Homegrown Evolution blog on the ethics of raising chickens


On his blog, Erik Knutzen, co-author of the terrific self-sufficiency guidebook, The Urban Homestead, writes about the ethics of raising chickens in the backyard for eggs.

Eric pointed to "Why I Farm," a Mother Earth News essay by Bryan Welch, with this provocative quote:

I get a lot of laughs watching my animals figure out their lives and I get pretty sad when it’s time to kill them. I have a lot more death in my life than I did before. And, ironically, that’s part of the reason why I feel like I have a lot more life in my life. That’s why I farm."
Both Erik's blog post and Welch's essay are worth reading for anyone thinking about raising livestock at home. I'm almost finished with my backyard chicken coop, so this was especially interesting to me.
An Omnivore's Dilemma (Homegrown Evolution)


  1. If you own a house that has a yard, then why not put that small bit of land to work? Why not get a few chickens, grow your own vegetable garden, and make the land produce cost effective organic grown food for your family to enjoy? The costs involved are minimal but it’s a matter of being willing and able to put in a little labor and being patient.
    People in American cities and suburbs find the idea of owning chickens unique. It should be banal and ordinary because keeping chickens is easy. You feed them and give them fresh water and keep the coop clean. The rest is all bonus: fresh eggs, free rich compostable manure, and some pest control thanks to their appetites. My chickens even return to their coop of their own volition when the sun sets. It is their safe haven from racoons, hawks, and cats. Most municipalities have laws that permit the raising the fowl. They mostly set limits only on number allowed and distance between coop and human habitation. Even the city of San Francisco permits 4 chickens per household.

  2. My mother’s family raised chickens at their country place when she was growing up. She despised them and was glad when the time came for my grandmother to usher them off this mortal coil.

    Ironically, after swearing never to have anything to do with the nasty things, she and my father help some quasi-mennonite family friends on their farm, and pitch in when it comes time to harvest them.

  3. chikkies for eggses is always a good idea. What’s the current wisdom though, about backyard coops in time of bird flu (paranoia?)

  4. As it happens, we shot our first Feature Film in March this year (which is 2wks from completion), and the main location was a small isolated farm in Scotland which had some very ‘free ranging’ chickens! We took full advantage of course, and they do appear in the film :) For the curious, you can check the film out at http://www.thddtsd.c.k (it’s a low budget horror/thriller)

  5. Wow, we go from Fox News to chickens, of which I have several in the backyard right now.

    I was very suspicious at first, but my wife and kids were adamant. So I relented. I am glad I did. Chickens are very interesting creatures and I think the relationship they have with humans is special indeed.

    In order for us to know ourselves, we have to know how the earth knows us…

  6. Thanks for bringing attention to urban chickens!

    We’ve been raising a couple hens in our backyard in the Bay Area for over a year now, and I have to admit, it’s been a great experience both for me and for the kids for both our minds and our palates (the eggs are incredibly delicious!).

    So, my girls know where their eggs come from, and they can see the virtuous circle of garden vegetables to hens to poop to compost to garden to vegetables (etc).

    We’ve been tracking our experience over at http://urbanchickens.net and we’ve also captured resources to help folks understand how to make chickens legal in their own cities if they aren’t already.

  7. One of my coworkers raises chickens on his farm. (He has a long commute!)

    He noticed something interesting. The color of the shells of the eggs a chicken lays is the same as the color of its legs.

  8. Apologies- seriously tho, as a bunch of city-dwellers we were struck by how ‘at home’ the chickens were. As a long term vegetarian I kinda pictured all chickens as hapless over-bred creatures, but they were very agile and comfortable living semi-wild, even navigating steep woody banks. While I instinctively kinda oppose the use of animals for ‘any’ purposes, it’s genuinely prompted me to consider keeping chickens for eggs.. should I ever have the space, anyway ;)

  9. “Most municipalities have laws that permit the raising the fowl.”
    Actually, the opposite is much more accurate. Many cities forbid the raising of these types of animals within the city limits because of the health concerns that they raise. Of particular concern is the attraction of rodents that may harbor Bubonic plague or Hanta virus. One of the other concerns that has been cited is the possibility of human contact with animals -that may prey on fowl- that may be rabid or have been exposed to the Rabies virus.
    The other thing about chickens is the smell of their waste -not to mention the health-hazard that presents. I would rank them number two after pigs as to the odor. Years after my GrandDad stopped actively farming and had gotten rid of all his stock, the chicken coop that he had on his farm still had the most pungent of odors from the remains of the droppings. It was awful.

  10. I hate chickens. We had 50 or so at a time though and only attempted to butcher that many once. After that we just paid someone to do it. Oh and they don’t like it when you take their eggs either. Not one little bit.

