Dear PoP – How Can I Legally Keep Chickens in my Backyard?

The famous 11th Street Chicken from July ’08

“Dear PoP,

My wife and I were hoping that either you or the commenters could steer us in the direction of this information. We hope to keep some backyard hens for some eggs. What regulatory hoops do we need to jump through to do so? The information out there on this topic is somewhat conflicting. We have tried contacting Tommy Wells’ office because they were the ones to introduce the reform bill last year, but we haven’t heard back yet.

I think our lot is big enough and we could probably get permission from our immediate neighbors, but if it is everyone in our square who needs to give us permission, that really makes things impossible. We’re on a big square with some apartment buildings, people we don’t know, etc.

Now, I don’t want this to get way off track into a discussion about the desirability of Wells’s proposed reform and of backyard poultry-keeping in general. I just want to figure out if we can do this and stay on the right side of the law as it is written right now.”

In June 2010 we we learned that Department of Health regulations did not permit keeping hens in your backyard. I feel like we would’ve heard if Council Member Wells’ reform bill would’ve changed these regulations. My guess is that his bill did not pass – does anyone know for sure?

62 Comment

  • I think the only regulation is that the coop has to be at least 15 meters from any human residence. This rules out most houses in DC.

    Our backyard would actually meet this requirement, but after thoroughly researching raising chickens we decided it would be way, way too much of a headache.

    • From what I recall, the Department of Health put out regulations that keep coops a certain distance (15 meters may be right) from dwellings, but then decided that DC has a statutory prohibition on keeping chickens so the regulations were considered moot. I suspect that they’re relying on the language from DC Code 8-1808 prohibiting birds other than “captive-bred species of common cage birds.”

      I think that the Tommy Wells legislation died in committee, but I could be wrong about that.

    • most areas in dc have free standing house with yards. so even if “most” couldn’t have them, 1000’s could.

      • +1. Not every house in DC is a row house with a postage stamp backyard. In fact, ours is a row house with a yard that might even meet that 15 meter reg.

        • From the post below, the reg is:

          902.8 No fowl shall be kept or permitted to run, fly, or stray within fifty feet (50 ft.) of any building used for human habitation, or onto property other than the enclosure designated in the application for permit; except where a permit has been approved by the Mayor and issued under §902.9.

          So it’s not just the coop, it’s the entire area the chickens would run in. I think it would take a pretty sizable backyard to make this work, and it would have to be a yard a) in the middle of the block and b) without any short-yard neighbors across the alley.

        • braggart

  • DCMR 24-902 states the following:
    902 FOWL

    902.1 No person shall harbor, keep, or caused to be kept any live fowl within the District in a manner that is contrary to the provisions of this section, without a permit from the Mayor.

    902.2 A permit to keep live fowl shall be issued only upon the approval of the Director of the Department of Human Services, upon compliance with all terms and conditions of this section.

    902.3 Permits shall be dated and shall expire at the end of one (1) year. Permits may be reissued annually after the first year under the same conditions of original approval.

    902.4 An application for the renewal of a permit shall be filed within thirty (30) days prior to the expiration of the existing permit. In cases where no violation of these regulations is recorded in the Department of Human Services during the preceding year, permits may be renewed for one (1) year by endorsement by the Director of Human Services.

    902.5 Applications for permits shall be furnished by the Director of the Department of Human Services, and shall include the following:

    (a) The name and address of the applicant;

    (b) The proposed location where the fowl will be kept;

    (c) An accurate description of the kind and number of fowl, or the progeny of the fowl; and

    (d) Any other information required.

    902.6 Each application shall be accompanied by a plat prepared by the District Surveyor that shows accurately the location of the enclosure for the fowl as the enclosure will be placed on the applicant’s property, and the respective distance of the enclosure to adjoining property lines.

    902.7 Approval by the Director of the Department of Human Services shall be based upon investigation and a report that the following conditions are met:

    (a) The proposed location is not within fifty feet (50 ft.) of any building used for human habitation;

    (b) The proposed location is not within two hundred and fifty feet (250 ft.) of any property line or, if this is not the case, the applicant has furnished to the Director with the written consents of all householders and owners of property located within one hundred feet (100 ft.) of the boundaries of the premises upon which fowl are to be kept, and within the same square; and

    (c) Adequate coops, pens, cotes, runways, and other enclosures will be provided, subject to approval by the Director upon issuance of the permit.

