Until World War II, many homeowners kept chickens, even in the city. It was a practical way to have fresh eggs, the occasional pot of chicken soup, and a means of controlling bug populations in the kitchen garden.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in keeping backyard chickens. The reasons are obvious. Chickens are great company and, as far as household critters are concerned, they earn their keep. A couple healthy hens provide enough eggs for a small family to eat and cook with. Because you control their food and water, you know your eggs are from happy chickens, not a factory farm. In return for a little laying feed and scratch, your hens can be counted on to seek out and destroy all manner of bugs that might infest your garden and lawn. They also produce high-quality manure that, when combined with your compost, makes nutritious food for your plants.
Chickens are relatively easy to raise. As very social animals, they like company, so if you want a chicken, plan on at least two or three. Like any other animal, you need to make a commitment to caring for them every day.
The first step is checking your city ordinances for limits on keeping chickens. Many major cities allow hens, but no roosters. Not to worry—your hens don't need roosters to produce eggs. (Roosters are required if you want to fertilize eggs for additional chicks, but for most of us in the city or 'burbs, municipal ordinances won't allow them.) Typically, there is a limit on the number of birds you can keep and the distance the coop must be from your neighbor's windows. Many cities will act on complaints, so win your neighbors over with fresh eggs and keep your chickens clean.
Hens are pretty quiet, but are known for their various calls and chatter. They are particularly fond of announcing the arrival of eggs with good-natured squawks. If you've had a stressful day, pull up a chair and just watch them. They are as soothing as any fish tank as they busily scratch for food and insects.
Next, consider the location of your hen house and chicken run. A hen house can be as simple or elaborate as you want, but it must meet a few requirements. It must be
You can purchase a variety of chicken residences or build your own. The location should be sunny, but offer shade during the hottest part of the summer.
The size of the hen house and coop depends on the number of chickens you intend to keep. More room is better than less. Make it large enough to store a bale of straw or hay, the chicken crumble or pellets, scratch (cracked grain), and a rake. The hen house needs a door big enough to accommodate you and enough openings to provide cross ventilation, so it doesn't smell.
Hens also want a dry, enclosed, dark nesting area to lay eggs. A simple wooden box in a dark corner that has been filled with fresh straw will do. If you place the nesting boxes up off the floor, you'll be able to collect eggs easily and get to them for cleaning without unnecessary stooping. Add a couple perches for your hens, too.
Build a fenced enclosure to keep the hens in, but more importantly, to keep other critters and birds out. If you have a completely fenced back yard, you can let the hens free range, then pen them up in their house at night.
Hens keep themselves clean by taking dust baths, especially in the summer. You can prevent mites and lice by providing diatomaceous earth for them to fluff around in.
By starting your chicken husbandry with chicks, you'll have more success with them being socialized to you. Depending on the amount of hands-on care, they will become like any other family pet. They'll know who you are and come to greet you at the end of a busy day.
Chicks are available from a number of sources. Do a little research if breed and size is important to you. They can be purchased in the spring at many feed stores as well as online from well-known hatcheries like McMurray's. If you have hens already, you can purchase fertilized eggs and attempt a swap between unfertilized eggs you've intentionally left for your hens to brood. When it works, Mama Hen will do the brooding for you, but timing is critical.
Chicks are easiest to obtain in the early spring. This allows several months for them to get big enough to tolerate outdoor temperatures. Get females, not males. Sexing chicks isn't 100% accurate, so don't be surprised if you end up with a cockerel instead of a pullet. If so, find a home for the young fellow, or have him butchered for dinner.
Baby chicks need to be kept clean and warm with constant access to chick feed and fresh water. In the olden days, housewives kept a brooder near the woodstove. Since you probably don't have a woodstove going all day, you'll need a brooder to contain them. Keeping them in the house in a large plastic bin lined with old towels, a quart watering jar, and a food tray isn't elegant, but it works. The bin needs to be cleaned every day by changing the towels (which provide traction for little bird feet) and replacing the water and food containers with clean ones. Clean, warm chicks thrive; dirty, cold chicks die.
Some chicks die anyway, especially if you are new to this. Get one of the books listed below and read it cover to cover to answer questions before you start, but be prepared for a few fatalities. If you can get them past the first week or so, chances are good you'll have sturdy survivors.
This is a quick, simplified overview of what it takes to have a couple hens. There is more to it of course, which experience and more comprehensive sources will provide.
Hens lay eggs from about six or seven months of age until they are about four or five years old, but they can live for several years longer. Many people keep them as pets long past the point of egg laying, in effect creating their own poultry retirement village. Others, arguably less sentimental, have no problem with having old hens butchered and turned into soup.
Hens are wonderful, friendly creatures with unique personalities that offer us eggs, insect control, and rich manure. Regardless of whether you decide to keep them as pets or as working farm animals, for your daily commitment, they will provide a tremendous amount of enjoyment and satisfaction. They'll also open a new window into the world of nature and your part in it, which makes for a wonderful family education, too.
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