In my addled mind, chickens occupy two distinct roles, the ones I buy pre-packaged at the grocer for eating and the ones I feed every morning for loving and eggs. And never the twain shall meet although I do get the question all the time:
“Do you eat your chickens?”
“I dunno, do you eat your golden retriever?”
See? Twain don’t meet.
Recently, the backyard chicken frenzy has become just that. It’s as if all of a sudden suburbanites everywhere woke up, realized that city zoning allows for sometimes up to 10 hens (but no roosters), looked at the price of eggs, especially organic free-range eggs, and declared, “My Lord Honey, I’m gonna get me some of them there chickens.” Or something along those lines.
As I am a bit of a chicken-raising veteran myself, what follows is a tutorial on the ins and outs and pros and cons of raising your own hens. Let’s proceed.
What You’ll Need (Before)
• Nesting Boxes
• Yard Space
• Decent neighbors
Shelter for your hens can be anything from a casual lean-to to a miniature McMansion. Chickens are not fond of weather extremes, typically do not like to get wet (Madder than a…), and will go on strike if faced with either for any length of time. Since my husband began his illustrious career as a carpenter, something that has saved us immeasurably over the years, we got a little ambitious with our hen house, spent more on materials than any real farmer would have, and built what could, if we ever sell this place, and after a few gallons of bleach applied, easily convert to a child’s playhouse. You do not need to do this. You do need to provide 2-3 sq ft of space per hen in an area sheltered from wind and rain that has a door and small ramp for the chickens to enter and exit. You will also need to be able to access this area for egg gathering, coop cleaning, and chicken tending. You can do this by designing your hen house tall enough to stand in, which is what we did, or by engineering it to have a hinged roof or side. Hen house plans abound on the internet and, for the less tool-inclined, many prefab ones are available at feed stores or through mail order.Nesting boxes provide just that, an area for your hens to nest in and lay their eggs. If you will only be keeping a few backyard chickens, two nesting boxes should suffice (the rule of thumb is one box per 2-4 hens). Again, we went overboard, as if every hen we owned was going to suddenly need to lay their eggs in unison and damn if they were not going to each have their own personal space in order to do so. Frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t hang name tags over each box, write little notes of encouragement for each hen, and wire the place for sound serenading them with Mozart all morning long. 12” x 12” x 12” is an adequate size for a nesting box; we made ours 12 x 18 x 12. Egg laying sounds a little painful and one should not be cramped for space while performing painful maneuvers. A stoop along the front of the boxes is a nice touch, providing a jumping on point for the hens to access their boxes. Finally, each box should be lined with straw or wood shavings. We use the latter as it is easier to scoop or shop-vac out during cleaning time and it composts well. Yard Space is mostly up to you and your circumstances. Although chickens need a minimum of 4-5 sq ft each of the great outdoors, if you do not have a predator issue (including your own dogs and/or cats) letting them have run of your entire backyard can be a fun experience. Hand-raised chickens are very sociable and like to follow you around, even sit in your lap as you lounge on your patio. We’ve had chickens come inside and watch tv with us but we are very strange people. Keep in mind, however, that chickens love to and in fact need to scratch in the dirt and will quickly make mud patches in your manicured lawn. If your yard is large and you only have a few birds, the damage might not be so bad but scratch they will. They need the inorganic elements in the soil to aid their digestion (cage kept birds are given gravel as a substitute, no fun at all). If you do have predators as we do, adequate fencing is a must. No, chickens do not fly but they jump and climb and can easily vault a six foot fence. In the six years we’ve had chickens, the coop has evolved into Ft Knox, completely fenced on all sides and above. We used chain link and chicken wire for the side fencing and a combination of chicken wire and bird netting for the top. Once your neighborhood predators discover that you have birds and tell all their friends and neighbors, they will come by often looking for weaknesses in the grid so be prepared to check your coop security for small holes and bent, as in pushed-in, fencing. We have learned this lesson the hard way; the chickens even harder.
Decent neighbors can be hard to come by. Fortunately, most of ours are very nice, understanding, and are easily bribed with farm fresh eggs. Yet, we have The One; every neighborhood has The One. Before you set up your coop, it’s a good idea to tell your neighbors what you’re doing, see if they have any huge objections, and then ignore them if you are following your proper zoning laws (I know mine by heart). As long as you don’t have roosters and keep your coop clean, I honestly don’t know why anyone would object to your adventures in pretend farming. The benefits of farm fresh organic free range eggs are immense. For very little work, you are gifted with the best tasting eggs on God’s green (brown) earth. You know where they’ve been from the moment they entered the world as well as knowing the health and antibiotic-free state of the hens from which they come. It’s a win-win and I for one am pleased that the echos or boomers or whoever they are have caught on to the wonders of raising hens.
Later, I will talk about selecting the right chickens for your needs as well as how to care for them once they are at your home. If you are jonesing to learn more right this minute, backyardchickens.com is a great overall source for all things chicken as well as a great place to ask questions and check in from time to time.