Editor’s note: This author doesn’t live in Cleveland Heights!
If you want to keep chickens in Cleveland Heights, you don’t need to go underground! Just hop on over to this helpful page on the Cleveland Heights website and follow the steps. Need help with the approval process? Ask on our forums or in our facebook group.
Also, just to be perfectly clear, we’re not encouraging anybody to do anything.
They say moments of clarity come when you least expect it. I had mine last weekend, as I hurried down West 65th here in Cleveland. Carrying a modified cat carrier filled with oak leaves, my daughter skipping beside me, I hurried to the small parking lot where I’d arranged to pick up yet another refugee chicken. If you’d told me a year ago I’d have a tiny flock of illegal chickens happily clucking in my garage, I’d have thought you were mad.
I’ve always wanted chickens. I read far too much and very early developed a chicken fantasy based solely on the works and life of Tasha Tudor. Toni Morrison’s writings didn’t help much either. I obsessively watched PBS’s “The Natural History of The Chicken,” bawling like a baby each time that farmer’s poor bantam silkie finally hatched a clutch of eggs, and then saved them from a chicken hawk. The final nail in my chicken loving coffin was when Alice Walker published a memoir of sorts titled “The Chicken Chronicles.” Walker’s description of just sitting quietly in the midst of her flock wiped away all traces of the city girl I am and created a yearning I could not explain for something I had never had. I wanted that level of peace, that level of custodianship. I wanted to sit and close my eyes and let the clucking of hens wipe away all traces of stress and worry, narrowing my vision down to keeping something so beautiful, so useful, so timeless, safe and content in my care.
Yeah, try using that line on your husband. He may have rolled his eyes behind my back while I painted urban chicken fantasies in the sky, but my darling was quick to assure me that if the city we lived in ever passed a law supporting urban hens, we’d have a coop up in no time. I make a pretty mean omelet but I think he saw an opportunity to improve perfection.
I really tried to support the urban hen movement in my town. But after countless rallies, meetings and watching city council members taking furious notes, only to write up proposals for outrageous fees and complicated ordinances, then shelve the issue in session, I saw the process get mired down. My town was not becoming chicken friendly any time soon. I consoled myself that the husband had promised me a small farm, with chickens and a donkey when the kids were grown and I decided I’d have to wait. I’m essentially a good girl at heart, and had no intention of breaking the law.
But a few things happened to change my mind. A friend of mine, letting her pet bunnies play in a pen in her front yard, was issued a $10 ticket from animal control. Because (and this was news to her) pet bunnies are illegal in my town. So are pet bobcats, most snakes and bears. “Seriously?” I thought. Soon after, I encountered a neighbor couple walking a raccoon at the park. They explained they had found it orphaned near a dead raccoon in the street and had taken it home and raised it, even going so far as to getting it immunized. Charlie the raccoon was such a doll; he climbed right up my legs and nestled in my hair, chattering away. When I asked if they were worried about the police seeing them with a raccoon at the park, they told me the police said there was no specific law on the books regarding wild raccoons.
I decided then and there that the law didn’t make good sense. And that I was not going to be bound by laws made by idiots to protect other idiots. (Again, try that line on your significant other. It’s fun.)
Shortly there after, visiting some friends up North with a farm, I was happened upon my first orphan chicken. Beatrix, a tiny bantam hen, survived a coyote attack that killed her entire flock. She had flown up and hid in a tree and survived. But the farmer didn’t want to deal with caring for one solitary bantam, who refused to join one of his other flocks, so I offered to take her home. The husband was alarmed, but recognized the irrational look in my eye as I declared this chicken was coming home with us.
So we brought her home. I put her in an oversized dog cage with a broom stick for a perch.
My husband said, “Now what?”
And I said, “I guess she’ll need a coop. And don’t you think she looks kinda lonely?”
Before you knew it, a friend of mine showed up with a bantam frizzle hen (the best present someone can give you), so Beatrix would have company. We named her Prunella.
The husband sighed mightily and began making plans for a coop that would fit in our garage, accommodate several chickens and be easy to keep clean. My garage is attached, heated and gets lots of natural sunlight, so while it made keeping a few hens in there easy, tidiness was essential due to its proximity to my kitchen. He built a modular structure, about 6ft square and 4ft tall out of 2×4′s and plastic hex netting, and then made me a little door with a latch to go in and out of. The modular structure makes it convenient if we ever add on, and I can flip the whole thing up to clean it.
