Hens In Lakewood: Ward One

Jan Dregalla's Hen Haven.

Ask long-time Lakewood resident Jan Dregalla why she wanted to be in the Hen Pilot Program and she’ll tell you: “It’s part of a sustainable lifestyle. My family raised chickens when I was growing up and I’d like to share what I know about returning to a balanced lifestyle and away from the need for a factory farm system.” That’s her practical answer for keeping backyard hens. All practicality aside, Jan will tell you she takes great pleasure in watching their charming antics around the coop yard, the way they run to her when called and the flock’s favorite game: chase the rolling blueberries.

A typical day for a hen keeper starts early. Hen schedules are tied year-round to the rising and setting sun, so that means getting up with the birds, literally. “Every morning, I feed the hens, pick their coop clean, add nitrogen rich droppings to the recycling bin, give them fun snacks in the afternoon and play with them,” Jan explains. “Then I ready them for the night, making sure the coop doors are closed tight against night predators by the beginning of dusk.”

And what is the reward for all this care and attention? As another Ward One hen pilot member, I can tell you myself. Eggs with yolks the color of marigolds that taste like nothing you can buy at the store. A small clutch of quiet feathered ladies that run around in happy circles when they see you coming with their feed bucket or a slice of watermelon. Compost for the healthiest garden you can imagine. Weeds and grass clippings, kitchen scraps and leftovers? Instead of putting them on the curb for the trucks, you can tip them into the run and watch the ladies devour them, a sensible closed ecosystem on a backyard level. My husband finds watching them so relaxing, he has dubbed them “the best aquarium ever.” For myself, I like to watch the hens take lazy dust baths in the afternoon, content to relax after a productive morning of egg-laying. Jan likes to watch her hens catch a wicked amount of mosquitoes and other pests at dusk. 

But all this doesn’t come cheap, nor it a hobby that should be entered into lightly. Initial start up prices for a coop, run, supplies and hens will set you back at least $500. Jan Dregalla designed and built her own coop with a combination of sweat-equity, family and carpenter friends, costing her $1600 in materials alone. “I live only a few blocks from the Metroparks. I knew I had to build a fort to protect my hens from predators. My coop might seem over-the-top to some, but whether you build or buy, make sure you ask yourself, “Will this keep land and air predators away from my hens?” Citing the unusually wet spring and difficult terrain, Jan says her coop build took her an unexpected three months, two months longer than anticipated. “So, I’d say multiply whatever you think by three,” she adds with a wry laugh.

Donna and Brian Keith, another Ward 1 pilot family, had previous experience keeping chickens out of state. “We built our own henhouse and run, our hens love it,” say the Keiths. They estimate their total build costs at $1000, they built the coop and run over a few days.

I was lucky enough to get a second-hand coop from a friend of mine who keeps hens in Cleveland Heights, where they’ve had a successful backyard hen program since 2013. But even with a coop already built, it still took my family about six weeks to prep the build site, place and modify the coop to our needs and build a predator-proof run. Weather was a factor for us as well. Winter hung on through April, followed by almost two solid months of rain. All told, even with a free coop, we spent nearly $300 in supplies. While keeping chickens isn’t exactly a luxury hobby, it is a significant investment in time and resources.

Over the five years backyard hens were debated in Lakewood, there were strong feelings on both sides. Those in favor cited eggs, the environment, and sustainability. Those with reservations worried about smell, noise, and nuisance in Lakewood’s densely packed neighborhoods. With the pilot now in its ninth month, how do the neighbors feel about the new backyard residents?

“All my neighbors love them,” says Jan. “They visit them and even bring their friends along.” As for myself, when I told my neighbors I had five hens in my backyard, they expressed astonishment at how quiet they are, one neighbor joked that the sparrows make a bigger ruckus than the hens do. As for issues of smell, I have had no complaints. A properly maintained coop and run not only assure an absence of odor, but also assure egg quality and the health of your flock. If good fences make good neighbors, good henkeeping makes happy neighbors.

The biggest advice Jan Dregalla, the Keiths and myself can offer anyone considering hens in the future is this: do your homework. Take the OSU Extension Class. Find a mentor with real life experience. Read everything you can find on the subject. The Lakewood Hen Families have created a wonderful resource on their Facebook page with timely, informative links to everything hens. In addition, the pilot families are hosting a free coop tour on September 20th from 1-4pm so people can see for themselves what hens in Lakewood looks like and answer any questions.

Hens are a joy to keep but a serious responsibility, like any pet. They need daily care, morning and night. But unlike any other traditional pet, urban chickens earn their keep.

Dana McSwain

Dana McSwain is a writer and henkeeper in Lakewood.

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Volume 11, Issue 17, Posted 4:01 PM, 08.18.2015