Saturday, April 2, 2011

Chicken Keeping 101

Brie holding "Chrysanthemum"
Gazing over at the photo calendar I made for my husband, I couldn't help but chuckle. For the month of April, it features an adorable photo of Brie holding a fluffy yellow chick, along with the caption, "Brace yourself, Dad, this month we are adding to our flock." Forewarned is forearmed.

Yes, it's now that month, and yes, we are expanding our happy, little brood, courtesy of My Pet Chicken. At the end of April, we will have 14 girls, the six adults we have now, and eight cuddly chicks. Life is good.

And we bought a new coop today... sort of. After consulting with various chicken experts, we determined that investing in a structure that is larger than a traditional coop is wise, and then retrofit it to our needs. Appearance is a factor as well. We don't want something ugly towering in our back yard. Not when we have to look at it every day.

Our New Coop!
So... a charming, barn style playhouse is on order, and will be outfitted with roosting bars as well as six 12X12 nesting boxes for our girls. Bruce, our talented handyman, who was born and raised in Jamaica, knows just how to go about this. His brother is a chicken farmer, so, he understands how to build these accouterments, and add an outdoor run for the chickens. The new coop is 8X8, generous for a flock of 14, and the run: 8X12 with a full access door and hawk netting above.

The vastly expanded, deluxe accommodations will be prepared and ready for our hens by the end of the month. The chicks will go into a brooder, the adults in their new coop, and the two flocks will be integrated s-l-o-w-l-y over the next six months.

Which brings me to this week's topic: Chicken Keeping 101. Now that Mother Nature is (finally) smiling down upon us and everyone is getting that itch to dig in the dirt, or to be a part of the ever burgeoning local food movement, I'm getting barraged with questions about chickens.

While I am still within my first year of raising these feathered treasures, I am amazed at how many people look to me for expert advice. I have to say, I have learned a lot since bringing home our baby chicks last June, but by no means am I an authority on the subject.  That being said, here are my pearls of wisdom, so far, to share with those who are interested in starting this hobby...

1. "Do chickens make good pets?" Once known as utilitarian farm animals, chickens have enjoyed a resurgence in suburban landscapes as friendly, endearing backyard pets. Chickens are fun, quirky and endlessly entertaining. And they're great with kids. And they make you breakfast. It's not a hard decision to keep them if you consider all of the benefits.

2. "Do they require a lot of work?" Yes and no. Clearly, they require work. They are living creatures and need daily care, just as any animal would. If you have pets in your home already, you understand this responsibility and the commitment it requires. However, if you do not, but are ready to take on this new endeavor, don't be intimidated.

I would argue that in many ways, chickens are easier to keep than many other animals. They live outdoors, are sturdy creatures, and if you provide ample, safe housing, food and water, and free range them, you will be richly rewarded.

Children, especially, make fabulous helpers, and are delighted with the antics that chickens provide. One needs only to peruse through this blog for evidence. I wouldn't be able to keep chickens (with such enormous pleasure and pride) if it weren't for my trusty helpmate, Brie. The animal husbandry skills that children develop through caring for chickens is impressive, giving them a sense of purpose and responsibility that few other chores offer.

And understand that chickens live for five years, some longer. After the age of three or so they stop laying, so you need to decide if you are going to let them live out their remaining years under your care, or (and if they are not your children's pets it's much easier to make this decision) you can take them to a local farm and have them processed. Bon Appetit!

3. "What size coop do I need?" As for the coop, bigger is better. Bigger IS better. BIGGER IS BETTER. Get the picture? Always buy a larger coop than what is required. The rule of thumb is 2 to 3 square feet per chicken inside the hen house and 4 to 5 square feet for the outside run.

Most important, invest in a coop that keeps your flock safe from local predators. And keep it clean. A good sweep out with fresh bedding every other week should do the trick... though I clean it almost every weekend, especially during the messy months. A thorough spring cleaning is also required. You do it in your own home; they deserve the same!

4. "Are we allowed to keep chickens in our town?" Your local city/town ordinances make clear whether or not you can keep chickens, roosters, and how many are allowed. Check with the website, Backyard Chickens, in their Raising Chickens Basics page for more information on this and other "basics" questions.

5.  "What about the neighbors...will they complain?" Most neighbors will enjoy your chickens. The soft clucking from your hens is non-intrusive, certainly preferable to a yapping dog. Check in with them to let them know you are about to embark on this exciting journey, butter them up with fresh eggs, and you will have loyal fans forever.

Oh, and if you live on limited acreage, train them to stay near their coop, only free ranging them an hour before dusk (the girls will go in automatically at night to roost). Now, roosters are a different story. Which brings us to question #6.

6.  "Do you need a rooster for your chickens to lay eggs?" No, you do not need roosters to have eggs. Chickens make them regardless, and wouldn't you rather eat unfertilized eggs, anyway? Some of us who are vegetarian-ly inclined might find the alternative rather icky in concept.

And roosters are most definitely not welcome in suburban, not to mention urban landscapes. They are loud, aggressive, and will tick off your neighbors. So, unless you live on a a generous parcel of land, and don't mind the daily "Cock-a-doodling" as well as finding that your flock keeps expanding exponentially each year, I don't recommend them.

For more information on raising chickens, I recommend the following websites: -- Terry Golson, author of Tillie Lays an Egg and the Farmstead Egg Cookbook, is a wealth of information and incredibly generous with her time and knowledge. You should check out her adorable hen cam: -- Mentioned above, this site has loads of information on responsible chicken keeping, a consistent source of education and inspiration for newbies like me.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention Lauren Scheuer's Blog, Scratch and Peck, as a singularly talent-filled source of anecdotes and illustrations. Please check it out when you have the chance:

As for a library, these are the books that I own, which I have found to be wonderful resources on this engaging hobby:

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow
Keeping Chickens by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis
Extraordinary Chickens by Stephen Green-Armytage
Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance by Martin Gurdon (a memoir... very entertaining)

If, after hosting a family meeting so that all are on board, and doing your homework, you are ready to rock and roll in the wonderful world of chickens... God speed, and good luck. It's a blast.

Also, know that "chicken people" are friendly folk, eager to share their passion for raising these productive birds with others. Lean on them for advice. Post a comment on my blog... if I don't know the answer to your question, I will find it for you, or refer you to a more seasoned expert.

And remember: Yes, they are cute. Yes, they are fun, but animal husbandry is serious business, so make certain you are ready for the responsibility that comes with keeping these amazing critters. And don't be surprised if you become completely obsessed with your feathery friends, absorbed in all the nuances of care that this species requires.

Two things this hobby has brought home for our family - an appreciation for where our food comes from, and how very precious life is. We treasure our chickens and care for them as members of our family. Their life span is brief, so we make sure every day is a happy day for our girls. The dividends are well worth the investment.