  11. we have a couple of hens in the backyard that lay turquoise eggs! 3-4 a day and mostly they eat leftover veggies. me love omelets!

  12. Urban pests, they don’t belong in a city or suburb. I had a loony neighbor with a few. Damn things were in everyone’s yard.

    You can control a garden, not so good a chicken. Stinky too for close neighbors. It isn’t really fair to anyone in your vicinity unless you have a good bit of land.

    Incidentally, Western New England weather has played havoc with my garden this year. I encourage using the yard for organic veggies, but don’t buy the bit about a little bit of labor. You have to fence for raccoons skunks, and bunnies, prep beds, plant, weed, harvest, then prep the veggies. It’s all possible, but it really is a lot of work.

  13. I have kept chickens.
    what gave me the most satisfaction,’part from eggs an’ all, was the actual demeanor and day to day behavior of the cnuts* let no man tell ye otherwise chickens are frikkin weird.To gaze too long into the eye of a chicken is to invite downfall,for the temple of human,and indeed simian,knowledge and all that you hold true and good may be washed aside by a simple “Skrt! skrt!and that terrible gaze oooohh that eye ahhhhhhh……

  14. You can keep and enjoy chickens without killing them… you know how we don’t kill our other animal companions? Yeah, you can not-kill chickens too. You can still get eggs, get the manure, and the pest control, and your chickens keep their life. Win-win.

  15. I’ve seen Red Jungle Fowl and Green Jungle Fowl, the progenitors of the common chicken, in the Terai in Nepal. It’s quite weird to see them running around in the jungle and know that they didn’t escape from a farm; they evolved there.

    What’s with all the getoffmylawn? I lived next to a family that raised chickens for five years and never had a problem. Maybe the issue isn’t the chickens so much as the people raising them. Dogs and cats make a lot of noise and leave smelly shit around, too, if you don’t take proper care of them. Let’s not even get into children.

  16. only city chicken neighbour trouble I ever had was the odd early morning cock a doodle. Still haven’t heard an avian flu vector type weigh in yet though.

  17. if you “feel bad” about killing chickens, don’t kill them. Pretty easy.

    Otherwise, drop the pretense. Fake remorse isn’t worth much.

  18. what about killing them after they’ve had some quality of life and the killing is done humanely?

  19. Antinoius, Lets not beat around the bush, a Cockerel is a loud cnut,or to be correct a loud Cock ,but he is really frikkin loud ,Its in the nature of his game-and I would like to meet the city/urban dweller who would adapt to or /appreciate
    his very morning territorial marking.It would be like someone tagging you home,with a sonic weapon ,roughly hourly ,just when you were going to get your best kip ever…….

  20. Falcon Seven @12: “I would rank them number two after pigs as to the odor.”

    That’s odd. My grandmother kept chickens and they never smelled. Recently, I’ve been visiting people who have henhouses and the smell has never been bad. In fact, I kind of like the smell.

  21. if you never let the chickenshit pile up inches thick and soak the floorboards, it really isn’t that bad. Depends how many chickens.

  22. Has anyone priced “chicken feed” lately? It’s not the phrase it once was. I gave up my chicks when I went a little past break-even on cost. Fresh eggs are delightful and for me the work was minimal (at least once we all got past the idea that fresh chicken in the pot was a good thing–just too dang much work). The price of feed vs a dozen admittedly inferior store-bought eggs tipped the scales and I spent my money at the store instead of the farmer’s co-op. Every once in a while I rethink this position (briefly) until I reconnect with reality. Chickens are great creatures to spend a little time with and they really are useful. Ever raised turkeys??? You need a baby chick to teach the young turks how to find their food and water. Turkeys are really stupid. (But in fairness, also great to watch).

  23. One of the earmarks of ”country” is chickens. It’s how you feel about chickens, what role they play in your life. Example:

    Some weeks after her death, Elvis and his father are mourning Elvis’s mother. Elvis stands at a second-story window, looking out over Graceland’s spacious grounds. Tears form in his eyes as he turns to his father. His voice breaks as he says, ”Daddy, Mama ain’t ever gonna see them chickens no more!”

    The Presleys kept chickens on their front lawn.

  24. I adore chickens. My parents, suburbanites, have a beautiful flock of rescued/rehabilitated hens that I help look after some weekends. No smell (my mum digs the pen out regularly for compost for her gardens), plenty of eggs, very efficient kitchen-scrap-to-compost recycling system, and the company of pet chickens is surprisingly delightful. I’ve been sitting in that backyard reading a newspaper and keeping an eye on the chickens while they free-range, and looked up to find a chicken on each arm of my chair and one sitting at my feet. Not begging for food, just hanging out. They like people. I never thought of birds as affectionate til I started hanging with chickens.