    902.8 No fowl shall be kept or permitted to run, fly, or stray within fifty feet (50 ft.) of any building used for human habitation, or onto property other than the enclosure designated in the application for permit; except where a permit has been approved by the Mayor and issued under §902.9.

    902.9 Notwithstanding the limitations set forth in this section, a permit may be issued to a public vocational school if the Mayor approves the issuance of a permit based on a finding that the keeping of fowl at the school will not affect adversely the health, comfort, and quiet of the neighborhood.

    902.10 All coops, pens, cotes, runways, and other enclosures shall be kept clean, dry, and sanitary at all times.

    902.11 All droppings shall be composted with twelve inches (12 in.) of earth cover, or stored in water-tight metal containers with tight-fitting covers.

    902.12 Coops, pens, cotes, runways, other enclosures, and the premises shall be free of rats, places where rats can harbor or obtain food, and conditions conducive to the breeding of flies.

    902.13 All buildings or structures on any premise where fowl are kept shall be protected against the ingress of rodents.

    902.14 Nothing in this section shall apply to properly licensed commercial fowl establishments keeping, killing, or selling fowl.

    SOURCE: Article 18, §§9-11 of the Police Regulations (May 1981).

    • Right, but you can’t overturn a statute by regulation. Supposedly the Department of Health has decided that fowl are statutorily banned, so the regulations don’t mean anything.

  • Not to get off track, but I think the hoops that you’d have to jump through exist due to a very long history of raising livestock in urban areas and the consequences for the community. Even if you could find a legal way to do this, chickens are relatively unsanitary and extremely loud. You might get legal approval somehow (sorry I can’t add much there), but there are extra-legal considerations that you ought to make. It’s very likely that you’ll have disgruntled neighbors, especially considering that you’ve conceded that you can’t get their approval.

    • Chickens are not extremely loud. A rooster can be extremely loud, but if you only have hens, no worries, just some light “clucking” and “bocking”

      • Chickens cluck very loudly in the morning. I know this. Decibel levels might be low, but at 4:00 am, you’re going to have some upset neighbors. My broader point is that if you’re considering raising chickens in the city, the legal aspect of it is probably secondary.

        • Translation-

          Mr. Poon: “You know, even if you CAN do something, that doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do it. In this case, you might want to consider your neighbors, who when they bought or rented their properties did not envision themselves living next to a chicken farm.”

          TaylorStreetMan: “A little ‘clucking’ and ‘bocking’ never hurt anyone. It’s part of the music of the city. Like the occasional gunshot.”

          Mr. Poon: “Not at 4 am it isn’t. All I’m saying is once your neighbors get an earful and a noseful of your chicken farm, don’t be surprised if you come home to find the smell of chicken soup wafting from next door.”

          • Are you reading the same post I am? All I said was that chickens are not “extremely” loud, as Mr Poon says.

      • Hens are still pretty loud, especially when you have a bunch of them together. They like to “encourage” each other – it’s very cute, but very noisy. It’s also not the kind of sound that you can just tune out, like traffic. You can do this, but expect unhappy neighbors.

        • Haha. I think urban city living is pretty well proof that people can tune out almost anything. I live on a busy street and would happily prefer a barnful of chickens to our usual street traffic. I would also vastly prefer neighbors with chickens to neighbors who play loud music outside after 1 am, or neighbors who mingle outside having conversations all night, or neighbors dealing drugs across the street. But people in the city tend not to expect chickens and be more discomfited by clucking than by these other sounds (which I find both louder and more disruptive). Having been around both in life, I have happily learned to sleep right through it all now.

          • Too funny: when I moved here from the wilds of gangland Chicago I had the hardest time sleeping at night due to the charming songs of crickets outside my window. Gunshots had been no problem, and the constant din of cars on my boulevard likewise, but it was DC’s natural soundtrack that bothered me.

            (I’m still awakened by birds chirping at first light, which is long before my alarm clock would usually be set. I don’t need urban chickens, but if we want to fight them I wouldn’t mind getting rid of the robins and sparrows first…)

  • You could consider moving to El Salvador or Mexico. Those countries allow it’s residents to keep chickens and other farm animals in their yards.

