Is it legal and humane to keep chickens in the city?

July 2007

Dear Laura,
There is a community garden in my neighborhood that has chickens tucked away in a corner. Is that legal? Is it humane to keep chickens in the city?

Donald Stein,
Bronx, N.Y.


Good question and nice urban detective work! The first time I saw chickens in Boston, well, Cambridge really, I was so surprised! But, cosmopolitan chickens are out there in full force. When I got your question, I checked in with our funded group Just Food, that is the lead organization on The City Chicken Working Group, which works to support, enhance and promote NYC urban chicken projects. Now I am chock full of the why's, how's and where's of trend setting poultry husbandry.

Your first question, "Is it legal?" seems like a good place to start. Short answer: yes. And, as per my usual, I also have a longer answer. Female chickens or hens are considered pets by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and therefore are allowed in all districts of the city: residential, commercial and manufacturing. Roosters, geese, ducks, and turkeys are strictly prohibited.

There is no limit to how many hens can be kept or raised. However, it is worth noting that you are responsible for keeping your chickens and their living space clean. If there are foul smells, flies and/or vermin, the owner of the chickens can be reported for nuisance conditions. It is a good idea for urban poultry enthusiasts to stay on the good side of neighbors and keep the area clean and healthy for the hens.

This segues nicely into your second question: "Is it humane to keep chickens in the city?" Indeed it is! Of course, as with all animals, hens need proper care but can easily be completely happy in a city coop. In general chickens need space to move around. In a coop with a run they need about 2-4 feet per hen or 10 feet without a run. If the garden is fenced, they may be allowed to roam. Chickens are social animals and should never be kept in isolation - there should be at least three in every flock. Hens also like to scratch and dig, which helps them turn up tasty snacks like bugs and clean their feathers. They should have access to some dirt in their coop or garden to meet these needs. All chickens need somewhere to roost that is clean and wide enough to comfortably fit the whole flock. Layers also need nesting beds.

Just walking down the street, you might not be able to take stock of these things. But happy chickens are pretty easy to detect. They cluck, peck at the dirt (and not on each other) and they don't smell (too much). More than just interesting scenery, our fine feathered friends can really add value to urban communities. Roaming hens can keep the insect population in line and produce manure that can be composted to improve soil quality and plant health. Plus, they lay delicious eggs! Need I say more on that one? Additionally, chickens are one of the only farm animals that can live safely and happily in an urban environment. For those who can't easily leave the city, this taste of farm life, literal and figurative, is priceless.

So, both of your questions get a big resounding "Yes!" If you want to learn more, stop in at the garden. If there is one thing that we know about farmers, it's that they are always happy and proud to tell you about their operation. Or, if you want to learn about starting your own chicken project, check out the City Chicken Project. You won't be disappointed!

Send Ask Laura your question