Our neighbors weigh in on raising hens in the suburbs
When Kate Dial moved with her husband Michael Carrico to Maplewood, raising chickens was high on her list. She had cared for chickens in Brooklyn and wanted to tend a flock in the suburbs. So she applied for a license from Maplewood’s health department and took the steps to comply with the town’s chicken ordinance.
Had Kate tried to bring hens into her back yard before 2013 she would have been denied. She has Reesa Salomon to thank for pushing to get the ordinance adopted that year.
When I asked Reesa, a speech language pathologist, why she fought for it, she cites a long-time interest in animals, having even served as president of the animal rights organization at SUNY Buffalo. But it was a visit to a friend’s house in Maine some years later that turned her on to raising chickens. “I just thought it was so cool to have fresh eggs. It seemed so manageable.… I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ Then we came back home and discovered that it was prohibited.”
A conversation with Kathy Leventhal, who was a member of the Maplewood Township Committee at the time, gave Reesa encouragement to take action in 2011. Educating herself on other towns in Essex County that allowed chickens, Reesa researched ordinances, spoke at committee meetings and answered the critics including several vocal residents who feared that chickens would attract rats and disease. After careful consideration, the committee adopted the ordinance in 2013. Reesa immediately applied for her license and has been keeping chickens ever since.
The ordinance for chickens in South Orange came about in a similar fashion, except that it was a 5th-grader, Phoebe Handelman, who led the charge in 2018. After observing chickens at Camp Johnsonburg in western New Jersey, she became interested in having some of her own. Knowing that they weren’t allowed in South Orange, her mother, Kathy, told her, “If you can figure out how to change the law, then we’ll get some chickens.”
Phoebe proceeded to write a persuasive essay. It made its way to South Orange village president Sheena Collum, who declared herself pro-chicken. Sheena coached Phoebe on how to bring her request to the South Orange trustees, which she did at their next meeting, wearing her chicken hat and accompanied by members of her Girl Scout troop. Phoebe successfully refuted residents who worried that goats and pigs would follow if chickens were given the green light. The trustees voted to run a two-year pilot program, and soon after Phoebe became the proud owner of three chickens.
In the years since the ordinances passed, chicken ownership has not taken off as the critics feared. Just five families in each town have applied for chicken licenses. And as far as the health officers know – John Festa in South Orange and Candice Davenport in Maplewood – residential life has been calm amongst those who have chicken neighbors. Periodic gifts of fresh eggs may help as well.
Meet Linda Beck:
South Orange, 5 chickens
Although Linda grew up on a farm in Virginia, she is new to chicken raising. She got her hens almost two years ago from a family in Maplewood who was moving away. Her tidy coop fits in the rear of her small back yard, which she views as an outdoor classroom. Linda happily welcomes her children’s friends to learn about her chickens (each one is named after an Avenger) in their cheery green coop.
While Linda’s career is in television, she has a natural affinity for scientific learning, inspired by a grandfather and great uncle who were scientists. Her home – indoor and out – is filled with “specimens” such as skulls and bones, plants, and a few animals that serve as opportunities for teaching moments for anyone visiting. She says, “I think that the more communication and conversation we can have right here in the back yard about things that are living here...and relate [that] to our lives, I think we’re all healthier for it, and we’re all happier for it.” It is not lost on her that for every moment her kids are exploring their world they are not in front of a screen.
Tending chickens has made Linda realize that the average person knows little about biology. She says, “I can’t tell you how often I get the question. ‘So what happens if one of these eggs turns into a chick?’ And I have to say, ‘Well, hang on a second. You know that there’s no rooster involved, right?’”
Maplewood, 5 chickens
When Kate decided to add chickens to her back yard, she drafted the coop on the computer and her husband,
Michael, built it, factoring in all sorts of elements to make the coop function well for humans and chickens alike, and even matching its design to their house. Since both Kate and Michael are tall, they made the coop to be high enough so they could easily clean it and the chickens could have sufficient room to run around. It’s also predator-proof with rubber horse mat on the ground, gravel underneath for drainage and hardware cloth at the bottom so nothing can dig under it.
They use the deep-litter method, which allows waste to break down on its own in the winter and provide warmth for the chickens. In the winter, the hens typically lay two eggs a day, increasing to four eggs a day in the summer when the days are longer. Kate notes that “when they lay, they [the eggs] have a coating on them that keeps them from rotting in the heat or freezing.” Known as the bloom, this thin layer of film on the outside of the egg seals off the tiny pores on an eggshell and prevents bacteria from entering it. That means eggs can keep on the counter for days.
Maplewood, 5 chickens
Reesa has kept chickens the longest of the group. Her husband, Roger, put his handyman skills to work, repurposing a children’s playhouse and adding a chicken run to it. As the gardener in the family, he appreciates the rich compost to which the chickens contribute. Reesa says, “It’s what we love so much – especially in the spring and the summer when our garden is growing – to be able to eat food that we either harvested from our garden or collected from our hens. We call it Salomon farm.” Another benefit, Reesa notes, is that the chickens happily eat pests and mosquitoes.
She adds, “They’re Zen-like. I love when the yard is nice to just sit outside and watch them hang out because they’re funny little things.” She makes sure, though, to shoo them back in their coop once she goes inside. Chickens aren’t allowed to roam freely without supervision and Reesa warns that her chickens have been harassed by an interested hawk.
South Orange, 3 chickens
Now in seventh grade, Phoebe has three chickens that she keeps in “The Omlet,” a charming coop that her mother ordered online. Phoebe says, “The eggs are a little plus, but there’s that chair over there and after school I just throw my bag next to it, sit and watch them just run around. They’re really very relaxing.”
Ordinances in both towns stipulate that no more than fifteen families can have chickens, with a maximum of five hens per family – no roosters allowed. And the hens are for egg gathering only. Check with your health department and town websites for all the details such as setback and square footage of the coop and more. It helps to be on good terms with your “contiguous neighbors” as you will need them to sign a consent form.
Linda says she takes about 15 minutes in the morning to muck the coop and give the chickens clean water and food and a little bit of attention. In the afternoon, she checks on the chickens again. She says, “I never once felt the burden of going out because there is something meditative about it.”
Aside from daily feeding, the other owners clean the coops a few times a week, composting the manure and bedding. Says Kate, “They’re the best pet because they give you eggs and they’re much less maintenance than a cat or a dog.”
To heat or not to heat
The Handelmans are the only family that heats their coop. Linda says, “With hardy breeds, they won’t grow the proper down. Also, the transition is too much of a contrast when they leave that heated coop and come out here to do their normal chicken business.”
All families except the Becks bought their chickens through the mail. Newly hatched chicks have their three-day supply of yolk still in their system to sustain them for their trip. Kate gave the Maplewood Post Office high marks. All owners keep an assortment of chicken breeds but emphasized the need to get hardy ones that can withstand the cold.
Different breeds lay different colors ranging from various shades of pink to brown and lovely hues of blue.
Interestingly, all four chicken owners interviewed were vegetarians before they got their flock. Not surprisingly, they name their chickens, and also own other animals, from cats and dogs to bunnies and hamsters.
Ellen Donker has been dreaming about raising chickens for years. Unfortunately, her husband has not. She is hoping to change his mind.