Chickens   

Here I discuss the benefits of owning chickens. Just because you live in a residential neighborhood doesn't mean you can't enjoy these creatures!

Everyone who has a yard should have some chickens.  Most folks live in cities, not out in the country. They don't think of having chickens as something that is feasible for them, but these birds are the one "farm" animal that can be raised at home without a lot of fuss.  That is, if one follows certain guidelines. 

Please know that we are not talking about breeding and raising the birds for profit.  We are talking about having a few chickens to do the following:

1.Provide farm fresh eggs that are higher in nutritional value and taste than those found in the grocery store!
2.Recycle kitchen scraps that would otherwise end up in the landfill!
3.Create awesome fertilizer! (nuff said)

 

Here are the basics to chicken ownership for anyone.

Legal Aspects: Your city probably has laws prohibiting the raising of livestock within its limits.  However, it most likely has made allowances for people to have 1 to 3 chickens. You should call your county Agricultural Extension Office, Animal Control Office, Humane Society or a Farm and Ranch Supply shop. Ask them if citizens can own chickens, how many, and can they send you a set of guidelines.  If the answer is "No", call someone else. Many folks might not know what the rules are, so don't take one "No" as if it is really the answer. Next, if you do get a couple chickens, make sure they are not a nuisance. Most roosters are a nuisance to people because of the noise they make. You'd be surprised how loud some of them can crow!  My advice is NO ROOSTERS!  A couple hens will do what you need, quietly. 

Equipment/Pens:  Ideally, for one to three birds, you should have a pen that sits on the ground and is at least 4 feet square and has a roof to protect the birds from the elements and other critters that would love to eat them. It is also nice to put down a layer of straw for them to scratch around in.  It keeps the pen cleaner.  As far as pens go, bigger is better (Where have we heard that before?).  You can use a rabbit hutch that sits off the ground, but chickens have two habits that make it uncomfortable for them to be off the ground all the time.  One, they love to scratch the ground to look for things to eat. Two, they love to take dust baths which is when they fluff dirt or sand up into their feathers to clean off mites and oils that are on their skin.  Our pen is a 10 X 10 foot chain link dog cage with a tin roof.  We have added wire mesh around the bottom so that the birds cannot put their heads through the chain link.  The reason for this is that if something is after them, the birds may put their heads through the chain link, allowing the critter to grab their heads and decapitate them.  Pretty gross sight I can tell you. 

Pens in Colder Climates: I live in Florida, so we rarely have need of totally enclosed pens.  Mine has the tin roof and plastic tarps around one corner to protect the birds from drafts and rain.  I contacted Philip Clauer of Virginia Tech's Extension Service and this is his advice for those who live in colder climates: The main things needed to winter over chickens are covered in the fact sheet at http://www.ext.vt.edu/pubs/poultry/factsheets/10.html They need to be kept dry and draft free.  The coop should be kept above 35 degrees if possible.  This may require installation of a heat lamp in some parts of the country.  The important thing is that they have access to fresh water (frozen water can be a problem) and that the litter be kept dry.  A damp coop at 30 degrees can cause the comb and toes to freeze.  If the environment is dry they can handle colder temperatures.  You can also enclose and/or lower the roof around the perching area to help the birds stay warmer at night.  More birds in a smaller area during cold months will also help the coop stay warmer. 

Waterers: You can get a waterer at Wal-Mart; the big ones for dogs work great.  You will want to sit it on top of a brick (concrete block in ours) so the birds won't scratch dirt into the water.  You can also get one at a Farm & Ranch Supply store. The jug on my waterer broke after a couple years due to exposure to the elements.  I found out that a gallon jug of Gatorade works just fine!  You have to cut off the little plastic handle, but other than that it is a cheap replacement.

Feeders: Ours is a big pan that used to be the bottom of a cylinder style feeder I got at a Farm & Ranch Supply store.  The reason we just use only the pan is because the humidity in our area made the food stick together and ferment inside the cylinder. Yucko. 

Nests: Get a wooden box, fill it with straw or lawn clippings and put it in the pen. Hens prefer it to be in a quiet, darker spot if possible. Ours is elevated above the ground; it sits on top of another wooden box. You can get these boxes at grocery stores or vegetable stands; corn is shipped in them.  If the box has a lid, just remove it. To the right, you can see my nest.  You can also see part of the roost, which is that stick-thing on the top left corner of the nest.

