keeping is "City Chicks" by Patricia Foreman. "Chickens" magazine, produced by Hobby Farms, is another great resource for the chicken hobbyist. Jacob has found the Backyard Chickens website to have a lot of useful information.