I didn’t want to destroy my garage floor, so I asked friends for any cardboard they had. I wanted to keep things cheap, so I asked my neighbors for their fallen oak leaves to use for bedding. I filled 8 yard bags with dry fall leaves and had more than enough to get me through the winter. I know this is pretty non-traditional, but it’s free and smells great. And the hens love to burrow down into it and hide. Just recently, as it began to warm up, I ran out of oak leaves and switched to pine shavings for the summer. Its smells good and seems like a lighter alternative in these warmer months.
I just line the bottom of the pen with cardboard or brown paper lawn bags, cover with litter, toss in some grit and a dusting of calcium and I’m done. I used some giant branches from the yard and crisscrossed the inside to make random perches, and gave them a wooden crate for a nesting box. They ignore it completely, preferring to poo on it, and use a cozy corner for all egg laying. They get all the scraps they want because they are only a few steps from my kitchen, and like to listen to sports radio and NPR. I also learned really quick that, like children, hens benefit from a schedule and it’s best to keep them on it if you want your eggs every day.
A new friend at a local, urban feed store was so helpful in answering all my rookie questions and mentoring me as I began. It was through him that I found my way out of the garage, so to speak, and into the wider world of urban chickeneers and all the support and encouragement that goes along with it. He’s also the best possible definition of an enabler, encouraging my orphan chicken habit. He messaged me one day, saying, “Some old man walked in here off the street with a cute little Buff Brahma. Her flock drove her out and she’s been living in a dog cage for a while. Want her?”
Did I?! The next day saw me hurrying with an old cat carrier to pick up the poor hen. She must have been in a very wet environment, because she hobbled rather than walked and I noticed her feet were bound and twisted with dried mud and poo. The fact that she’s a “chicken with pants” (my layman term for a chicken with feathered feet) made it all the worse.
I called my husband.
“Honey, I got a new orphan chicken. I named her Cosimina, she’s softer than a chinchilla, but her feet are a hot mess. I need you to come home and hold her for me while I give her a pedicure.”
He sighed again, and later held her downy softness while I cut away her feather pants, untangled each little yellow toe and trimmed her overgrown nails. I finished her up with a quick foot bath and after a week of trying to remember how to walk and perch, she finally sorted it out and scampers around happily with her pretty little pedicure. She and her sisters lay once a day, and all was bliss.
Of course, anyone who owns chickens will tell you that anything can and will go wrong, despite all the care in the world. We lost Prunella recently to a mysterious affliction that mercifully did not affect the other ladies. When I found her in the morning, limp and lifeless, I wished other people could have seen how she had as much personality as my dogs and cats, and that, even in death, had an almost human expression on her little chicken face. I miss her still.
But life goes on. And my feed store mentor heard of our loss and messaged me again, this time saying, “This dude came into the store with a chicken in a purse and I immediately thought of your orphan chicken spa. Want her?”
Which brings me to my moment of clarity, hustling down West 65th to a urban farmers market in Cleveland. Another chicken no one wants, coming to live like a refugee in my garage chicken orphanage. Is it crazy to keep illegal chickens? Yes. But I’m OK with that. As crazy goes, it’s not the worst thing I could be doing. My hens give me more eggs and whimsy then I could ever ask for. My children and their friends delight in their silly ways and spend a surprising amount of time checking on them and petting them. Frequently, I catch my husband watching them and laughing. As a family, we’re building a play pen of sorts for the yard so they can have more freedom. So, it’s a good kinda crazy. And everyone wins: me, my family and the hens. I’m not hurting a soul.
When my neighbors, unaware of the operation I have going on next door, complain about people wanting to keep filthy, smelly chickens in the city, I just smile and suggest they read up on it more and educate themselves. When I see a man down the street, hauling a 50lb bag of chicken feed out of the trunk of his car, I smile and give a furtive wave. Sometimes, taking our nightly walk, my husband and I hear the unmistakable sound of hens settling in somewhere nearby for the night. So I know I’m not alone with my refugee chickens. One day the tide will turn, the law will change and my chickens will range freely. Until then, I sit in my garage sanctuary, listen to their favorite radio station and watch my worries fall away. They cluck about; safe and wanted. Orphans no more.