Living in the city many years ago we stopped by our local feed and seed to buy suet when our daughter spotted a cage filled with baby chicks. They were Rhode Island Reds and so adorable we took home three. While hubby set about building a proper coop, the chicks lived in a shoebox in our daughter’s bedroom. She promptly named them Bedelia, Ruby, and Henrietta.
These were unsexed chicks—meaning their sex was as yet undetermined—and before long we were obliged to rename the first two Benjamin and Ruben, as would be our luck, two of the three proved to be roosters. When the weather warmed the three spent the day in our fenced backyard, but when Ruben began assassinating our ankles each time we stepped outside, he quickly found a new home. Meanwhile, Benjamin enjoyed favorite bird status, spending the evenings on our daughter’s lap, watching television and eating popcorn. Henrietta blessed us each morning with a lovely brown egg laid in a cardboard box.
Life was idyllic for our feathered couple until the neighborhood boys took exception to Benjamin’s enthusiastic crowing during their ballgames in the street. One day while we were away they turned their golden retriever loose in the backyard.
We found Benjamin’s body by following a trail of bloody feathers; it took us hours to locate Henrietta, hiding under a gardenia. The next day we gave her to a friend living in Gloucester who kept a flock of chickens, and where Henrietta soon became one of her favorite broody hens. That ended our experiment keeping chickens, but for many others the adventure is just beginning.
Once relegated to farms and rural backyards, chickens have gone mainstream. A recent walk through our local building supply store turned up no less than three publications catering to chicken enthusiasts and, as the chicken movement spreads, folks are embracing them for pets, eggs, or dinner.
From the burbs to large cities, chickens are being raised by folks who never dreamed they would ever own a chicken! Cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago have all voted to allow residents to raise backyard poultry. “It’s a serious issue - it’s no yolk,” said Mayor Dave Cieslewicz of Madison, Wisconsin, when his city reversed its long standing poultry ban.
Real estate ads in LA make a point of mentioning those properties that are chicken-friendly. In Boston and Philadelphia, chickens are thriving in ever increasing populations despite attempts by officials to ban them. A check with your local officials will determine whether chickens are permitted in your neighborhood.
Regardless of the size of your holdings, chickens can be a rewarding addition to your household, and whether you desire owning a couple of pet banties or a large flock to keep you in eggs and meat, the better informed you are the less likely you will run afoul as we did.
Chickens come in two sizes: large and bantam. Today there are over 100 varieties—some well known and others so rare they are only raised for exhibition and rarely venture outdoors. Some are prodigious egg layers; others plump meat producers, or a combination of the two. So first and foremost, decide on your goal—eggs, meat, or both.
In our region the most popular breeds are Rhode Island Reds, excellent dual purpose birds that produce numerous large brown eggs; the friendly Orpington, meat birds that are also excellent egg layers that easily go broody—meaning they won’t hesitate to sit on a clutch of eggs; the Wyandotte, well known for its fanciful feathers and impressive laying abilities; the Leghorn, a dependable layer in both large and bantam size; the increasingly popular Araucana who lays gorgeous pastel eggs; and the Nankin, a popular bantam known for its exceptional brooding ability.
Chances are you’ll start your flock with store-bought chicks or some adults given to you by friends or neighbors. You may have also ordered a box of chicks by mail. Chicks can come pre-sexed—meaning you know exactly what you are getting, or they can be pullets (females). The question then arises—do I need a rooster?
Unless you want fertile eggs you really don’t. A rooster has nothing whatever to do with whether the hens lay eggs or not. There have been no scientific studies to prove whether hens are happy to have a cockerel around, but suffice it to say a rooster will do what a rooster does best, and he will fight to the death to defend his flock. Roosters are always on the lookout for predators and will sound the alarm whenever they see a perceived threat—real or imagined.
