Raising Chickens in Your Backyard
In the off chance that you haven’t been cruising through your favorite feed store every weekend to check for new developments, let me be the first to tell you: the chicks are here. We’ve been wanting to keep hens the backyard for a few years now, but it has taken all this time to build a coop and make the other necessary arrangements to welcome chickens into our lives.
We got our chicks at the beginning of April. The first two, a Golden Laced Wyandotte and a Rhode Island Red, both brown egg layers, were a week old when we brought them home from the feed store. A couple days later, a shipment of day-old Araucanas arrived (those are the ones that lay blue and green eggs) and we bought two of those, too. One of our earliest preparations for the arrival of chickens was to decide what to call them, and we’d long ago decided that we wanted to name them after first ladies. After they arrived and we evaluated their personalities and political affiliations, we settled on Abigail, Eleanor, Bess, and Dolley.
These four chicks have been the center of our lives every since. I will use any conversation as an excuse to talk about my chicks, introduce them to guests, or display pictures of them. Because I talk about chickens almost incessantly, I’ve managed to assemble a short list of frequently-asked questions. If you’ve ever thought about adding poultry to your garden, maybe this’ll provide some inspiration.
Q: Why chickens?
A: Are you kidding? Chickens are cool, really cool. They eat bugs, produce manure, till the ground, and generally add a kind of organic, back-to-the-earth vibe to the garden. Oh yeah, and they lay eggs. But eggs alone are probably not reason enough to keep chickens. (see the question on the economics of hens, below.)
Q: How do they get along with your other pets?
A: I’ve heard that dogs are quite likely to attack chickens and should be kept separate from them. I’m sure some dogs can be trained to leave chickens alone, and I’ll probably get a dozen photos of dogs napping contentedly with a flock of chickens as soon as this goes to print, but it sounds like a risky proposition to me.
Cats are another story. At the moment, my chicks are still a bit smaller than a pigeon, which means that when my cat sees them, he gets a look on his face that says, “Oh, hors d’oeurves! How nice. Will you be serving cocktails with these?” But once they grow into full-sized hens, the cats will know that they’ve met their match and will negotiate a truce.
Q: Is it better to raise them from chicks or buy adult hens?
A: If at all possible, raise them from chicks. (It’s not too late to get some from local feed stores, although they usually get their last shipment by mid-May.) We were hesitant to try it ourselves, figuring that nurturing four baby birds into adulthood might be terribly time-consuming and difficult, but the truth is that they are adorable and interesting and extraordinarily tame as a result of our efforts. They’ll live inside for about eight weeks, and frankly, when they move outside, we’ll be sorry to see them go. If you do buy an adult hen, remember that egg production declines after their first year. Also, it can be difficult to introduce new hens into an existing flock, so you’re better off getting all the birds you want at once rather than buying one or two a year.
Q. Will the hens earn their keep by producing eggs?
A. Very funny. Nice try. These are pets, not egg machines. What this means is that they live in a highly secure and very well-decorated henhouse, eat the finest commercial feed, and enjoy the attention of two owners whose books on chickens outnumber the chickens themselves. Here’s my best guess at what we’ve spent to date on this foolish enterprise:
$300 for chicken coop construction (keeping in mind that we are utterly inept with tools and made many mistakes.)
$100 for books on chicken-rearing (If you get just one, get Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow.)
$100 for feeders, pine shavings, brooder lamps, chick feed, and other feed store impulse purchases
$50 worth of accessories such as cute bucket labeled “Fresh Eggs”
$12 for the four baby chicks.
I don’t know how many eggs you buy in a year, but no, these chicks will no sooner earn their keep than our cats will. Which reminds me—LeRoy still owes me five hundred bucks for emergency surgery after he lost a fight with a dog ten years ago. And he has yet to provide a single meal for my table.
Q: Will they trample the garden?
A: Experts differ. One gardener I know says to kiss my self-sowing annuals good-bye because the chickens will pluck the little seedlings out of the ground. Another tells me that her hens range free all day and do very little damage. Yet a third gardener reports that chickens avoid strong-smelling plants like herbs but go crazy for lettuce and strawberries. I intend to let mine range free for a little while in the late afternoon and see how it goes. If you have a large garden with some fallow areas, consider a portable coop called a “chicken tractor” that allows the birds to work one area of the garden, loosening soil, devouring weeds, and depositing manure, until you are ready to move them to another spot.