Jess and Bob Brennan talked about getting chickens for years, but during the coronavirus pandemic they took the plunge, deciding to go DIY and build their own coop.

During a virtual book club meeting early in the pandemic, a member mentioned a chicken coop that costs $2,000.

“We thought that was absurd and crazy, and we thought it was hysterical,” Jess Brennan said. “And so, we logged on and looked and we were, like, we could build something cheaper than that.”

After some research, the Brennans went ahead and ordered some chicks online. Today they have nine chickens, which live in a coop in their yard.

“If I'm out there in the yard working all day, they will just follow us around all day and just talk with us and peck at us,” Bob Brennan said. “But they really are nice little gentle creatures.”

As for the level of care required, Jess Brennan said, “Once you have a good system set up for the birds, it’s not much more work than a cat.”

Montclair resident Gary Hill got his first chicken around 12 years ago, after his daughter’s class hatched chicks as part of a science project. 

Hill likes the eggs and enjoys watching the chickens.

Kristen Kemp's chickens in their coop. (LUCY ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Kristen Kemp's chickens in their coop.

“They’re little dinosaurs,” he said. “Their little heads, and their little feet, and their scaly legs. I have no doubt that this is where the dinosaurs went.”

Montclair Animal Control Officer Michele Shiber said that the town has historically been lax about enforcing its chicken ordinance, which requires yearly $5 licenses for Montclairians who own chickens. Shiber keeps a handwritten list of chicken coops in town, which she said comes in handy when a chicken flies the coop.

“I got a Rhode Island red running around town on Alexander Avenue, I'm like, hmm, where is that?” she said. “But if I have a list, I can look and go, ‘Oh, who's got chickens here, who’s on Alexander?’”

Lack of chicken coop registration enforcement could mean some chicken owners are not registered, Shiber said.

“Presently less than a dozen on record,” she said.

Shiber said she’s been working with the Humane Society of the United States to update Montclair’s chicken ordinance. Once the draft is ready, it will be submitted to the Township Council.

“When approved, we will be using the revised ordinance to educate the public and to create a system for chicken coop registrations," she said.

Chicken ownership isn’t all tasty eggs and cute “dinosaurs,” and Jess Brennan was quick to point out the risks involved.

Chicken do fall prey to other animals, she said: “Everybody thinks chickens are delicious. Dogs, hawks, raccoons, foxes. It’s sort of inevitable that at some point one of your beloved pet hens will meet a terrible demise.”

Though they’ve seen animals try to get into the coop, the Brennans haven’t lost any chickens yet, something they attribute to the sturdiness of their coop.

Hill has lost chickens to animal attacks over the years. The first time, he said, was the result of an animal getting into the coop. After Hill built a sturdier one, predators have not been able to get in. But Hill’s chickens have been subject to animal attacks while they were outside, by hawks, foxes and dogs.

Accessing veterinary care can also pose a challenge. Shiber said that it can be hard for chicken owners to find vets who specialize in chickens and that many people end up treating their chickens’ illnesses at home. In the Montclair Backyard Chickens Facebook group, where Shiber is an administrator, she’s seen people sharing advice on how to handle different ailments — and when to see a vet.

Jess Brennan said she and her husband have learned to be “DIY vets,” though they did seek professional care when their beloved chicken Poppy got an infection called bumblefoot.

“We had to provide Epsom salt foot baths, and then we had to get anti-inflammatories and antibiotics,” she said. 

“And we had to give her medicine three times a day, and like really nurse this five-dollar chicken’s foot — and the cost was, like, 250 bucks in medical care.”

Chicken owners can also run into issues with neighbors. Hill’s first chicken — a rooster — would crow at 1 or 2 a.m. An anonymous letter complaining about the noise persuaded him to give away the rooster and buy some female chicks instead, he said.

Kristen Kemp, another Montclairian with a small flock of backyard chickens, got complaints from neighbors as well, due to smell and noise. She said the family next door also worried about their young children catching diseases from the chickens, which Kemp said is unlikely to happen. Kemp said she’s worked things out with the neighbors, and now keeps the coop farther back in the yard.

Coops must be 50 feet from the neighbors' doors and windows and 10 feet from the property line, according to Montclair’s ordinance.

Though some towns prohibit roosters, Montclair allows them. But that could change soon. The new ordinance, Shiber said, would likely ban roosters. 

Among the proposed changes are an increase in yearly license fees and an updated policy on chicken runs — enclosed areas where
chickens get direct access to the ground. The current ordinance, which has been on the books since 1980, bans runs. Instead, chicken coops can have a “porch,” raised at least one foot off the ground with a floor made of hardware cloth. 

For Jess Brennan, runs are an important part of raising chickens. Without a run, she said she’d have to choose between keeping the chickens locked up or having them free-range, where they could be attacked by predators or cause problems for the community.

“If you're concerned about sanitation and animal welfare, then you really need to provide for runs,” she said.

Kemp said that although some of her chickens are friendly with humans and can be picked up and petted, the experience is different from owning a dog. 

“I think that you have to have a true love for animals, and animals that may not give you any love back,” she said. “You love them because you're taking care of something, and because you get eggs, and you love them because they're creatures that you can pet — maybe, maybe not.”