Pickin’ Chicken: Keeping a Backyard Flock

lrg_1364402546081_0479977570_7217333Blog post written by Barb Weist in Communications: Let me start this post by noting I am *NOT* inviting or encouraging anyone to keep chickens on campus, or even in off-campus houses. But in the interest of info students might use when they leave Puget Sound, or info that may be of use to other community members, I’m going to talk chicken.

Keeping chickens, even in the city, has become very popular in recent years, with emphases on sustainability, local food, and other such topics. I grew up in a small city, living in an apartment for most of my youth. We had no chickens. We couldn’t even have a pet. But a few years ago, we decided to try our hand at farm fresh eggs for breakfast: we went in with some friends to get a flock of Arucana hens, the kind that lay those pretty green and blue eggs, affectionately called Easter Eggers (appropriate for this time of year)! This was not a popular enough breed that the local feed store (yes, there are feed stores, even in urban areas) carried them in the spring, at the time.

So there’s a first point that many people don’t know: how do you GET chickens? Well, IF you know where the local feed store is, they often have a variety of chicks in the spring for you to take home, as well as all the necessary accoutrements, which they are more than happy to sell you. You can pick out one, two, three, or more. If you want a specific breed they don’t have, or want chicks at a different time of year, you can order them through a well-reputed hatchery. They come in a cardboard box via postal mail. Don’t worry; they don’t drop them in your mailbox. They call you when they arrive at the post office so you can go pick them up, pronto. Little peepers make a lot of noise!

wpid-20130324_131008Once you’ve decided on breed, based on what size chickens you want, coloration, cold-tolerance, docility, and even egg color, the next hurdle is making sure, if you desire, that you get only FEMALE chickens, called pullets or layers. In the name of the barnyard birds and bees, let me just tell you a lesson my five-year-old has already mastered: you get eggs with only female chickens; but they can only be FERTILIZED (meaning baby chicks) if you also have a ROOSTER. Therefore, most backyard flock enthusiasts want to make sure they get female chickens, or pullets. If you see a sign that says straight run, that’s not the chick for you. That means they have not sexed the chickens, and you’ve got a 50/50 chance of getting a rooster with each chick you pick!

So WHY don’t you want roosters? Well, first, city ordinances often prohibit roosters (ordinances also cover if you can even have hens in the city limits; be sure to check FIRST). They are noisier. You know that crowing you hear in movies? It’s not just in the early morning. Take my word for it. We had not one, but TWO roosters (accidentally) with our first flock. Second note on roosters: they get along fine (at least ours did) when they’re bachelors. But when you introduce the ladies… well, them’s fightin’ words, my friend. One of the roosters became more dominant and wanted to keep the other guy away from his harem. Roosters have spurs, which help them to defend their flock against other predators. But generally, if you don’t want chicks, you don’t need a rooster.

Where will you keep your chickens? You can build a coop that keeps them contained and needs to be mucked out (think straw with lots of chicken poop) regularly (how often depends on how many chickens you have). Or, if you have a little space, you could opt for the solution we’re trying this time around, with our second flock: a chicken tractor. It sound glamorous but really isn’t. It’s basically a portable pen that you keep the chickens in and move it around regularly so that the droppings go right into the ground and the chickens get some yummy bugs to supplement the feed you give them. It really makes them happy. It’s like of like restricted free ranging: they are protected from predators, but they get a variety of treats!

So what do you need to keep chickens? Or cute little baby chicks that eventually turn into chickens? Chicks need food, water, bedding, and heat. We have ours in a plastic bin in our bathtub with a heat lamp overhead. The little thermometer we bought to gauge the temp shows a balmy 95 degrees to start. Each week we reduce the temp a few degrees until they don’t need it. There are special food and water containers you can buy, or you can buy special parts that attach to regular old mason jars, like we have. Bedding collects the manure and gives them a comfy place to rest. We use pine shaving animal bedding. You don’t want CEDAR. It’s bad for our little feathered friends. Laying hens require a nestbox when they become “of age.”

There’s a little more to it, but basically, you feed them, water them, collect the eggs. We have a book on raising poultry that answers any questions we might have. Like what to do when they start pecking at each other (where do you think the term “pecking order” comes from?). Or if the egg shells are too soft (they need oyster shell for calcium). Really they’re no more or less work than any other pet I’ve had. Except they lay eggs we eat. No perks like that with a cat.

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