The Environmental Benefits of Backyard Chickens

Sure, they are fun pets and a good educational tool for your kids, as well as a great source of fresh eggs. But what do chickens have to do with the environment? There are a number of ways that having hens in your backyard can be environmentally beneficial.

PHOTO: Jennifer Murtoff with one of her pullets.
Jennifer Murtoff of Home to Roost, LLC with one of her pullets

Poultry Pest Patrol

Forget those nasty pesticides! Chickens are omnivores by nature and thoroughly enjoy chasing down plant-destroying insects like grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, and larvae. 

Betsey Miller and her colleagues at Oregon State University recently conducted a study with red ranger chickens to test the insect-finding power of poultry. They placed hundreds of insect pest decoys in leaf litter, placing some litter in the chicken pen and some outside. A day later, they examined both piles and recovered any remaining decoys. The results: all the decoys remained the control pile, but there were no decoys to be found in the chickens’ pile. The birds had gobbled them up! This study illustrates the chickens’ persistence in ridding an area of potential pests in a very short time.

Poultry pest patrols can be applied to flower and vegetable gardens. In addition, business enterprises are also reaping this benefit of keeping chickens: Earth First Farms, run by Tom and Denise Rosenfeld, is a local organic orchard that uses chickens as natural “insecticide.”

Biddie Biorecycling

Many eco-minded individuals tout a zero-waste trash stream as an important part of their green living plan: no materials leave the home as trash to be added to a landfill. Many people recycle waste, repurpose materials, and compost their vegetable matter. Chickens can be included in this schema as well, helping to reduce the amount of organic waste.

PHOTO: A mother hen teaches her chicks to forage.
A mother hen teaches her chicks to forage. By fir0002 | [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

An adult chicken eats around 9 pounds of food per month. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 75 percent of that is layer ration (which I recommend for a healthy, balanced diet). That means each bird can biorecycle more than 2 pounds per month in vegetable matter and table waste. A flock of four birds, if fed a diet of 75 percent layer ration and 25 percent food waste, can eat more than 100 pounds per year in waste. If you take layer ration out of the equation completely, four birds can power through more than 400 pounds of food waste in a year. (As an aside, only fruit and vegetable matter should be fed to the chickens on a regular basis; too much pasta, dairy, bread, etc., can lead to obesity and health problems.)

The idea of chickens as biorecyclers was so appealing to officials in the villages of Pince in northwest France and Mouscron in Belgium that they are offering chickens to residents. Says the mayor of Pince, “To begin with it was a joke, but then we realized it was a very good idea. It will also reinforce community links: just as people look after their neighbors’ cats and dogs while they’re away, they’ll also look after the chickens.”

Fowl Fertilizer

All the natural waste byproduct, better known as poop, comes out the back end of the bird to the tune of 1 cubic foot of manure every six months. While chicken manure can be messy, stinky, and just all-around not desirable, this “black gold,” as some call it, is very high in nitrogen. However, it contains ammonia, which makes it “hot” compost: it needs time to break down into a usable format. When mixed with organic “brown” material such as grass clippings and leaves, the waste eventually decomposes into nitrites (which are toxic to plants) and finally into nitrates (which can be used as fertilizer). This chemical process can take anywhere from six to nine months. The mature compost can be added to the surface of a flower bed or worked into the soil. So a flock of chickens can turn all that vegetable matter from your kitchen into highly effective, free fertilizer.

PHOTO: Chicken feet at work! These feet are made for scratching—and ridding your yard of insect pests.
Chicken feet at work! These feet are made for scratching—and ridding your yard of insect pests.

Hens and Humus

While chicken manure contributes to your compost bin, the birds can enrich your garden in other ways—with their feet. Chickens are ground birds, with strong, sturdy feet that are meant for digging and scratching in search of food. Turn your birds loose in the garden or on a raised bed and they will till the soil with their feet in search of grubs, worms, bugs, tender shoots, and other tasty tidbits. All this activity will turn leaf litter and dead biomatter into the soil while providing an easy aeration solution. If your soil is in need of a boost, put your chicken to work. When the birds have worked over a garden plot or raised bed, it will be tilled and ready to plant!