For some folks, hearing a cock crow in the morning starts their day. In some places it’s illegal to have roosters precisely because they are so noisy, for the fact is a rooster crows whenever the mood strikes. A query to a popular poultry newsletter once asked if there wasn’t some way to keep a cock from crowing. The tongue-in-cheek reply: yes, there was such an operation, but unfortunately it also prevents them from breathing! The long and short of it is if you want fertile eggs, a rooster is a necessity; otherwise, the choice is yours.
Pullets will generally start laying eggs when they are six months old. Those that hatch early in the spring will lay by late summer. Those that hatch in the fall often wait until after cold weather to begin laying. Hens stop laying during the autumn moult and during very cold weather. You can burn a few lights in your coop at night or during the darkest winter days to help stimulate egg production.
Eggs should be collected daily. If nesting boxes are kept clean, the eggs should be relatively clean as well. Unless absolutely necessary, avoid washing them. A freshly laid egg’s shell has a natural retardant that protects it from bacteria. Washing removes that protective barrier and, unless you plan to use the egg immediately, don’t wash it. Discard any cracked eggs.
If you are planning to raise chickens for meat, the first rule of thumb: don’t give them names! When the time comes to wield the ax, you won’t feel like you’ve just murdered the family pet. Keep in mind that sooner or later you will have to dispatch your chickens or forego the meat.
If your intent is to save money over store-bought chicken, chances are you will be disappointed. Chicken feed isn’t cheap and by the time you factor in feed costs and your time and labor, you can’t compete with the efficiency of commercial suppliers. If your goal is knowing where your meat comes from, forget about costs and be content knowing your food source is your own.
Shelter from predators and the weather are absolute necessities. Ours lived in a wooden and wire coop in the garage I lined daily with fresh newspaper to ensure easy cleanup. That works fine if you are raising just a handful of chickens.
You may be able to remodel an existing building if you have one on your property. If you are starting from scratch and handy with carpentry, a wide variety of coop plans are available online and in various publications. Coops can also be bought pre-made and shipped to your doorstep.
Recently, several local businesses have begun offering a variety of ready-made designer coops, built of plywood or cement board complete with architectural shingles or raised metal roofs, double-hung windows, doors, ramps, and pre-installed nesting boxes are all the rage. Many are mounted on wheels so you can move them from place to place in your garden. These coops require nothing more than a spot in your yard in which to set them.
Large breeds require at least four feet square for each bird; bantams half that. The height of the coop is a matter for your own convenience. Chickens could care less as long as they aren’t bumping their heads, but you might! You will be the one squeezing inside to gather eggs or shovel manure. Chickens prefer to roost on perches off the ground and should be large enough in diameter that their toes can get a good grip. The flock will return to their coop at dusk, although bantams prefer roosting up in the nearest tree unless you clip their flight wings.
The image of free-ranging chickens merrily clucking and scratching about while you garden may seem romantic, but free-range chickens are often taken by hawks, foxes, coyotes, and dogs, while raccoons and skunks will make off with your eggs. A fenced enclosure is a sound investment.
Neighbors Jerry and Xiuzhem Meade prefer a six foot high portable dog kennel, the base of the kennel reinforced after a fox dug underneath, killing twenty-three of their chickens. Eddie and Patty Brandt of Woods Cross Roads had to string monofilament line in a grid over their chicken yard to discourage hawks from carrying off their bantams.
If you are joining the legions of others raising chickens in their backyards, keep in mind they are a year round, 24/7 responsibility. Feed and water, coop cleaning and maintenance, manure disposal, animal husbandry, gathering eggs, or slaughtering and processing meat birds is never ending. SPCAs all over the country are dealing with unwanted fowl owners have grown tired of caring for.
There are numerous publications and local resources to assist beginning backyard farmers. Take time to research the various breeds to determine which ones suit your needs. Invest in a proper coop and ensure your yard provides the right environment for chickens to thrive. Talk with others who raise chickens and weigh the pros and cons. Then celebrate as you enjoy America’s favorite farm animals!