A chicken in every yard
I once told my family that no matter where life brought us, I was never living any place where I couldn’t have chickens. After years of hosting a backyard flock, we can’t even stomach store-bought eggs anymore.
Maybe it’s the economy. Or maybe people are just becoming more concerned about where their food comes from, what it ate and how far it traveled to their plates. Maybe it’s just a fad, but interest in raising chickens is growing. Even in urban areas, people are looking into local livestock laws to find out what they can and cannot do.
When people ask me about raising chickens, even just four or five layer hens, I always recommend it heartily. Maybe too heartily, because when you raise living creatures, you take on a lot of responsibility. And chickens are on the menus of any number of wild critters, from owls and eagles to weasels and foxes.
A Midwestern friend once asked me for chicken advice — she lives in a small town and has a sheltered, fenced yard. I sent her some online links to small chicken coops, because she was interested in something pretty. But the fact of the matter is that she — and her children — are mortally afraid of poop and germs, and when they visit me they spend most of their time washing their hands and changing their shoes. Chickens are not for them.
There are a few things you can’t be afraid of if you have chickens: cleaning out a chicken coop comes immediately to mind. Or chasing and grabbing a scared hen, and holding her while she is wildly flapping her wings, because there is going to be a time when that hen is not where she should be and you have to get her back into the coop. Then there’s being woken up by a weasel in the middle of the night, or chasing a coyote out of the yard first thing in the morning.
But if you have the space, the time, the temperament and the inclination — and it’s legal in your community — I say go for it. Chickens are nice, pretty and friendly, and fresh eggs are so good.
Beyond the eggs, or meat, there are other benefits to having chickens. They eat bugs, they create manure for your garden and, if you have kids, they offer all kinds of lessons in animal husbandry, responsibility and nurturing. And pulling a hot egg out from under a setting hen is going to teach your kids a true lesson in food production. Eggs don’t grow in boxes on store shelves!
It’s easy enough to set up a henhouse. It doesn’t have to be big — you need about 3 square feet of space inside per bird, so you can keep plenty of birds in a pretty small shed. You don’t want a coop that’s overly large, because they huddle together to keep each other warm in the winter. You want good airflow, which means windows, to prevent disease and stinky conditions.
You can convert an existing shed — or seal off a portion of a shed or barn — if you have one. Even a large doghouse can be placed on stilts, with an entry ramp to the ground and a fenced yard, for a few hens. The stilts will give them outdoor space under the coop as well as around it.
You can make a chicken “tractor,” basically a coop on wheels that allows you to move the chickens around. That lets them graze on greens and bugs without letting them actually destroy all the plantings in one area.
If you look online for backyard coops, you’ll find plenty of people eager to sell you prebuilt chicken palaces, for hundreds or thousands of dollars. But your chickens don’t really need a palace. They need shelter, from the wind and weather, and protection from predators. Inside they need something to roost on — a dowel or a branch — because they like to be off the ground at night, and some wooden boxes built onto the walls, to lay eggs in. A light is also a good idea, because in the winter, if you don’t keep a light on until around 9 p.m., the hens will stop laying.
And they need to get outdoors to graze for bugs and tender greens, and to stay happy and healthy. If you have just a few hens, they can wander without causing too much trouble. (Try to keep them out of the road, and the house.) If you have more than a few, a fenced yard is a good idea to keep them from destroying your gardens, and for their own protection from marauding dogs, foxes, coyotes, raccoons . . .
Why do I keep talking about animals that eat — or just kill — chickens? It’s a sad story.
I got my first flock when I was 16, and it was a dismal failure.
First, I ordered chicks before my dad and I finished building their coop. They arrived while I was at school, and my mom put them in the bathtub till I got home.
I had built a brooder to keep them warm, out of a light bulb and socket, set in the center of an overturned washtub, with short wooden legs attached. It was a neat device — the chicks could run in and out, and keep warm under the bulb — and I was proud enough of it to use its construction as a topic for an English essay.
But putting the brooder and chicks in an unused bedroom was, upon reflection, unwise. Live and learn. Soon enough, they were out in the coop, which was far larger than they needed.
Unfortunately, it also offered far less protection than they needed, and before they were big enough to lay eggs, they fell prey, one by one, to raccoons, foxes and, saddest of all, neighborhood dogs, some of whom I knew quite well.
I felt personally responsible for every chicken life lost, and my guilt was such that I didn’t try again for about 15 years. My little sister and her friends turned the coop into a playhouse.
Years later, when my husband and I moved into our house, we decided we needed chickens.
Our first flock was a rescue: My sister-in-law’s friend was tired of chasing her wandering chickens around her neighborhood, so we took them home, about 20 barred rock hens. Over the years, we’ve had up to 50, and as few as 10.
How many you need depends on your space, and on how many eggs you want. I wouldn’t start with fewer than four chickens. A flock of a dozen is a nice size; more than that is work. In the summer, a hen in her prime will lay four to six eggs a week; in winter, more like two or three. So if you have four hens, you can expect close to two dozen eggs a week in the summer, but maybe only half a dozen in the winter.
Once you eat those eggs, you’ll see why people like raising chickens. You might be like me, and figure all the chasing is well worth it.
If not, maybe you can persuade a neighbor to start raising a flock.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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