Environmental Egg-sistence

Envision an agribusiness egg farm with stack upon stack, row after row, of hens in cramped cages. You’ve no doubt questioned the system and its humanity and sustainability. Chicken houses produce tons of manure per year, and the hens who live in these barns may be force molted to keep up egg production by withdrawing food and water. These barns are considered concentrated animal-feeding operations, and the U.S. EPA cites them as being “a significant source of water pollution.” In addition, the air around these farms “can be odorous,” and the nitrogen can leak into bodies of water, causing algal bloom and destroying the natural habitat.

PHOTO: Eggs in straw.
The best benefit of backyard chickens—the eggs!

Backyard chickens provide a better alternative to the excessive environmental impact of factory farming. Compared to a factory farm, backyard hens produce a fraction of the manure in a much smaller footprint. You can handle their waste properly, returning it to the environment in an eco-conscious manner. If the coop is kept well, there will be little to no odor. In addition, the birds will also be happier and healthier. Their eggs, too, will contain better nutrition due to the birds’ ability to forage and eat a varied diet.

Chickens, like most critters, are at their happiest when doing what comes naturally to them—eating veggies and bugs, digging in the dirt, pooping, and living a happy, carefree existence on the open range. So consider adding these delightful birds to your garden as part of an eco-conscious living plan. You’ll be thanked with hours of entertainment and the best eggs you’ll ever eat!

Join us on World Environment Day, Saturday, June 4, 2016 and come learn more about keeping backyard chickens!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Chicken and the Veg

People who raise backyard chickens say there’s one potential pitfall — getting too attached. It’s too late for Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist Ayse Pogue. Cradling a black-and-white hen with a bright-red comb, she says, “I love my chickens.”

Breeders describe chickens as either single purpose — raised for their eggs, or dual purpose — raised for both eggs and meat. Pogue sees a third purpose for her hens. “I grow vegetables,” she says. “I think the chickens add another dimension of having fresh food from your yard.”

The clucking of hens blends into the sounds of summer in Pogue’s suburban backyard; which contains a patio, lawn, perennial garden, vegetable patch, and chicken enclosure. Pogue cleans the coop and run once a week and adds the used straw and wood chips to a compost pile in the corner of her yard. The mixture makes good winter mulch for her organic vegetable garden. Omnivores, the hens also eat up kitchen scraps, insects, and mice.

Chickens became part of Pogue’s life last year when, inspired by the growing backyard-chicken movement and a related lecture at the Garden, she decided to order three chicks. “I was just hearing about it, hearing about it everywhere,” she said. “I told my husband. He said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ I said, ‘Too late. It’s happening.’”

PHOTO: chicken coop
A ramp provides access to the elevated coop.

Three days-old chicks — now known as Henrietta, Misty, and Fistik — arrived at the post office last July in a small cardboard box with breathing holes. They sheltered in Pogue’s garage until September when they were big enough to go outside in the small compound hand-built by a colleague, Garden horticulturist Dale Whiting.

Whiting built the coop, ramp, and run for about $300 (spent mainly on hardware). He kept costs low by using wood scraps, slightly damaged lumber sold at deep discounts, and shingles leftover from a neighbor’s roofing project. The roughly five-by-five foot coop, and eight-by-seven-by-six foot run can shelter three to five cold-hardy hens through Chicago’s sweltering summers and bitter winters. A heated dispenser prevents the chicken’s water supply from freezing, and on the very coldest days, Pogue uses a small heating element to warm the coop.

PHOTO: eggs
A sampling of colorful eggs laid by Easter Egger hens
(Photo by Will Merydith)

Pogue was sure to select breeds that can tolerate freezing weather. Henrietta is an Easter Egger, a chicken named for its beautiful blue and green eggs. Misty and Fistik are Barred Rock chickens, which do need an occasional application of Vaseline to keep their prominent combs from freezing in the worst of winter. The three are in their peak laying year and provide Pogue’s family with one to two eggs a day. “Every time I pick up an egg I’m amazed at how perfect they are,” she says.

The many rewards of backyard chickens have inspired Pogue to expand her flock with three new chicks — Cody, another Easter Egger, and Pearl and Olive, hardy blue laced red Wyandottes. The days-old chicks are bright-eyed and fluffy, small enough to hold in one hand and cute enough to steal anyone’s heart.

PHOTO: chicks
New arrivals, Cody, Pearl, and Olive.

Before getting too involved, it’s wise to check with your local officials. Not all municipalities allow residents to raise chickens. Those that do often ban roosters and limit flock size.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and