    As soon as I have a living situation that allows for some plans of permanence, I absolutely intend to raise a flock of my own. Rather chickens than cats any day of the week.

  25. I hate the smell of chickens in the morning. Smells like chicken poop.

    And that stuff reeeeeks!

  26. The aforementioned book “The Urban Homestead” really got me started on a very productive burst of urban gardening. I’m using a strip of land that our landlady tilled, and a community garden. From them so far I’ve harvested about five pounds of lettuces and an equal amounts of radishes and turnips. Tomorrow my daughter and I will go to the community garden to harvest snow peas and purple beans. I know there’s at least one turnip lurking in the bed there.

    I think mulching really made the difference for me. Two bags of cedar mulch helped the vegetables in our plot grew wildly, and we had little to no trouble with bugs or weeds. During the brief dry weeks, our garden was still slightly moist even when the other un-mulch-covered plots were cracking and dry. I’m going to take advantage of a friend’s front yard garden to plant some more beans, radishes, and lettuces. It’s great! I’ve found a whole community of people in Milwaukee and the Milwaukee area who are really into this stuff. And as an roving evangelist (shareware and Linux were two of my past causes), I know I can take this one far as food prices rise and people become more interested in where their food comes from.

  27. @23 Takuan. Doing that would likely be better (in a variety of ways) than buying chicken meat from a supermarket, but I find it baffling that when people keep chickens the automatic assumption is that they must be for killing and eating. I’m just saying you can keep animals like chickens, enjoy them, materially benefit from keeping them, and not kill them for a type of food we might enjoy but do not actually need.

  28. Haaz @34: I’m really excited about the prospect of using mulch, too. (I can’t believe I said that.) It seems like a wonder substance. I went around today taking pictures of how people have replaced the grass in their front yards with mulched gardens. It looks so much better than a lawn!

    1. The lovely thing about mulches like bark is that they break down over time and enrich the soil. Fragrant ones like cedar can also be somewhat insect repellent while they still have a strong odor. Hopefully that wouldn’t apply to beetles or mantids.

    2. Mark,

      Why does your Flickr account always trigger the SafeSearch page? I’m staring at a page of garden photos with a banner at the top that says: If you’ve changed your mind about wanting to see this content, you can ESCAPE. TAKE ME TO THE KITTENS.

  29. all kinds of mulch too. Shredded,semi composted newspapers even. Raised beds, drip irrigation, mulch and good species choices and you’ll get results.

  30. Hens are OK. I would strongly caution you, before investing in a rooster, to determine if you are a Morning Person or not.
    From personal experience, it makes a big difference.

  31. maybe those who are planning serious gardening should do some heavy,long term water economy planning first. If dry times are coming, things like big, buried rainwater cisterns, grey-water recycling systems and buried plumbing ought to be considered before the first seed is planted. Roof to gutter catchments, channeled surface run-offs…
    Over-build to cover the most vulnerable point.

  32. cedar bark contains phenols which are toxic to many things. Which can be useful too… remember a whileback.. a new field drainage system installed by giant plow, buried tube and sock. We put western red cedar bark in the sumps to kill the ocherizing bacteria that shortens pipe lifespan by silting up…

  33. This week I dug in new beds of yellow day lilies and Siberian iris. I use shredded Tidewater Red Cypress mulch because it is resistant to rot. I was told that the bacteria that break down cellulose and eventually decompose the mulch are net users of nitrogen and will reduce that element in the soil.

    1. The breakdown of organic matter to compost uses lots of nitrogen. You have to fertilize your compost heap. If you fold uncomposted material like leaf litter into your soil, it will suck out the nutrients. A tragic new gardener’s mistake.

  34. there’s a snopesian tale circulating that disease like tetanus is being spread by Katrina muck bagged and labeled top soil – sold throughout North America by majors…. What soil purity laws exist for that “potting soil” you just purchased?

  35. Hmmm… My brother composts. I recall he said something about balancing carbon based material with nitrogen rich material.
    Our yard waste goes to a very efficient municipal composting facility. Every spring they truck in ‘finished’ compost for our gardens. This gives us the benefit of composting without the risk of harboring pests, etc.
    Recently every ash tree in town was recycled into compost due to the emerald ash borer beetle. I never thought I’d see a common species disappear right before my eyes during my lifetime. In their place we’re getting Dawn Redwoods, Zelkova, Linden, Maple, Ginkgo and other varieties.

  36. I’m not planting any more trees until I’ve at least fought the mulberries and Chinese elms to a standstill. I have power tools and still they seem to steal a march on me every few weeks.

  37. I can’t get the “killyourlawn” or “kill your lawn” tags to work on the load of front garden photos I just uploaded. I think. It’s 2:00 AM. I’ll address this tomorrow after the AM hike.


