Chickens vs. Neighbors
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Tove Danovich
On the popular television show Judge Judy, TV’s favorite judge has presided over more than ten cases involving chicken disputes just in the last decade. More than a couple of the “cases” involve a neighbor’s dog massacring a flock of chickens while in others it’s the chickens who are on trial for being too loud or wandering into a neighbor’s yard and ruining the garden. For people who don’t keep chickens close to unappreciative neighbors, these cases might seem silly. Yet any urban or suburban flock owner knows that bad neighbors can make the otherwise calming hobby of chicken keeping full of anxiety.
Though I personally have half an acre for my 10 chickens to roam on, my house is on a flag lot in the suburbs beset by neighbors on all sides. Good fencing has done a lot to keep the peace between our flock of chickens and the dogs, cats, and kids next door, but we’ve still had our share of chicken scares. Once I caught the neighbor kids (who are young but still old enough to know better) throwing old crab apples at the chickens. I tried to explain nicely to them that it wasn’t good to throw things at living animals and, what’s more, a misplaced apple could easily kill or seriously injure the fragile birds. A few days later I noticed them doing it again and gave them a sterner warning but it wasn’t until their dad caught them in the act and gave them a stern reprimand that the trouble ended for good.
Unfortunately, most bad neighbors don’t have parents to set them straight and often city officials and police can do little to get between neighbors having disputes.
For Jessica Mello, who runs the Instagram @TheMelloYellows, the trouble started soon after her family moved into a new house in Maine, bringing her small flock of chickens with her. “Upon arrival [the neighbors] weren’t really happy about us being here,” she says. Within a few weeks, she started coming home to find the coop door open. A mom and her two daughters seemed to be the main culprits. “I started hearing from the neighbors that the older woman was on the quad chasing our chickens.” Mello once spotted the two girls, who often played with her son, going into the coop, taking out all of the eggs, and smashing them on the ground one after another. “Then they tried to blame my son but my husband had been watching the whole thing out of the window.” That was the end of the playdates. “The mother denies everything. We put up cameras and nothing has happened since,” Mello says. Her family is planning to put up fences in spring to keep her flock safe. But if that isn’t enough, she isn’t really sure where she can turn. She could call the police but isn’t sure they would do anything and worries it might make the problem worse or that they’d laugh at her if she didn’t catch it on camera. “I’d assume if there was a dog issue you could call animal control but you can’t call the police on a 10-year-old,” she says.
Whether your chickens are pets or a food source, no one wants to feel like their flock is unsafe. Many people try to head off potential conflict with neighbors by informing them if they’re thinking about getting chickens ahead of time or through regular gifts of free fresh eggs. As much as having bad neighbors is stressful, it’s a blessing to have good ones. Good chicken neighbors might possibly be called upon to take care of chickens when you’re out of town or put the flock away at night in an emergency. They may even feed them scraps or treats over the fence. It’s a delight to see the people around you get joy from the birds that bring us so much comfort.
When Patrick Taylor’s neighbor accidentally left her back gate open and her two dogs got out, it could have been a recipe for disaster. Taylor is a veteran who lives in Tennessee with 14 hens who he relies on as therapy animals for his PTSD. “They’re part of my rehab,” Taylor says. “They wanted to give me a service dog but I didn’t have that kind of time; I said ‘I’ll get service chickens!’”
Luckily his hens were in such a secure run that though the dogs were running around the coop, they couldn’t get inside. “Had they been free-ranging, I would have had multiple losses.” Taylor called the owner who was extremely apologetic and asked if he would be able to lead her dogs back into the yard — closing the gate firmly this time. He did so and when his neighbor got home that night, she came over with two gallons of ice cream and another round of apologies. “Having good relationships with neighbors goes a long way to keep peace and ensure full cooperation when needed — in both directions,” Taylor says.
He notes that he often sees people urging others to shoot wayward dogs harming their flocks as a first resort. “If you shoot the dog you are going to create World War III with your neighbor,” he says. It’s usually the best choice to call animal control or the local game warden who will remove the dogs or cite people for having “dogs at large.” “It’s a whole lot better to have that come from a legal authority than walking over with a bad attitude.”
And it’s worth noting that the majority of serious issues with chickens happen when the birds free-range. “Before anybody has chickens, they need to understand that they are responsible to protect them,” Taylor says. The birds might enjoy free-ranging but the practice always comes with risk whether from dogs, predators, and people on the ground or hawks in the sky.
If you’re having a dispute with a neighbor about your birds and feel comfortable doing so, the first step is usually to have a conversation either face to face or in writing. Unless the chickens are harmed (in which case a property or animal welfare crime might have been committed) there’s often little city officials can do to mediate disputes. In many cases, the best solution is to build a good fence, a solid coop, and know that even if your grumpy neighbors don’t love morning egg songs, at least your birds are safe.
Originally published in the August/September 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.