CHICAGO — Hundreds of perfectly legal chicken coops are all over Chicago, and Jennifer Murtoff has probably visited most of them.
Murtoff is a chicken consultant — yes, chicken consultant — who helps people start their own backyard coops and provides advice to chicken owners to make sure they have the happiest, healthiest birds possible.
Murtoff, of Oak Park, makes frequent house calls across the city. Of the 900 people on her mailing list, she said about 400 have coops in Chicago. Most of those she said are in the Logan Square/Humboldt Park area.
Justin Breen explains the birds and the bees of the chicken world.
"It's kind of the crunchy, green granola crowd," Murtoff said.
Murtoff's clients also include Oscar Mayer Magnet School in Lincoln Park and the Cook County Jail in Little Village, and she teaches classes at Garfield Park Conservatory, including one this month.
"Most people find that, once they've got it down, it's not to difficult to raise chickens," Murtoff said.
Murtoff said most of her customers are families with two kids under the age of 15.
"The parents want their kids to learn where food comes from and teach their them responsibility," Murtoff said. "They want them to learn how to take care of another creature."
Murtoff has been fascinated by birds — especially chickens — since she was a child. Her grandfather had a farm in Pennsylvania, and her earliest memories include a hen laying an egg in her hand. In fourth grade, Murtoff raised four chicks to adulthood as part of a class project.
When she moved to the Chicago area in 2003, she was surprised so many people were interested in raising chickens. One of her first requests for help came from her accountant, who lived in Austin.
Murtoff, who hasn't kept her own chickens because she's lived in an apartment for most of her time here, said the birds make for wonderful pets.
"They have personalities if you raise them from chicks," Murtoff said. "They can bond to you, and they're fascinating to watch. They're amusing, they're whimsical, and they are good pets."
• Chickens don't fly very well, but they can clear a fence.
• Hens between the ages of 1 and 3 usually will lay one egg per day. Hens will lay eggs regardless of whether there's a rooster present.
• Chickens should be given water and food every day, and their coops should be cleaned at least once every other week.
• Cats are known to eat chicks, and dogs' barking upsets chickens and can affect egg laying. In Chicago, chickens can be killed by raccoons, weasels, coyotes and hawks, Murtoff said.
• Chickens should be OK during the winter if coops are protected from the wind. Straw should be put on the bottom of the coop, and some coops are warmed with a red-bulbed electric light. White-bulbed lights can create problems with egg-laying cycles.
Keeping chickens and other livestock animals is perfectly legal in Chicago. Chicken owners can sell and eat the eggs, but they can't kill the chickens themselves; instead they must take them to a certified butcher.
Some communities including Evanston don't allow roosters because of their crowing. In Chicago, there is no law that prohibits roosters; however the chicken keeping community discourages it, Murtoff said.
"Sometimes you get a hen that will crow, oddly enough," Murtoff said.
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