Ever since chickens were domesticated before the dawn of history, they’ve been constant companions. As people settled Europe, Asia, the Americas and even remote Pacific islands they brought chickens along to provide eggs and an occasional tasty stew. For centuries nearly everyone knew how to manage a flock.
Then, about a hundred years ago, chicken husbandry shifted. Previously, most people lived on farms or in small towns. Nearly every family kept at least a few chickens. The flock was a source of income for many. Children were often responsible for caring for them, and they had excellent mentors. Parents and grandparents showed how to care for birds and butcher one for special meals.
That changed as the Industrial Revolution encouraged millions of people to migrate from farms to cities. Following the Second World War massive suburban growth sprawled over the countryside, and suburban town governments usually created ordinances to ban farm animals.
Generations of mentoring came to an end with suburbanization. And now, most Americans are now three or four generations removed from the farm. Today’s parents and grandparents know where to find eggs in the supermarket but lack any knowledge of chicken husbandry.
Fortunately, that is changing. Many suburban dwellers have become uneasy with their disconnect from the land. They want to produce wholesome food in the yard while helping their kids recognize that meals come from the soil, not the store. Modern urbanites and suburbanites face a dilemma. Producing food and caring for animals require skills that have been largely lost.
Unlike cattle, sheep, or hogs unsuited for suburban life, chickens are the one farm animal that function well in a tiny backyard. They’re small, relatively quiet, and can be raised in tiny coops that fit in even the smallest yard. Chickens mesh well with gardening while converting food scraps into delicious eggs. They are the perfect food-producing animal to raise in tight places with high human density.
Raising chickens isn’t complicated, but it can seem that way for novices who want to keep a small flock but lack mentors to learn from. Fortunately, the growing backyard chicken phenomenon is increasing acceptance of these docile animals in both cities and suburbia. It’s unleashing a torrent of books, websites, and magazines that help and encourage newcomers. Chicks, feed, supplies, and information are increasingly stocked in urban and suburban stores.
So, how does a person with no chicken experience learn how to start and care for a backyard flock? It is really not difficult. In many ways caring for chickens is similar to tending a family pet. Chickens, like dogs and cats, need safe housing and nutritious food. Anyone who has successfully kept a pet already knows the basics of animal care. Chickens have some special needs. Here are a few tips:
CHECK LOCAL ORDINANCES
In recent years dozens of city councils have responded to the surge of interest in backyard chickens by changing ordinances that once banned the birds. Typically, ordinances specify the number of hens that can be kept, usually four or six, and forbid noisy roosters or slaughtering of chickens in town.
The first step in keeping chickens is to find out if it’s legal. Almost all towns have a link on their website to access ordinances. Look for an animal or animal control link. A second way to learn is to call the city clerk. Usually this person is familiar with ordinances. In many cases there will be good news. Far more towns allow chickens now than they did a decade ago. If they are not legal locally, take heart. It may not be hard to encourage the town council to alter the ordinance to allow families to keep a small flock. Dozens of model ordinances are readily available for a local government to use as a model.
Surprisingly chickens are perfectly legal in many of our largest cities. Dozens of flocks live in New York City, for example. Some are in community gardens, enabling even residents of massive apartments to tend a flock in a nearby park. Ironically, small towns in farm country often ban chickens inside city limits.
Assuming that keeping chickens is legal, the next step for a newcomer is to learn how to maintain a flock. As chicken husbandry grows in popularity that’s becoming easier. Odds are almost certain that someone’s keeping chickens nearly everywhere. They’ll offer encouragement and knowledge but finding them can be a challenge. Using social media is one way to connect with them. Other ways to learn include:
Backyard Chicken Classes: Nature centers, city park departments, county extension offices, and stores that sell chicks and supplies often offer basic workshops for beginners. These are excellent ways to learn about chicken care and meet others who share a passion for keeping a flock.
Reading: Most public libraries stock chicken care books. These are also usually sold in stores that sell chicken supplies. Websites, like this one, provide outstanding information. Finally, one of the best sources of information comes from chick hatcheries. Most will send a free paper catalog, and all have websites. In addition to providing information on breeds nearly all online and paper catalogs include chicken care tips. They are a wealth of information, and most hatcheries are happy to help newcomers. A question posed in an email or by a phone call is likely to lead to enthusiastic help and information from hatchery staff.
Once someone has decided to keep chickens and done research, it takes time to prepare for the exciting day when chicks arrive. Coops can be homemade or purchased. Some tiny ones can be bought as kits at farm supply stores or ordered online. They are easy to assemble and work fine. Brooders are easy to make but must be ready before chicks arrive. It doesn’t need to cost a bundle or be complicated. People handy with tools can save money by building their own coop, nest boxes, feeders and roosts. Brooders can be made of a big cardboard box heated with a light bulb.
A key to success in keeping chickens for the first time is starting small and simple. A mini coop housing four hens of easy to manage breeds is an ideal way to gain experience managing a flock. Starting small is inexpensive and easy yet yields the experience a new person needs to expand the flock later.
That the majority of today’s children grow to maturity removed from food production is a modern tragedy. A few chickens in the backyard, combined with a vegetable garden, are an ideal family project that yields tasty food while connecting people to the earth that sustains us.