VIDEO: Northbrook Family Raising Backyard Chickens
The family says the chickens make good pets and delicious eggs. They initially had problems with predators, but a new, very big, guard rabbit is keeping the birds company.
Police aren't always looking for fowl play in Northbrook, but it's happening in some backyards. You might not even realize it, but your next door neighbor could be taking part in the citationable offense of raising backyard chickens.
"We're supposed to be outlaws," said a Northbrook woman whose backyard coop houses anywhere from five to 10 chickens at a time.
The woman looks after the chickens with her husband as a hobby and for high quality eggs. She says roaming chickens also help fertilize the backyard, and the birds make great pets for the couple's children.
Since it is currently illegal to raise chickens in Northbrook on a lot less than two acres, the family asked that their identity remain anonymous throughout the reporting process.
"Responsible people should have responsible animals," the wife said. "The people who want to have chickens aren't crazy, we live in nice neighborhoods, we keep our yard clean, we keep our coop clean."
Last spring, village trustees debated and rejected a proposition to amend the ordinance and lift restrictions on raising backyard chickens. The anonymous couple was aware of the debate at Village Hall and its outcome, but kept their chickens anyway. The wife said her family did not participate in last year's debate.
According to David Schoon, assistant director of economic development in Northbrook, if the village is notified of backyard chickens, the violator will receive a warning, followed by a citation.
In the meantime, Schoon says the village is "not inspecting properties," looking for backyard chickens.
Perhaps that's because backyard chickens can be pretty hard to spot.
"They're not loud," the wife said.
The family informed neighbors of the chickens, though it seems they could get away with keeping it a secret.
"If no one told me, I would never know," the family's next door neighbor said, who also requested to remain anonymous.
The family's chicken coop is pressed against a fence separating two lots and the neighbor is almost as close to the chickens as the family, but still says the chickens could go unnoticed.
Free Eggs, Manure
The family has a few children who play with the chickens and treat them as pets.
"They're super docile, not a lot of negatives," the wife said. "They walk in [the house] and sit on your head and you can pet them. They're like cats."
When the children pet or hold the chickens, the birds don't screech or peck. They behave like loyal pets.
"They all have names and personalities," the wife said. "My kids don't watch TV, they just watch the chickens."
The family buys the chickens from farms across the state, picking different breeds that produce different color eggs.
"It's almost like collecting," the wife said.
They are sold as chicks in small, nondescript boxes. It takes a few months before they start producing eggs, but the wife says some breeds produce about an egg per day.
"My pet makes me breakfast, what does yours do?" she said.
As a chick, it's very difficult to distinguish gender. So the first few months of owning a bird can be a waiting game until it becomes clear whether it's a hen or rooster. The family prefers to keep hens because they're quieter. Once it's clear there's a rooster in the coop, the family gives it to a farm. The wife said she has not slaughtered any of the chickens for meat.
Raising chickens presents various advantages compared to other pets — they're quiet, small and their manure aids lawn growth compared to dog waste that can harm grass. They also don't need as much food.
"They're good foragers and it's nice that they don't have to worry about food for half the day," she said.
Beware of Coyotes, Jack Frost
Having the chickens presents certain challenges as well, including the attention of nearby predators and coping with harsh weather.
The wife did not add any heat source in the coop, she says her chickens belong to hardier breeds that grow more plumage when it's cold. Instead, she brought in a rabbit — a Flemish Giant named Cheddar.
Everyone seems to get along.
"I thought he could be the guard dog of the coop," the wife said. "I don't think he can fight off a raccoon but he's always happy."
"They're not scared of each other," she added.
When the family built the coop and bought their first seven chickens, an animal forced its way into the coop one night and stole two birds without leaving a trace. The following night, an animal got back into the coop and attacked all but two birds. In the morning, the wife found chicken remains spread across the lawn.
She says the accident happened because a crevice between the coop's wall and roof was not properly secured and a clever animal, possibly a raccoon, could fit its body through the opening. But she doesn't think this problem is unique to chickens.
"People worry about rats and coyotes, but little dogs, cats and backyard bunny hutches attract those predators too," the wife said.
Whether Cheddar introduces a new set of challenges is still unclear, but for now the backyard bunny has been living outside with the chickens peacefully and the family hasn't had any predator troubles since that first animal attack.