04/12/2011 02:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Urban Chicken-Keeping and Staying on the Neighbors' Good Side

I accepted a long time ago that I am likely a homeowners worst nightmare. I'm a backyard "farmer". I keep a functional, but not-at-all-very-beautiful vegetable garden behind my apartment. I compost my kitchen scraps in a covered bin next to my raised beds. I raise a small flock of egg laying hens in the garden and keep a few honeybee hives on my rooftop here in Brooklyn. I'm surprised I am not booed at when I walk down the street sometimes. Most times I just feel really lucky to live in a neighborhood where people have been largely supportive of my lifestyle or just keep to themselves.

It bears mentioning that pretty much every building on my block has the property owner living in it. The four-unit buildings usually house 3-4 families. Folks around here often have well maintained backyards and take pride in their homes. I live in a part of Brooklyn dominated by proud, hardworking Polish-Americans. I was glad that when I initially mentioned my desire to add livestock to my backyard gardening repertoire, it was met with acceptance. "Those look like beautiful chickens! We raised chickens back home in Poland", one of my neighbors stated as I flipped through hatchery catalogs, showing him breeds I was considering. Generally, the response was "Sure, let's see how it goes." Everyone approved of the coop and run design my landlord, Katrina and I built. Some of my neighbors brought over their children to play with the chicks after they arrived. When the chickens became full grown and started laying eggs, I would share some with them and they seemed pleased and even a little amused by it all.

Over time the novelty wore off, most of them seemed to lose interest as people tend to do but what's worse is that I began to feel tension rising between me and some of my closer neighbors. They seemed more reluctant to reply to me when I'd greet them on the street, they didn't come out into their backyard as often. It was winter so I could have just blamed it all on the cold weather but I still suspected some discontent from next-door neighbors... My suspicions were confirmed when Katrina mentioned to me that the property owner next-door came to her saying the same family that had come to let their child play with the chicks had some complaints about them now that they were full grown. They were complaints mostly regarding barnyard odor.

I had been prepared for this since day one, but I was simultaneously a little insulted, as I had made it a real point to make sure that the coop was well maintained and smell free so that everyone was happy. I took a fair bit of pride in my attentiveness to this potential issue. Both Katrina and I have windows closest to the coop and never smelled anything before. What I didn't take into account was the sensitivity of a pregnant nose. Our neighbors were expecting a baby and pregnant women often have notoriously delicate sniffers, so that may be what it all came down to. Truthfully, I would have thought complaints would have been about the hens cackling each morning when they lay an egg. Their loud celebrations began to get annoying, even to me. In either case, it was an easy decision to make to get a shiny new coop and run and move our hens to a part of the yard that would cause fewer disturbances, would be even easier to maintain and would look nice for our neighbors.

(Our new coop, away from the house so that it doesn't offend our city neighbors.)

We weren't asked to do this. We wanted to. It's important when you live so close to other people to do what you can to show that you respect their physical and emotional space. I have no plans to stop doing what I love, but as a neighbor it's my responsibility to find a compromise so that everyone is reasonably satisfied with the situation.

The moral of this story, for me, is that just because a neighbor seems to be alright with an idea at first, it doesn't mean that they won't change their mind. Most people don't have any experience living with backyard chickens so what might be fueling their acceptance at first is some sort of bucolic fantasy of living on a farm that all of us city-dwellers are guilty of having from time-to-time. Only until people experience firsthand the reality of living with chickens will they find that there are aspects about it that displease them. This is something that all aspiring backyard chicken owners will need to understand and be prepared for when they get started. No matter how cool your neighbors seem to be with backyard livestock at first, someone's opinion will shift and that's OK. Just be prepared. It will be up to you to find a way to make peace with the people in your community while still keeping your backyard farming dream alive.