  38. #38

    Ross, you’re right about the rooster; but if you have hens only, and there’s a rooster within hearing distance, those girls are gone! Your neighbor with the rooster suddenly has a whole lot of chickens.

  39. quote from Knutzen:
    “I get pretty sad when it’s time to kill them. I have a lot more death in my life than I did before. And, ironically, that’s part of the reason why I feel like I have a lot more life in my life.”

    These chickens avoid some of the terror that billions of their kind suffer in the factory farms/killing units each year. But the attitude and actions of Knutzen are still ethically abhorrent. To intentionally kill and thereby greatly harm non-threatening beings with the capacity for continued rich life is wrong. There is no defense for it but much bias against animals and strong economic forces may make it seem like there is.

    Notice that Knutzen tries to distance himself from the wrongdoing by writing things like “when it’s time to kill them”. As if there was some such objective point in time that Knutzen simply adapts to. But what that really means is: “when Knutzen simply feels that it is economically and otherwise better for him and only him to inflict the great harm of death on onsuspecting wonderful creatures that over the years may have grown positive feeling and attachment to him.”

  40. After you mulch, don’t forget to inoculate it with helpful fungi to break it all down!

  41. Dont make my mistake, hens in the greenhouse for winter sounds smart, until they eat all of the plants. BTW chickens love leftovers and weeds but will eat your yard bare if you are not careful.

  42. @Yakta in #55:

    Nice ideology. You do realize it’s nothing more than that though, right?

    Do you expect nature to adhere to your ideology as well? Or are naturally evolved carnivores in there natural habitat eating the prey they evolved to eat just as “evil” as humans who eat prey?

    What about plants, are they beings too? How about bacteria, they’re mobile, are they beings? Slime molds?

    -abs finds meat of all sorts delicious and tasty and is quite willing to be considered cruel and inhumane for that, it doesn’t matter to him (though he does wish he could just sign off as “-abs” instead of having to make sentences up to append to his post)

  43. I live in a rural/suburban community that allows for small farm animals.

    My landlord has a small barn in the back of my house with an acre or so of property. He used to raise goats but now only has chickens and rabbits. These are the luckiest animals on the face of the earth as he feeds them well and there is no killing of any of them. He has a few exotic chickens from China that look absolutely ridiculous but have the best tasting eggs I have ever had. I resisted the eggs for a long time, saying that I required a few more steps than from chicken’s butt to my table (like crates, trucks, cartons, refrigeration, supermarket..etc) but finally I took the plunge and now I can’t stand the store bought eggs.

    The only problem we have is with the once a year chicks he lets hatch…the crows line the fence waiting for an opportunity to catch a chick. It is very upsetting but nature is often upsetting.

  44. Anyone thinking of raising chickens or that has chickens will get a kick out of ‘The Egg and I’ by Betty McDonald. She got married and went off to a remote part of western Washington to start a chicken ranch and wrote hilariously about the whole ordeal, circa 1945.

  45. @ #59 absimiliard,

    1. thanks!
    2. yes “nothing more” but only as in “nothing is more important”. Human rights is a case in point of such an all-important ideology. Animal rights is another.
    3. no
    4. no
    5. no
    6. no
    7. no

    note: you get only no no no no no since your objections are already picked apart early on in any mainstream animal ethics textbook. But don’t take my word for it, read one.

  46. there was a whole school of cuisine not so long ago that maintained the more the creature suffered, the better it tasted.

  47. @ #8 I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and enjoy it.

    Hubby and I are getting chickens next spring and we’re really excited! Just for eggs and pets, no meat for us, but really think it will be fun!

  48. Anyone thinking of raising chickens or that has chickens will get a kick out of ‘The Egg and I’ by Betty McDonald.

    Made into a great film with Claudette Colbert, which accidentally turned out to be the pilot for the Ma and Pa Kettle films.

  49. @ #12:

    As Joel Salatin rightly and succinctly states, “if you visit a farm and smell manure, you’re smelling mismanagement.” I have a tiny backyard flock of four laying hens, and you’d never know it by smell, even if you were standing right by their mobile pen and coop. Animal shit stinks when too much accumulates in any one place over too short a span of time, as in all CAFO’s. I’ve been around pigs and plenty of other animals kept where they’re free to roam, and there wasn’t a trace of smell.

    Wendel Barry also spake thusly: “Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.”

    Kept in healthy conditions, animals do not produce unpleasant odors any more than you do.

  50. We just slaughtered our first rooster last weekend and went through all of this first hand. The post about it is up at:


    We didn’t raise the rooster, but know the people that did and know the conditions it was raised in. Our personal opinion is that living a quality life, even if cut short, is better than no life at all, and that if you’re going to eat meat you have to directly face that you’re killing animals for food, and deal with that in your own way.

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