A cooped-up flock of law-breaking Philadelphians continued to grow in number and prosper during the pandemic. Thousands of chickens are being raised citywide, according to one estimate, despite a 2004 ordinance designed to eliminate the practice.
This particular urban farming trend is becoming more popular, as penned-up residents look to the unconventional pets as a diversion during the lockdown and by concerns among increasingly health-conscious consumers about the source and quality of their food.
Maureen Breen, president of Philadelphia Backyard Chickens, a Facebook group, said her membership has leaped 21% in the last 12 months to 2,700 enthusiasts. She estimates that those growing numbers translate to a climb to 12,000 chickens in the area from about 10,000 last year.
“Some people repurpose an old shed, and some people spend thousands on a coop,” said Breen, a Drexel University accounting professor. “If you watch the budget on extras, you can make home eggs as cost-effective as buying high-end eggs at the grocery store or farmers market.”
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, the advertised prices for a dozen, large, grade A white eggs hovered about $1 nationally on June 18. That average was the same for the Northeastern states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. A carton of large, organic eggs — closer to the kind of eggs backyard chickens provide — average $3.99 nationally and $4.03 in the Northeast.
Breen said it costs about $0.10 a day to feed a chicken a diet of only chicken feed — pellets made of corn and soy similar in appearance to dry cat food. At that cost, a dozen homegrown eggs would be valued at $1.20, Breen said. She added start-up costs, such as purchasing an enclosure and bedding, usually tacks on an additional $500. “That is if you want to keep your budget low,” Breen said. “But, I have fallen in love with my chickens, and I buy them treats.”
For the last decade in the rear of her Fox Chase home, Breen has raised a handful of chickens. She currently has five, each of which produces an average of one egg a day.
“I’m a gardener, and I like to grow my own food,” said Breen. “Raising chickens just seemed like the perfect complement. Now I can bring protein to the food I provide for myself.”
This jump in Philadelphia’s chicken population has occurred even though raising them is illegal for most residents. The 17-year-old ordinance, aimed at combating neighborhood complaints about noise and odor, limits chicken-raising to properties of at least three acres. And although most municipalities ban roosters, which crow loudly, Philly is one of the few that also prohibits female hens.
“Females don’t make a lot of noise,” said David Atkins, president of the Ohio-based American Poultry Association (APA). “But when you get a male crowing in the morning, it can really rile up the neighbors.”
Locally, Primex Garden Center in Glenside, Davis Feed in Perkasie, and Tractor Supply Co. in Logan Township, Gloucester County, bring in chicks in the spring. One chick costs roughly $3 to $5. Chicken breeds are specialized as layers, which provide eggs, or broilers, which provide meat, while a few breeds are dual-purpose. Broilers have been bred to grow quickly to provide tender meat when slaughtered at about two months of age. Almost all backyard chickens are layers and treated as pets.
Other purchasing options can be found online at Murray McMurray Hatchery or MyPetChicken.com. The chickens are overnight mailed, and the recipient is notified to come to pick them up when they arrive.
Breen has an exemption to raise her chickens because she researches the impact of the birds on the recycling of food waste. Chickens can consume food scraps, including meat, Breen said. Although the city has rarely enforced the chicken ban, Breen and others in her group continue to lobby for a change. So far, they’ve obtained 5,000 signatures on a petition to repeal or revise the law.
“Having the city respond to complaints about a neighbor’s hens doesn’t seem like the best use of its resources,” Breen said.
Before the pandemic, city officials had planned a review of regulations as part of an effort to support urban agriculture. That initiative was paused because of the health crisis last year before recently resuming.
“The City of Philadelphia recognizes the needs of the urban agriculture community,” said Maita Soukup, communications director for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “To better meet those needs, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is undertaking a city-wide planning process to develop Philadelphia’s first-ever urban agriculture strategic plan. This includes reviewing current livestock regulations.”
Soukup added that the resulting plan was now expected to be released later this year and will provide policy recommendations to better support local farmers and growers.
Though it seems few of this new breed of chicken-keepers are interested in the meat, the broader society has no such qualms. In the last year, chicken sandwiches have closed the gap on burgers when it comes to America’s most popular dining-out choice. Chains such as Shake Shack, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s, witnessing the success of Chic-fil-A’s signature sandwich, have responded recently with their own premium versions.
“People just have this taste for the chicken sandwich,” said Matt Fein, the culinary director at Federal Donuts, whose own sandwich has been a menu staple for eight years.
This increased demand for the nation’s favorite white meat and a shortage of workers at processing plants have combined to drive up the price.
“Prices are a killer right now,” Fein said. “They’re astronomical, the highest I’ve ever seen. The price of chicken breasts for our sandwiches is up over 30% from even six months ago.”
According to USDA data, national wholesale prices for a broiler chicken have climbed 48% to $1.07 a pound in the 12-months ending on June 18.
On average, chickens live about 10 years. While there are various breeds, the egg layers are by far the most popular among urban farmers. “I have four Black Stars and an Easter-Egger [the shells of its eggs are blue-green],” said Breen. “But there also are breeds better for producing broilers. The broilers grow very quickly, so quickly that the extra weight sometimes breaks their legs.”
No one is sure when the return to backyard chickens — a common urban practice until early in the 20th century — occurred. But Breen dates its origins to a decade or so ago when Weaver’s Way, a Mount Airy-based co-op, experienced a sharp rise in chicken supply sales.
“They noticed they were selling an awful lot of it,” Breen said, ”so they started the Facebook page. A couple of years ago, I got involved with it and we’ve since had a happy separation from Weaver’s”
Not surprisingly, during the pandemic, many in areas surrounding the city also adopted the hobby. The lockdown, for example, gave Scott Harrison and Jessica Raushel, scientists from Elkins Park, the time to pursue a pastime they’d been pondering for years.
Still confined to the house this spring, the Harrisons finally decided to raise chickens. Scott Harrison built a chicken coop in the rear of his one-third-acre lot and ordered three newly hatched chickens from mypetchicken.com. A spare bathroom served as a brooder until the birds were big enough to go outside.
“In summer, we’ve been getting about an egg per bird per day,” he said. “That’s more than we typically eat so we give them away pretty often.”
Harrison said that on the long walks he and his wife have taken this last year, they’ve noticed that several neighbors also are raising chickens.
“I can understand because we always wanted to do this, too,” Harrison said. “One of the reasons we moved here was because Cheltenham Township was one of the few places that explicitly allows chickens. It’s been great. They produce eggs and if you really wanted to, you could harvest them for meat, too.”
There are some chicken lovers whose interest is unrelated to either eggs or meat. They groom the birds to vie in dog show-like competitions.
The APA, a sort of American Kennel Club for fowl, has seen a significant bump in membership in the last 18 months, Atkins said.
“Our organization is for folks that are interested in breeding chickens and other birds for exhibition purposes,” said Atkins, who raises fowl in Lucasville, Ohio. “These people go to poultry shows on the weekends and have their birds judged by licensed judges.
“And raising chickens in the backyard is how a lot of our members got started. It’s just something that becomes a lifelong obsession.”