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Raising Backyard Chickens

A city chicken farmer shares her insights on building chicken coops and tending small flocks in urban settings. After all, who wouldn't want a pet that makes them breakfast?

So you want to be a chicken farmer? More and more, I’m meeting people like me — families with children, young couples, retirees and bachelor types — raising backyard flocks in urban as well as suburban settings. Some get into chicken-raising so they can have a supply of fresh, healthy eggs and join the local-food, lower-carbon-footprint movement.  

 

Others have a small flock simply because it's fun. A high school friend of mine got started because of her mother’s stories about her favorite daily childhood chore —  collecting eggs. My best friend had chickens as a child, loved naming them ("Rudy the Rooster" and "Chicken Hawk," respectively) and couldn't wait to start her own flock after buying her first house. She also had a hen that laid green eggs. Really.  


In addition to enjoying fresh eggs on a daily basis, a pleasure that rivals tomatoes picked fresh from the garden, small backyard flocks generate fertilizer that green-thumb friends will appreciate, eat plenty of insect pests (fewer mosquitoes!) and provide hours of family-friendly entertainment. (More on that later.)

 

As far as my flock of eight hens goes, I've found that the everyday doings of raising backyard chickens is ridiculously easy. It's the getting your urban farming operation up and running that can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. The most important thing to do first is research, research, research. (No, not daydreaming about which breeds you want and cute names for them.) Get your hen house in order by mulling over the following extensive, but not exhaustive, questions:

 

  • What are the city or county codes regarding raising chickens, as well as the location and structure of coops? If you live in a subdivision, what are those HOA rules?

 

You’d be surprised how wildly different codes can be from one county to the next. (The city of Atlanta allows up to 25 chickens, including roosters, while Knoxville, Tenn., allows only six hens with yearly permits.) New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Ore., are reportedly chicken-friendly cities. And while people do choose to raise "outlaw flocks," the day a code enforcement officer leaves a costly citation and an order to relocate pet chickens in 10 days or face another fine is not something I care to experience.

 

  • What do you want from your coop and chicken run in terms of predator proofing, space for the size of your flock, ease of entering and cleaning, as well as a look that will go with your style of house and landscaping? Also, are you building the coop and run yourself or buying a finished one?

The high school friend I mentioned earlier wanted to use screens from her grandparents' old house in her and her husband's coop. That's about all she knew for certain, so it became a build-as-you-go experience that drove her extremely patient husband nearly crazy. In the end, they built a beautiful coop topped with birdhouses. My spouse and I built our coop in July during a heat wave. I thought I was going to die as I hammered hardware cloth in place. But I knew I had to get eight teenage chickens (pullets) out of the two giant dog crates in our living room. Besides the mess and the room smelling slightly like eau de farm, when the sun started to set after a day of free ranging in the backyard, our hens would peck on our back door to be let into our house.

  • What do you want from your chickens? This will help you determine which breeds are best for you. Do you want chickens whose personality can be likened to that of a lap dog? Are you looking for a chicken that's sturdy and reliable like a Volvo, but perhaps not so friendly or pretty? Do you want an unusual looking breed with exotic plumage? A breed that lays dark brown eggs, pastel blue eggs or standard white eggs? 

 

There's a wide range of breeds available through local chicken enthusiasts, traditional feed stores, local hardware stores and online hatcheries. For our first flock we ordered from an online hatchery so we wouldn't get any roosters, and the hens came vaccinated. Some say baby chicks learn fear by day two, so the hatchery chicks appealed to us because they arrived at the post office only a day old. We wanted prolific egg layers with friendly dispositions. And we ordered differently colored hens that lay light brown, dark brown, white and pastel blue eggs. Would we select the same breeds if we had it to do all over again? While we love our ladies, I think we would go for more exotic-looking breeds. Also, more Red Stars, for their sweet personalities and extra large dark brown eggs, and Easter Eggers, for their pastel blue, green or pink eggs. 

My recommended final set of questions relates to budget, division of labor and unfortunate situations.

  • Is your family in agreement as to who is responsible for daily, semi-monthly and annual chicken chores? What are your spending limits in regard to feed (organic or not), veterinary care and pet sitters. If you have dogs or cats, who will be providing consistent training to acclimate them to your flock or restrict interaction? How will your family cope if a raccoon, hawk or other predator manages to take out one of your flock?


My spouse wakes up with the sunrise, lets our girls out of the coop and puts out feed and fresh water. After work, the girls get a treat of fresh vegetables, like a bundle of collards, and their eggs are collected. As the sun sets, chickens naturally make their way back into the coop to roost (a process that sometimes resembles the antics of the Three Stooges). Again, my spouse heads out to secure the coop door from predators, check for more eggs and put the feed up for the night. I'm responsible for mucking out the straw in the coop and delivering this fresh fertilizer to the compost pile at our local community garden. Once a year, I bleach out the coop and de-worm the chickens. We're lucky that it took very little effort for us to train our dogs not to chase after the chickens. (Although, our pointer mix gets that bird-dog look in her eye and a hint of a smile every now and then. Fortunately, a prompt pecking deters her.) As for predators, so far we've been lucky that the hawks we occasionally spot circling above haven't swooped down for some dinner.

If you still feel the calling to be an urban chicken farmer like me, you'll have more questions to address and fortunately there are plenty of books, fellow chicken raisers and online forums for a deeper dive. At this point, I must emphasize one of the best benefits of raising a small flock: It's fun. In fact, sometimes it's belly-laughing, stories-you'll-tell-your-grandkids hilarious.

 

Have you ever seen a chicken run? Funny. Have you ever seen a chicken run around with a huge worm dangling out of its beak that it desperately wants to swallow but the rest of the flock is chasing after it, determined to rip the worm away for their own eating pleasure, which results in the mayhem of chickens chasing chickens around in a crazed zigzag pattern? That's comedy.

 

If you've ever heard a hen cluck, you know it's a quirky sound. But have you ever witnessed a hen "singing" her egg-laying song and then another joins in and then another? It sounds something like "buk buk buk buh-GAWK, buk buk buk buh-GAWK, buk buk buk buh-GAWK!” I think they are saying, "OMG this is going to/that did hurt." My spouse thinks they're saying, "I'm a super star because I'm going to/I just laid an egg."


In conclusion, we regularly invite friends with kids over to feed, pet and hold our chickens. I love cooking eggs for breakfast that were laid that morning. And I absolutely adore sitting on our back deck sipping lemonade (or a nice Merlot if it's been a long day) and watching our girls do their thing. (Oh, and naming them was fun, too.) 

 

Being an urban chicken farmer is something to cluck about.

 

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