  • Sounds a whole lot easier to just go to your local farmers market if your objective is nothing more than fresh eggs.

  • Is this safer, easier or cheaper than buying eggs at the grocery store?

    Or is it some hippie/crunchy/earthy thing?

    I am trying to figure out the draw here…

    • Therein lies the rub. Don’t hippies put value in chickens that can run around and poo freely and whatnot? In order to keep chickens in the city, you’re basically mimicking Perdue’s farming practices, no? The whole thing seems unnecessary and a little bit wrong.

  • I have good friends with chickens in Columbia Heights. They make noise, but it’s completely swallowed up by the din of city. Nobody has ever complained.

    My wife and I spoke to Jim Graham about this issue and he said that, because he was an animal liberator (his words), he would oppose any move to legalize backyard chickens. He worried about what happens when the hens cease to be able to lay. “Would there be backyard abattoirs?” he asked.

    That’s not an insignificant question, and I got the feeling that, his animal liberation motivations aside, he had bigger things to worry about.

    I predict that there will be little or no action on this front – either statutorily or on the enforcement side, so build a coop but keep it on the down low, and don’t get a rooster!

    • Emmaleigh504

      My next door neighbors growing up had chickens, they never made any noise that I remember and our house did not have ac in all the rooms so the windows were open. Their chickens were really pretty.

  • Sometimes I’ve kept a chicken in my refrigerator, and never once has a neighbor complained about it clucking or bocking at 4 am.

    Sometimes I have kept a bock in my refridgerator, too.

  • I know the poster asked to keep this focused on the legal aspect of keeping chickens but I’m going to say my take anyway. The legal aspect is, to me, secondary as other posters have mentioned. Fresh, delicious eggs are readily available throughout the city, so that reasoning is suspect. My guess is that your neighbors are unlikely to appreciate living near live chickens. Choose a different hobby while you live in the city.

  • FWIW, I have friends with a normal rowhouse back yard, they have chickens, no neighbors know, no noise, no problems.

  • I totally support having the ability to raise chickens in DC!

    Why? I dont know, just sounds cool!

    You bring a chick home from Georgetown and instead of your beagle running up to her, you have a bunch of chickens running around her! Chicks and Chickens.

    And then on your second date, you can let her have her pick of which chicken she wants to eat!

  • The idea of comparative advantages has long ago decided that chickens are better raised in the country. We city dwellers can then exchange our fiat currency (or another good or service that we do efficiently) to the chicken farmer for eggs and meat. Why mess with this process? Also, I’d steal and kill your chickens if they were next to me.

  • There is a horse under the southeast southwest freeway along New Jersey Avenue.

    • We know about the horses. They have been there for years. They are used during the winter for carriage rides on the Hill and Halloween at Tunnicliffs. Chickens are no comparison.

  • chicken poop STINKS.

  • If you’ve never had chickens before I’d suggest finding some other way to scratch the urban farming itch. I grew up with chickens, they’re a pain in the ass — fenced chicken yards stink and the feed and feces attracts rats, and as others noted hens are not quiet. It’s better on a farm if they can run more freely, but coyotes get a lot of them and they have a knack for pooping on cars. Unless you have a crap ton of extra lumber and chicken wire around it’s also going to cost you more to build a coop and a yard than you’d spend on eggs even at DC farmers market prices.

    • This is pretty much what I determined after a couple hours of research. Add in all of the bizarre poultry diseases, and it sounds like a hobby that starts off well intentioned but ends up as a nightmare.

      It’s hard enough to grow tomatoes in the city, let alone livestock.

  • As someone who grew up on a farm, even if you had the enormous space requirements (relatively speaking in DC), then you still have the noise and smell, neither of which is insignificant.

    While not as loud as roosters, chicken “cluck” all day long starting in the wee hours of the morning.

    Their excrement is also pretty strong and the hot humid DC summers would make it worse.

    Chickens are also magnets for mites.

    I agree with someone above, if fresh farm eggs are your goal, there are certainly much easier, cheaper and more neighbor friendly ways to do it.

