Bringing Chickens to Your Backyard – Where to Start

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.

LEARNING

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.

GETTING READY

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.

START SMALL

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.

Vacation Time – Keeping Chickens Safe & Healthy When Away

Caring for chickens and enjoying their beauty and eggs are part of a healthy lifestyle yet it comes with everyday responsibility. Every once in a while, a flock owner needs a vacation or weekend getaway. Ensuring that the flock is safe while its owner is gone can be challenging. There are solutions.

Many aspects of chicken care must be done daily. These include filling waterers and feeders, opening the pop hole each morning and closing it at dusk, and collecting eggs. Other tasks include fending off a predator, keeping bird’s safe during extreme weather and, rarely, caring for a sick or injured chicken,

FRIENDS, FAMILY AND NEIGHBORS

Nothing beats having friends, family or neighbors as temporary chicken caregivers.   Few people have ever tended chickens. While they may be eager to fill in, they likely need training and coaching.  A wise flockowner lines up substitute caregivers well before the vacation so there is plenty of time to train the sub. Having a few volunteers ready to fill in is invaluable should an unexpected trip come up at short notice.

A trusty substitute should be comfortable around the flock and know what needs to be done and where supplies are. Here are a few tips.

  • Leave a cell phone number and other contact information in case the sub needs to be in touch.
  • Before leaving fill all waterers and feeders.
  • Post in the coop in a plastic sleeve to keep it clean a written list of daily tasks.
  • Have plenty of extra feed in storage near the coop so the caretaker doesn’t have to buy any when you’re gone.
  • Welcome the caregiver to take eggs home to enjoy. Leave extra egg boxes handy to make carrying them easy.
  • Assure the caregiver that every once in a while, a chicken dies. Be sure he or she understands that this happens and is not his fault. Let the caregiver know how to dispose of a dead bird.There are ways to legally and safely dispose of a dead chicken. Burying is an option. Many communities allow homeowners to place dead animals in the trash if the body is placed in double or triple plastic bags. Check with your town’s sanitation department to learn the procedure. If it’s hot and trash collection won’t occur for several days it may be wise to triple bag and seal the dead hen and put her in a freezer until trash day.
  • Show the caregiver how to open and latch windows in case of severe weather.
  • Offer to care for their own chickens, pets, or home when they are away. If appropriate offer to pay them and bring them a small gift from the trip.

A WEEKEND GETAWAY

For a very short absence during mild weather it’s possible to set up a coop so the flock is fine without daily human attention. Having supplies on hand and the coop prepared for a couple of days absence makes leaving them untended possible even though it’s always best to have a substitute visit daily.

There are two possible problems in leaving hens without daily care. One is egg collection. Ideally eggs should be collected every day. When uncollected so many eggs can accumulate in the nest that some may break. Nests designed so eggs roll out for easy collection solve the problem. A second problem is opening and closing the pop hole. Solar or timer controlled devices can be purchased to automatically open and close the door at the proper time. Or, simply leave the hens inside for a couple of days.

Redundant waterers and feeders are important. Have at least two waterers in the coop just in case one leaks when you are gone.

Chickens should never be left untended if extreme cold or beastly heat are predicted.   Cold freezes drinking water and eggs, and chickens can die if left in a stifling coop without relief.

Everyone needs to get away once in a while. With a little preparation and good friends, the flock will be healthy and productive while its owner sits on a distant beach or enjoys a weekend in the mountains.

Keeping Your Chickens Cool This Summer

Summer is an exciting time for your chickens, they likely have more freedom than the winter months and enjoy exploring in the warmer weather. But it can also be a time where vigilance is key as a chicken owner. The extreme temps can take a toll quickly on your feathered friends, so taking proper heat precautions is extremely important. Here are a few tips to make sure your chickens have a comfortable summer.

Signs of Heatstroke

  • Lethargic and not actively moving around.
  • Open beaks with wings spread out. The birds look similar to a dog that is panting.
  • Little or no intake of food and water.

Water

  • Make sure your chickens always have fresh and clean water. It is a good idea to give fresh water at least every 24 hours. Stagnant and dirty water attracts mosquitos and acts as a petri dish for holding diseases. Old and lukewarm water will not be appealing to your birds and it will cause them to stop drinking, which can lead to lower egg production, forced molt, dehydration and possibly death.
  • It is a good idea to put ice in your watering system. Chickens may stop consuming water if the temperature of the water rises above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shade/Coop Ventilation

  • Have your coop in an area that is covered and protects the flock from the sun.
  • Make sure the coop has several open windows that allow air to flow through the structure. Windows can be added to the coop by cutting holes in the sides of the structure and covering the holes with hardware cloth. The hardware cloth should keep predators out of the coop, but it will allow more air circulation and ventilation for the birds.
  • Consider letting your flock free range in the summer. Free range chickens can have more opportunities to find shade and cool off in dust bathing areas. There are certainly risks involved in letting your chickens free range, but it can be a great option for keeping them cool in the summer time.

Treats

  • Melons and squash are great treats for the summer.
  • Chickens love watermelon as a treat and it naturally increases water intake, since watermelon is about 91% water.

AC for the Flock

  • You can freeze gallon jugs of water and place them in and around your coop. The jugs of water can lower the temperature in the coop and perform as a makeshift air conditioner.
  • A small baby pool gives chickens the option to cool off in the summer time. (You only need to fill the pool with a few inches of water).
  • Purchase a mister attachment for your hose. The mister attachment can reduce the body temperature of your birds as well as the ground temperature around the coop.
  • Consider placing fans in and around the coop. There are battery and electrical powered fans available at your local hardware store (make sure the fans are not close to any water, as this can potentially be a fire hazard).

 

Rain Barrels For The Chicken Coop

Many backyard chicken coops share an annoying problem. They’re located a distance from a water source. Hauling buckets of heavy water from the house to the chickens is time consuming work. Plus, water costs money, whether you buy water from a municipality or pay for electricity to run a pump.

There’s a simple solution.  Rain barrels harvest and hold the water that nature provides for free.     A single rain barrel typically holds enough water to fill a five gallon chicken waterer upwards of a dozen times. Even droughts produce occasional showers and most people are astonished to learn how quickly a light rain falling on a small roof fills the barrel.

For example a half-inch rain falling on the 250-square-foot roof of a modest sized chicken coop harvests 78 gallons of water – more than most rain barrels hold. That water is clean, fresh, and free.

 According to Lynn Ruck, owner of Rain Barrel Solutions in Apex, North Carolina, water coming off metal or asphalt roofs is safe for small animals to drink.  Only water coming from wooden roofs treated with preservatives shouldn’t be given to animals. Rain barrel water is also ideal for irrigating garden plants.

Position your rain barrel just outside the coop where the most water comes off the roof or under a downspout. This puts water only a few feet from where the hens need it. Remember that a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds, so a filled rain barrel will weigh up to 400 pounds. Be certain it is secure and sits on a flat, level surface. Positioning it on a few cinder blocks makes it easier to draw water out of the tap at the base.

Dozens of rain barrels are on the market or they can be made at home. Good rain barrels are made of opaque material that keeps water dark to prevent algae growth and have a secure lid to keep animals or children from falling in. The lid has holes covered with mosquito netting to allow water to enter from gutter downspouts but prevent entry by insects and debris. A hose tap near the bottom makes it easy to fill buckets or attach a hose.