Kathy is a gardener in Belmont, MA not too far from where we live in Westwood.  She is a skilled grower and a talented photographer, and I read her blog Skippy’s Vegetable Garden on a regular basis.  Her beautiful garden photography always lifts my spirits and her Garden Gnome is far more reliable harbinger of spring than Punxsutawney Phil.

 

Recently Kathy mentioned that she has been toying with the idea of having chickens, but she has some hesitations, so this post is for her and hopefully anyone else intrigued by the idea of a small flock of chickens in your urban or suburban backyard… 

  • Are chickens a lot of work?

Well, if you have 50 or 20,000 of them maybe, but we have only 3 and they need less than 10 minutes of attention per day.  During the winter I open their coop at around 7:00am, check on their feed and water, give them some greens (wilted lettuce, cucumber that’s getting a little soft, acorn squash we never got around to baking, etc), about 1/2 cup of black oil sunflower seeds (good for glossy feathers), and then I head out to work. When our kids get home from school they let them out to free range.   At the end of the day I check for eggs; we get between 1 and 3 a day, and after sundown I close them in their coop for the night.  A chicken will always go into a coop by itself at sundown.

On weekends I spend about ½ hour cleaning out their coop.  The floor of the coop has a layer of pine shavings and I pick up the poo with a litter scoop; it goes into our compost pile.  In the winter there is no odor, and in the summer I’ll clean it out twice a week and sprinkle food grade  diatomaceous earth on the poo to dry it up.

  • Are they noisy?

Well again that depends on how many you have!  Our three hens are pretty quiet, the only time they make any noise is when they lay, and that’s a “Bok Bok Bok BoGAWK!” sound only for a few minutes.  They mostly cluck and coo to each other.  If one of them is separated from the other two  when they free range they call loudly to each other, but that’s really the only time they make any noise.

  • What if you need to go away?

Last summer we went away for about 3 days and they were just fine.  This summer we’ll be gone for a week, so I’ll ask a friend of mine to come over to check their feed and water and to collect eggs.

A weeks worth of eggs

A weeks worth of eggs

  • How many eggs a week do you get?

With three hens I collect between 14 and 16 eggs a week, more than enough for our family of four.  When I have extras I take them into work and people love them.   Hens will lay without a rooster.  A fresh egg is superior to a supermarket egg in every way and if you like to cook you’ll see see a big difference in baked goods and recipes when you use fresh eggs from your own hens.  Most supermarket eggs are about a month old by the time you get them.   The first time I ate a fresh egg it reminded me of the difference between true mozzarella and industrial mozzarella.  Not a life changing experience but close!

  • How much does it cost to have chickens? What do you do with their poo?

finished-coop-2The biggest up front expense is a coop; chickens need a predator safe coop and run.  We live in Massachusetts so in our climate they need a dry and draft free place to sleep and lay eggs.  A covered run protects them from predators when they’re awake.  A chicken coop can be as simple or elaborate as you like and can afford.   We built ours from plans, however if you’re not handy you can buy them or make them from all kinds of different materials.  The Backyard Chicken Forum (link below) has an entire section devoted to coop designs in every size.  Chickens can live outside all year round and we don’t bother to heat or insulate our coop.  This winter we had -0 temps and they did just fine.

winter-free-ranging

Winter free ranging in our yard

Their poo goes onto our compost pile an eventually into our garden.  Chicken poo is a great thing to add to compost and it makes wonderful fertilizer.

Chickens are a commodity animal and baby chicks are actually not expensive, day old chicks from commercial hatcheries start at about $10 each for quantities under 25 and for quantities over 25 they are $2.00 each or less.  Hens are more expensive than roosters, and most hatcheries sell sexed chicks. Unsexed chicks are sold “straight run”; males and females look alike until they are about a month old.  Chickens are social animals that establish a flock and a pecking order.  They tend to be unhappy as single pets so generally three is a minimum flock size for hens.  In a mixed gender flock the ratio is 1 rooster for every 10 hens.  The Post Office has successfully shipped live baby chicks for over 70 years. 

We pay $13 for a 50 lb bag of Blue Seal layer pellets and it lasts for about three months.  A $5.00 compressed bag of pine shavings (5 cubic feet) for the coop floor lasts about 6 weeks.  Grit is $.50 for 2 lbs and oyster shell (for strong egg shells) is about the same price.  A 10lb bag of black oil sunflower seeds (good for lush feathering and the girls love them) is about $2.50 and lasts a month.    My feed store is 5 miles from my house.  We also give them produce that has wilted or gone a bit soft; things like lettuce, cucumber, squash etc.  Chickens are omnivores and in the summer they love to free range in our yard for bugs and worms.  Any bugs I find in our vegetable garden I just pick off and feed to them; they’ll fight over a tomato hornworm!

  • Are they tame? Are they smart?

Like any bird, baby chicks can be tamed successfully as long as you get them within a week or

A girl and her chicken

A girl and her chicken

so of hatching.  Chickens cannot be tamed one they get to get to be about 3 months old because once they’ sexually mature their instincts take over and they are untamable.  Are they smart?  Well there is a big difference of opinion on this topic amongst chicken owners.  My personal feeling is that they have a finely tuned sense of self preservation, they are alert, inquisitive animals very much in tune with their environment.  But you can’t house train them and they won’t learn tricks or even their name.  However, they will know who you are, they do display affection and they are hilariously funny to watch.  Baby chicks are far more self-sufficient than most baby birds; they are not born naked but hatch fully feathered out with down and they can walk and eat within a few hours.  Plus they are incredibly cute and adorable!

Chickens come in many many colors other than white and the different breeds lay white, cream, brown (all shades even chocolate brown), pink, green and  even blue eggs.

We are really happy to have chickens, I feel much more connected to my food, and they give us a lot of pleasure.

Here is a list of backyard chicken keeping resources:

The Forum at Backyardchickens.com has over 20,000 members and you learn everthing you need to know about chickens from this message board.  

Backyardchicken.com  –  Coop Designs.  Our coop is featured in the “Small Coops” section; you’ll get tons of good ideas for coops of every size.

Henderson’s Chicken Chart will tell you everything you need to know about dozens of  breeds.

Omlet USA sells the award winning Eglu chicken coop in 6 colors!

My Pet Chicken has a great breed selection tool and they have a three chick minimum, they sell supplies and coop plans.

Murray McMurray Hatchery is the largest hatchery in the US, they have a 25 chick minimum.

Meyer Hatchery  has a three chick minimum, they also sell supplies.

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