Roosts: Chickens sleep on roosts. Guess it goes back to the days when they slept up in trees to escape predators. Get a roost from a tree (a nice straight limb) or get a 2 X 2 or a 1 X 2 board at the hardware store.  They like it as high off the ground as you can get it.  Attach it about 2 feet below the roof, but not too high for them to easily fly up. Make sure it is big enough for all the birds to sit on. 

Birds: You can get chickens easily enough.  Here are some suggestions.

Chicks: Starting out with baby chicks is fun. Once you get them, you will have to keep them warm until they get bigger which is approximately 2 months. It is really easy.  Just get a large, thick and sturdy cardboard box. Turn it upside down and cut a doorway for the little guys to run in and out of (about 7 inches high and across).  Take an old lamp like a desk lamp and put a 25-watt bulb in it.  Cut a hole in the roof of the box (the bottom, it's upside down now, remember) that you can just fit the bulb part through.  The body of the lamp should not go through the hole. Turn the lamp on and leave it on.  Make sure the bulb can't touch anything - the box, the ground, the chicks, etc.  The babies will run in and out of the box and huddle under the light to keep warm. (If you have further questions, please write to me or ask the folks you get the chicks from). You can order baby chicks through the mail, but you usually end up having to take 25 chicks.  Companies ship them like that because the chicks' body heat keeps them warm during shipping. If you mail order chicks, it is a good idea to have them held at the Post Office you use and have the Post Office call you when they arrive. Otherwise, they will ride around in your mail carrier's truck until they reach your house. Warn your Post Office BEFORE they arrive.  When I did this, it caused quite a stir, this box that went "peep, peep, peep"!  So cute! A better way to get just 2 or 3 baby chicks is to buy them from a Farm & Ranch Supply store.  They do all that ordering I talked about above.  Call a few stores and ask if they have chicks or when they expect to get some in.  This is usually in the spring and fall of the year.

Chickens: You can get full-grown chickens from a variety of places.  Local fairs usually have contests, yes, poultry shows, where local folks compete against each other to see who has the nicest chickens.  Believe it or not, there are strict rules regarding what each breed should look like, just like at a dog show.  Many of the birds at shows are for sale so check it out.  Also, call your local 4H clubs, Humane Society, and Farm & Ranch Supply stores. (One near us also has a stable and it has quite a few chickens running around.) 

Breeds: There are at least 100 breeds of chickens.  Some are standard sized (bigger than 7 pounds or so and up to 35 + pounds) and some are bantams (10 inches high or smaller and less than 4 or 6 pounds). Some are pretty exotic looking.  Some are flighty and wild, and some are calm and really fun to have as pets. Some of the calmer breeds are standard sized and bantam Rhode Island Reds, Brahmas, and Cochins. Reds are the most common breed you find when shopping for chicks. They are tame and lay nice, large, brown eggs.

Care: Now to the easy part. Clean and fill feeders and waterers as needed.  I give our birds enough food for two to three days (a quart at a time).  The water lasts a week or two depending on the heat; I try to change it every 4 to 7 days.  I also change it when it starts to look off-color because of algae. I clean the waterer by swishing a little bleach and water around in it and rinsing it well before refilling it. 

Feed: Chickens are not very picky as to what they eat. Don't you wish the rest of your family was that way?

Store Bought Feed: Any Farm and Ranch Supply store will carry what you need.  Our SuperWal-Mart carries chicken feed too. Get a bag of "crumbles", tell the salesperson it is for egg-laying hens.  Also, get a bag of "scratch". We keep ours in garbage cans with tight lids to keep them dry and to protect them from pests. The bags come in 25 and 50 pound sizes. The 50 pound size runs between six and eight dollars and will last you two to three months or more if you have only a couple birds.   It will depend on how much you feed the birds from your kitchen. 