  • [email protected]; your comment was on point and funny! If people want to raise chickens and other farm animals, they should move to the suburbs or the country. I read an recent article on POP about a dog barking at 9:30 a.m. in Mount Pleasant awakening residents. Chickens will do the same and you will have some angry neighbors. One day, you might come home to find your chickens missing because someone made a nice fried or baked chicken dinner for their family and friends.

    • Why doesn’t this person just go an play Farmville on Facebook. He could have as many chickens as he or she wants. Geez!

  • You do not want chickens, take it from me i grew up rasing them.
    Stop thinking of what you want for a second and think instead about the work and the consequences of having chickens. Here is a run on sentence for you….There will be noise, there will be poop, it will stink, the rats will come, the hens will stop laying in a few years, or hens in close quaters get stressed and may not lay at all, there may be snakes coming too, there will be flys, there will be mites, dogs and cats will take interests in your chickens, new born chicks are next to impossible to corral, flocks of even 10-12 chickens require a vet visit and or meds at least 1 time per year, there will be no financial benefit, the learning benefit you obtain from having them could just as easily come from a visit to a proper farm and by reading a book, you live in DC you can obtain organic free range eggs at Whole Foods and several other stores. You do not want chickens.

  • i think the most interesting part of this thread is the number of posters (2-3?) that are saying they have or know people who have chickens in their back yards already. that is crazy. can we take some kind of urban chicken census?

  • Keeping hens (no roosters) is allowed in Takoma Park, MD. Wonder how that’s working out between the keepers and their neighbors?

  • Takoma Park isn’t an urban large city like DC.

  • Let me know how this turns out. I’m thinking about building a small smokehouse and raising some hogs in my back yard. Hopefully they’re less of a nuisance than chickens.

  • My landlords have hens in our backyard in Columbia Heights. They don’t stink nor can I hear them. Just sayin’.

  • and we thought dog parks were bad enough…..

  • When we moved to CH 11 years ago, our Salvadoran neighbors grew corn in their front yards. Time marches on…now they have trees and flowers, and the hipsters next door have rows of vegetables in their front yard. Go figure.

  • All of the above and just rats to the mix…mmmm city chiken and eggs.


  • “When we moved to CH 11 years ago, our Salvadoran neighbors grew corn in their front yards”

    My Salvadoran neighbors did the same thing, and when they cut the corn stalks down, a ton of rats came running out of their front yard garden.

  • Awesome comment thread. So this gist of it is only hipsters, Salvadorans, and other unwanted weirdo outsiders would want to garden or raise chickens. Nice.

  • Thanks, this has been fun.

  • Unfortunately, chickens are not allowed in DC, regardless of property size. There are two different relevant sections of code on this issue. One is the one about setback requirements and permits. But there’s also another part of code that explicitly forbids birds other than common cage birds. Last summer the department of health ruled that the latter section trumps all, and chickens are prohibited.

    FYI, hens are allowed in Montgomery County. Campaigns are underway to legalize them in Anne Arundel, Alexandria, and Prince George’s.

    There are people who keep chickens illegally all across the DC area. It all depends on your neighbors – as long as they don’t turn you in, you’re fine. Bribing them with fresh eggs may help your case. Many people report that their neighbors love having chickens around, especially ones with children.

    Clearing up some misconceptions:

    1) Hens are much quieter than dogs. Their decibel level is about the same as human conversation, and they only make noise during daylight hours. Certain breeds are quieter than others.

    2) Chickens are legal in plenty of other equally urban places, including Seattle, Madison, Brooklyn, Baltimore, Manhattan.

    3) Chickens are no more “unsanitary” than dogs and cats. If you treat them like pets, rather than livestock, they don’t smell or attract rodents (And they don’t carry rabies or toxoplasmosis!) Eggs from backyard chickens are far less likely to contain salmonella than those from the grocery store.

    Yes, chickens will stink if you put 40,000 of them in a factory and never clean it. Dogs and cats would also stink if you treated them that way. Luckily, that’s not how people treat their pets, and that’s not how pet hens are treated, either. There’s a difference between animals on a working farm and animals in a residential backyard.

    Folks who base their anti-chicken opinion on farm chickens should hold off judgement until they have seen a modern urban coop.

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