Urban Farming: Alternatives to Backyard Chickens

By s.e. smith, Networx

When most people hear poultry at home, they think of chickens, thanks to the current trend of urban cluckers. It turns out that there are a lot more options than that, and I talked to Mendocino County organic farmer Gowan Batist, about some of the varied poultry people can keep at home, including some birds that can be kept indoors, for urban gardeners with especially limited space. (For information on urban goat herding with minimal space and plumbing, Bay Area urban farmer, Kitty Sharkey, advises.)

Meet the coturnix quail, Gowanís personal favorite.

ďI would really love to see quail replace chickens as the urban poultry of choice,Ē she explains, pointing out that their overall needs are much lower than those of chickens, while they reliably produce delicious, high-quality eggs. Coturnix quail can be comfortably kept in a large terrarium or hamster cage inside or outdoors, and there are usually no municipal limitations on keeping them, which is not always the case with chickens.

These small birds mature quickly, eating a mixture of poultry scratch and egg-laying mixture. Like chickens, they can also eat food leftovers; they particularly fancy salad greens. Theyíre also easy to tractor, for people working with poultry in their gardens, and unlike chickens, they donít need a lot of vertical height to feel comfortable. In fact, they prefer low cages with some hiding spots, because theyíre ground-dwellers.

Coturnix quail eggs are available for people who want to hatch at home, and itís also possible to buy through a breeder. She does warn would-be quail keepers to watch out, because the birds are startle fliers, meaning that they will fly straight up when alarmed. It can help to keep them in a pen accessed through the side, and to be careful when moving them to reduce the risk of injuries; if the roof of a pen is high enough, coturnix quail can actually break their necks when they leap up out of fright.

The options donít stop with quail. Gowan also loves runner ducks, who have an upright skeletal structure that is rather endearing. These ďfunny little guys,Ē as Gowan calls them, donít scratch like chickens do, and are voracious eaters of slugs, snails, and bugs. She recommends letting them run loose between raised beds covered in wire to eliminate pests that might be hiding in grass and weeds.

A pond isnít necessary for keeping runner ducks, although they do need a reliable source of water. Because they enjoy playing in their water, Gowan recommends a fountain filled with rocks, which will limit muddiness and keep the water clear. Ducks are also easy to shelter because they donít require roosting space, and they will happily nest on the ground, producing rich, nutritious eggs that are ideal for baking. Like coturnix eggs, they have a high loft that results in truly fantastic pastries.

For those interested in keeping chickens, itís important to be aware that many commercial coops sold for urban gardening are not large enough to keep chickens humanely. She recommends three feet of roost space per bird, and 20 square feet to move around in comfort. Chickens like to scratch, dustbathe, and run, so itís important that they have enough room for natural behaviors to prevent aggression and stress. The birds will also need comfortably-sized nestboxes and regularly changed bedding. You’ll need to hire a local carpenter to build a custom coop for you, or DIY if you’re skilled at carpentry.

Chickens require a blend of scratch and a laying mix, and itís advisable to periodically add oyster shell or another calcium source to reinforce their eggs. As with other poultry, they produce a lot of manure which can be used to make compost tea for crops. Gardeners can also mix the manure and poultry bedding in with compost to help it break down quickly into a rich soil blend for the garden.

In urban environments, people may produce more compost than they need with poultry, in which case alternative disposal methods like an urban composting service could be considered. These services are available in some cities, and in other cases people may be able to network with a local urban farm or community garden to see if they need more composting materials.

Gowan recommends staying away from geese and guineafowl in urban environments because geese can be aggressive, and guineafowl are infamous for their obnoxiousness. In addition, theyíre very secretive egg layers, which can turn every egg collection into an unwanted treasure hunt. If you miss an egg, Gowan notes that youíll surely smell it later.

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Jo S.
Jo S1 years ago

Thank you.

Past Member 2 years ago

noted. In some areas this would require a change in zoning laws.

Tanya Selth
Tanya Selth4 years ago

thanks for the article. Im wondering how high quail go when they are scared? (Wondering if I could keep them in a backyard loose which has a high fence).

I used to keep a few chickens in my backyard who I allowed to roam free in it (only one ever flew over the fence once when I was away for a couple of days.. so it appears if they are happy they shouldnt wander far). I also had a duck (until a spider bit it).

Anyway.. the quails have my interest esp since now I only foster indoor cats for the rescue.

Alice D.
Alice C5 years ago

We now have 4 hens at our organic farm in New Jersey : )

Lydia D.
.5 years ago

Another possible pet.

Bryan S.
Bryan S5 years ago

Dale O., you seem quite defensive about eating meat. I'll agree that there are far less destructive and cruel ways to include meat in one's diet than eating meat 3 times a day sourced from factory farms.

The problem is that the huge majority of meat consumed does come from these horrible farms, and many people eat way too much of it. So the problems that people point out associated with meat are very real, regardless if a small % of people don't patronize factory farms.

Pepe Pops
Calliope Muse5 years ago

Dale dont put ideas in your head,cause you are gonna watch them on the Animal Planet :P
sweet potatoes..lol!

Joe R.
Joe R5 years ago

Hmmm ...

Susan A.
Susan A5 years ago

Interesting ideas...

Heidi R.
Past Member 5 years ago

This is interesting.