'Everybody loves them': Why more suburbs are on board with backyard chickens

Many suburbanites get to see a chicken only after it's been cooked - and in most cases, just parts of the bird.

Rhyah Lohja sees chickens every day in her backyard.

Lohja and her family have a coop and run in the yard of their Barrington-area home, where they've raised hens for about three years. The brood of six hens includes Marie Curie, named because she is black and white like an X-ray.

  Marie is one of six hens Rhyah Lohja and her family keep in the backyard of their home near Barrington. Paul Valade/

The chickens are popular with the neighbors' children, who look at the backyard collection like a petting zoo. Two other families nearby have followed in Lohja's footsteps and are raising chickens of their own.

“Everybody loves them,” said Lohja, who raises the hens for their eggs. “They are like puppies.”

Suburban proponents of backyard hens laud their benefits, such as a source of healthy eggs and an affordable food option.

Opponents, however, worry about the possible impact on neighbors, from the noise and odors to concerns about attracting coyotes.

Once a novel concept, more and more suburbs are permitting residents to raise backyard chickens. Among the latest is Rolling Meadows, which enacted regulations in 2019 allowing them, after rejecting the idea in 2014 and 2018. Others include Bartlett, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glencoe, Grayslake, Highland Park, Schaumburg and Wheeling,

For Lohja, raising chickens is about knowing where your food comes from and teaching her children a sustainable way of living.

“Eating local is huge. It doesn't get much more local than this,” she said.

But when it comes to backyard chickens, locality is as important as local. Lohja's family moved from Palatine to their current home in part because they couldn't raise backyard chickens in the village.

Now, Palatine resident Julie Picchiotti has approached the village council about making the process more friendly for people like her who want to raise hens in the community. She may be close to realizing her wish.

Last month, council members directed the village staff to draft code language removing the town's prohibition on backyard hens and create a special use process and criteria. The proposal is expected back before the council for further discussion early next year.

Deputy Village Manager Hadley Skeffington-Vos, who grew up on a farm with chickens in Minburn, Iowa, outlined suggested criteria, including requiring a license, limiting the chickens to the rear yard, building a solid six-foot fence around the backyard and having setbacks from surrounding properties.

Village council member Kollin Kozlowski said he is concerned about public safety, especially the danger of coyotes attracted by chickens coming into contact with someone walking a dog or pushing a stroller.

“In the last week and a half, I've had two coyotes in my backyard,” he said, adding that the village is home to a large forest preserve, a marsh and a creek that are home to wildlife.

“So my concern is, even if (coops are) kept cleanest and the smell is down, you're talking about a predator that hunts by smell,” he said.

But Lohja, who raises her “girls” in a fully enclosed coop with quarter-inch hardware cloth, said she has never seen a coyote or fox in her yard.

“And I don't have a fenced-in yard. I live next to a forest preserve,” she said.

Rolling Meadows 7th Ward Alderman Lara Sanoica recently appeared before the Palatine council to share the city's experiences so far with backyard chickens.

“We were pretty scared as well,” she said. “We also envisioned pandemonium coming if we opened up chickens to the city of Rolling Meadows.”

But three years and 15 hen-raising licensees later, chickens have brought neighbors together, she said.

“Neighbors are more concerned for (owners') chickens than they are,” she said.

Ken Koelkebeck, a poultry specialist with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Extension, said there typically is no problem with smell from chicken coops, and coyotes, while a concern, rarely create problems.

“If you have a fence around (the coop), that might detract from that problem,” he said.

Advantages of keeping backyard hens range from the healthy eggs they produce to the creation of an education activity for children.

“If it's done right, it can be a rewarding experience for a family,” Koelkebeck said.

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