Kitchen Scraps: All your kitchen scraps should go to the chickens. Chickens eat just about everything.  Examples: All scraps of food that come from preparing it - peels, seeds, and discarded bits.  All scraps of food that are left on plates or in pans can go to the chickens.  All things that are going bad or that are suspicious can go to the birds.  All those leftovers you used to pitch, all those fruits that were starting to turn, and all the stuff you just never used up can go to the chickens.  Even egg shells, crushed up, can go to the pen! Be careful about the egg shells because you don't want the birds to associate the eggs they lay with the shells you give them; so crush the shells and mix with other things before giving it to your birds.  Chickens will pick clean any bones you give them and they love meat including the fat you usually cut off.  The more you feed them from your kitchen, the less store bought feed they will need. Just this morning, ours got the peels from cucumbers, some lettuce that had gotten brown edges, the ends of a loaf of bread, parts of some peaches and bananas that were discolored, some egg shells, corn cobs, and the scraps from dinner plates. They may not eat it all, but they will get rid of a portion of it and it will become the most delicious eggs you ever had! Another thing you can give your birds to make them happy are the clippings from your lawn; providing you do not use excessive chemicals or pesticides on your grass.  Just rake it up and throw it in. Ours LOVE to scratch up a storm looking for bugs. 

Eggs: First, there is no such thing as shell color making an egg better or worse.  Just like people come in different colors, so do chickens and their eggs.  It depends on the breed.  For example, Rhode Island Reds lay brown eggs that sometimes have dark brown freckles, Brahmas and Cochins lay creamy brown ones, and Leghorns lay white eggs. Your chicks should start laying when they are between five and seven months old. Try to collect the eggs every day.  If you forget, don't worry too much, they are still good.  I get mine at least every three days. If you do NOT wash them, the eggs will last for several months in your refrigerator.  The eggs come out of the chicken with a protective coating that keeps them from absorbing oxygen and losing their own moisture. Unless they have dirt or something on them, try not to wash them off. Use the eggs for everything you usually do.  The only thing is, if you are going to boil and peel the eggs, use the oldest ones you have.  Fresh eggs tend to be difficult to peel.  Older ones separate from their shell more easily.  I keep older eggs in a special basket in the fridge so I know which ones to boil. When you crack the eggs open, you may notice small brown bits.  If you have a rooster, that is probably the fertilized part of the egg.  If you are roosterless, it is just part of the egg and it is normal.  You can pick it out if it bothers you.  I don't. The reason it is there is because your chickens are more healthy than those raised in farms and they eat a wider variety of foods, not just crumbles and scratch.  So, your eggs will be firmer, more colorful, and taste superior to any you can get in the store. Note: If your hens begin to lay eggs with thin or leathery shells, it usually means they need more calcium in their diet.  Feed stores sell cracked oyster shells to cure and prevent this. A bag only costs about $10.00 and lasts a long time. Just sprinkle a handful over their regular feed or have a small feeder just for the shells. 

Other Benefits: "Free Range" refers to when people let their chickens out in the yard during the day to scratch around.  They will eat bugs and you will have less of a problem with insects in your house.  My dad swears ours got rid of Palmetto Bugs.  Those bugs get into all Florida homes, but once we got our chickens and they began to patrol the perimeter of the house and the yard, there was nary an insect to be found in the house.  A fringe benefit of this is that, surprisingly, chickens are fun to watch.  And they will get quite tame, running to the door each time you go outside to see if you have brought  them anything to eat. I should mention to you that you should only let your birds out if you are sure they will be safe from dogs in your neighborhood.  I don't let ours out very often because we have hawks that like to try and catch an easy meal and because the first place the silly chickens run to is the mulch in the flower beds.  But, if I am going to be home, and can keep an eye on them and their roamings, then I certainly let them out to enjoy the day. Don't worry, they know where they live and will head back to their roost when the sun goes down. Actually, once they know you are "momma", they will come when you call them and follow you back to the cage.  Just call them, "Chick, chick, chick!" and walk toward their cage.  Remember to close the door to their cage so no critters can sneak in overnight and kill your birds. 

Critters that love chicken! I have one of those Have-A-Heart traps that I use to re-locate things that are out to eat my chickens. I have caught possums, raccoons and cats in it.  The wild things I take to the wilderness several miles away and let go.  The cats I take to the Humane Society. (Our local branch does not kill strays, but adopts them out.  In fact, our Humane Society never kills an animal unless it is sick with incurable things like heartworms. So, I feel that it is a good thing to take the cats there, where they can be adopted by people who will take care of them.) I have also found foxes, bobcats and panthers trying to get at the chickens.  I have yet to catch one in my little trap.

 Links :

American Poultry Association
http://www.ampltya.com

The Coop
Your Key to the On-line Poultry Community
http://www.the-coop.org

 

 Murray McMurray Hatchery
The World's Largest Rare Breed Hatchery
http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com

Created & Copyrighted
11/08/01
by Tamara Rutenber
Last modified
11/17/2002