The urban chickens of Richmond are bringing communities together by laying eggs.
Tucked away in the backyards and gardens of Richmond live some unusual pets: chickens, to be exact. While you might not see them as you pass through the city’s streets, chickens in all sizes and colors have become a staple form of urban livestock since the city passed an ordinance in 2013 allowing Richmond residents to keep chickens on their property.
There are obvious reasons why owning chickens lends itself to the sustainability of a family or a community. They provide eggs, eat compost or other leftovers, and bring neighbors closer together. But what many chicken owners in the city have learned is that their fine-feathered friends claim a space in their hearts as delightful companions with bubbly personalities.
“They know your voice, the sounds of your car, and the sound when your door opens. If they’re underneath [the porch], they come out — like, ‘hey, what are you doing?’” said Hillary Keeton. Before and after work each day, Keeton takes care of Church Hill’s neighborhood hens, Monica and Rachel, whom she lovingly calls “the girls.”
The day Keeton moved to the neighborhood, as she was unloading her car, Monica and Rachel came toddling up to her quizzically, curious about their soon-to-be new best friend. While at first she was shocked, within a matter of weeks, she fell in love with her free-range backyard buddies.
“They’re part of the family,” said Keeton. “My bird-dog doesn’t even care, she’s just like, ‘These are my chicken sisters, and I will stick up for them.’”
Prior to Keeton moving in, Monica and Rachel were owned by a former neighbor, along with a third sister who passed in years prior after an attack by a street animal. They also bore different names — originally Monica was Criminal, and Rachel was Chicken Brown.
“I heard that the third chicken that passed in the incident in the coup was white, so Phoebe died,” said Keeton. “The girls were so upset, but they seem happier now.”
While the girls named for Friends characters roam the little block by Alamo BBQ, even more chickens live just down the way in a garden lot called The Compound, where Church Hill resident Stacey Moulds grows everything from potatoes and veggies to berries, herbs, and flowers. She and her husband Charlie, along with the help of neighbors, care for nine lovely chicken ladies, and enjoy having what Moulds calls “pets with benefits.”
“I took a bunch of sustainable agricultural classes, and Charlie was really preparing for the inevitable end,” said Moulds. “We used to joke that [in the apocalypse] we would have one door with a flashing Bud Light sign [at the compound], and whoever came in would be the people we would eat.”
In an effort to live sustainably, Moulds gardens enough to last almost the entire year without purchasing certain produce in stores, and keeps the chickens for their eggs. Her plan originally included raising bunnies, ducks, and more, but currently the chickens rule the garden.
Like many of Richmond’s chicken owners, Moulds starts and ends her day with her hens. She makes sure each day that the chickens have food and water, that they are out and about during the day in their run, and safety tucked into their coop at night.
“They’re hilarious, and they all have their own personalities,” said Moulds. “You can go over there thinking you’ll be there for five minutes and end up over there for an hour watching them do funny things.”
After about seven years of raising chickens — the oldest living one being Happy Feet, a beautiful black hen — Moulds has learned a lot about what chickens really want in life. While the Richmond chicken laws allow for the lives of chickens to be peaceful, positive, and free, there are some things the city just can’t offer.
Since Richmond’s chicken laws only allow residents to keep female chickens, there is no chance for the hens to become mothers, or for families to raise their own chickens from fertilized eggs. Male chickens are also known to be great protectors of the hens, so being able to keep them around would benefit families in a great number of ways.
As Moulds’ chickens became broody, or were ready to become mothers, they would start sitting on eggs and wouldn’t stop until they were physically moved.
“It breaks your heart because they’re raising these duds,” said Moulds.
At times with her chickens, especially Pepper and Mischief, she would find eggs at different spots in the yard. It became a scavenger hunt to find and safely use the eggs before they got too hot in the summer, or froze in the winter. However, once she started putting golf balls in the spots she wanted to find the real eggs, the chickens accepted the golf balls as real eggs and began laying there, no matter how often they needed to be moved for egg collection.
The chickens of Richmond may not be able to raise their own babies, but it’s clear that the children of chicken owners have benefited immensely from the experience of sharing a community with these birds.
Mariah Silinsh, who is a mother of two, recently moved to Richmond from New York City with the dream of raising chickens and having space to grow a sizable garden. Living in a rental in NYC couldn’t provide her family with the life they wanted, but after their move, chickens were a top priority.
Through raising her six chickens, none of which are yet old enough to lay eggs, she finds that her children have learned so much just from being around and helping take care of them.
“Karen, our friendliest one, if she’s loose in the yard and you go outside, she’ll run right up to you like a dog would,” said Silinsh. “And then seeing the kids bonding with them… it’s just really cool to give them these responsibilities. Caring for these animals — they’ll be the ones feeding them and collecting the eggs every day.”
Like many of the city’s chicken owners, Silinsh has a wish list of things she’d like for her chickens that aren’t available in this setting. While there is plenty of space for her chickens to roam in a run, there isn’t much space for them to truly roam free, and the limitations on the number of chickens they’re allowed to have leaves owners wanting more and more.
“I do wish I had more space so I could have more of them,” said Silinish. “They’re just really cool pets. They give back, and if you raise them from a young age, they’re really friendly.”
Many of the city’s limitations on the number and gender of chickens focus on ensuring that neighbors will not be disturbed and that both chickens and other pets alike will stay safe. These limitations have created a safe environment for the chickens, away from birds and animals that may wish them harm. And luckily, despite restrictions, Richmond’s chicken owners have sustained an environment where neighbors can enjoy the camaraderie and joint support of their neighborhood pets.
“Some of the neighborhood kids come over every day to see the chickens,” said Moulds. “[One of the neighbor girls], the first words I ever heard her say were, ‘Happy Feet, out!’ And the first few birthday parties she had always involved a field trip to see the chickens.”
The chickens of Richmond have taught the city’s residents a lot about what it means to live sustainably and in good kinship.
“It’s brought the community, and us as neighbors together,” said Keeton. “I don’t think it would have been kindled as quickly if we didn’t have them.”
Top Photo by Alicen Hackney