Why Keep Chickens? It’s Easy, Cheap, and Fun!
While there’s the obvious appeal of eating farm-fresh eggs laid by happy hens eating healthy food, the satisfaction of collecting eggs from the nest pales in comparison to the enjoyment of raising these rewarding creatures.
While raising chickens in the city isn't quite as easy as caring for houseplants, there are some parallels: Once their basic needs are met, you just give them food and water every couple days and they’ll be fine.
Joys of the backyard flock. Not that you would want to ignore them — chickens loads of fun and they make great pets. Hens gossip amongst themselves, have charming little personalities, come when you call them and follow you around. Some love to be patted and all look forward to a tasty treat from you (such as a banana or cracked corn). You’ll find their antics endlessly entertaining. Kids adore them, and toddlers can chase them forever (and never catch one).
Other benefits include control of weeds and insects, as they patrol your yard devouring bugs, slugs, snails and weed seeds. Many homeowners report seeing fewer pests once they introduce chickens to the backyard.
Chicken manure is famously beneficial for gardens (let it mellow first, though, as its nitrogen content is so high that plants can get fertilizer burn if it’s not composted for a few months before it goes on the garden.)
Theoretically you could keep chickens for meat, too, but most people take the eggs-and-pets approach.
Zen chickens, Zen mind. It’s remarkably soothing to watch chickens walking around your backyard. The tranquility and calming effect are akin to the benefits of gazing at tropical fish in an aquarium.
But is it legal? Yes, most likely your municipality does permit chickens, just as it allows dogs and cats. The number will be limited, and roosters are never welcome in the city because of their noise. You will want to check your city’s website for the current land-use regulations. In Seattle for example, as of August, 2010, Municipal Code Section 23.42.052 reads:
“Up to eight (8) domestic fowl may be kept on any lot in addition to the small animals allowed. On lots greater than 10,000 sf. ft. that include either a community garden or an urban farm, one (1) additional fowl is permitted for every 1,000 sf. ft. of lot area over 10,000 sf. ft. in community garden or urban farm use.”
So let's get started! Read on for more information about:
Choosing breeds. It’s all about talent, looks, and personality. Chicken breeds come in all sizes, shapes, colors and fabulous plumage styles, from tiny bantams with feathered feet, to “furry” silkies, to Polish breeds sporting “big hair” that any ‘80s rock relic would envy. Most breeds lay brown eggs, while some lay white eggs (all Leghorns, Minorcas, and Anconas). Araucanas lay eggs in hues of green, blue, or pink (depending on the bird). These so-called “Easter Egg” chickens were popularized by Martha Stewart, who found inspiration in their naturally occurring designer egg colors.
Some larger breeds are particularly well adapted to extremely cold climates (looks for breeds described as “heavy” and “tightly feathered”). The variations are incredible; pick up photographer Stephen Green-Armytage’s coffee-table books, Extraordinary Chickens and Extra Extraordinary Chickens, for hundreds of portraits of exotic chicken breeds.
If you’re looking forward to fresh eggs every morning, be sure to select breeds developed for egg production not meat production, or choose “dual purpose” birds, such as Orpingtons, Wyandottes, Rocks, and Reds. Or, just ask the staff at the feed store where you buy the chicks what they recommend.
Breeds also have distinct personalities. Silkies are known to be sweet-tempered and make particularly good pets. (Silkies are also excellent mothers — some breeders keep Silkies to hatch and raise other hens’ chicks). Australorps are inquisitive and outgoing. If a tranquil backyard idyll is your vision, get calm, sedate breeds (such as Buff Orpingtons, Australorps, or Silkies), not nervous breeds such as Sicilian Buttercups or Sebrights.
Read up on the traits of breeds to get an idea of what you’re looking for. (In the links section below, check out the McMurray Hatchery and Oklahoma State U’s Chicken Breeds sites.) Mix it up and get a couple different breeds just for the fun of it. Realistically, though, your options for breeds are limited to the chicks available at the nearest feed stores.
How many should I get? Chickens are sociable creatures. Never get just one chicken; it would be very lonely. Two is better so they can keep each other company. Three is a nice number for your small flock — and probably the legal limit in your city. If three is your goal, consider getting four chicks — there’s a fairly high attrition rate; chicks are remarkably creative at killing themselves off (by getting sick, drowning in the water dish, or piling up in a corner and suffocating).
Do I need a rooster to get eggs? No, city slicker, you don’t. Hens lay eggs whether there’s a rooster around or not. The eggs just won’t be fertilized without the rooster. Besides being illegal in most cities, roosters crow all day long (not just at dawn) and will make your neighbors murderously unhappy.
Coop Basics: Gimme Shelter and Chicken Run (Not the Movie)
Your chickens won’t care if their home is a prefab dog house on cinder blocks or a scale model of a Swiss chalet. The bottom line is, you can’t go wrong — as long as it meets the few very basic needs of your hens.
Shelter from weather. A standard approach is a coop (house) connected to a fenced run. The coop must provide dry shelter from rain and wind, and it should be ventilated without being drafty. In cold climates, sturdier construction, a light bulb for heat, and a heated waterer are appropriate. The run can be at least partially exposed to the elements. Check out free coop plans from City Girl Farming.
Size. Figure on a minimum of three square feet per bird, but they’ll be happier with more room.
Roosts. Chickens like to perch up high at night, usually side by side. Provide them with two-inches diameter roosting bars inside and outside the coop and up off the floor — the higher the better. Don’t place one roost above another, or else the bottom hen will get pooped on. Figure on at least eight inches of perch space per bird; more is nicer. Try to train your chicks to use them while still young; it’s tough to teach an old hen new tricks.
Nesting box. Hens will take turns laying eggs in the nesting box, so they can share just one. It should be a box at least one-foot square, elevated off the floor of the coop, featuring a cloth flap for privacy. A three-inch “porch” in front of the entrance makes it easier for them to hop in and keeps eggs from rolling out. Place straw in the box for padding to protect eggs from breakage. An outside hatch to the nesting box makes it easy to collect eggs!
Protection from predators. The coop and the run must be fenced on the top and sides to keep out raccoons and dogs. Bury the fencing around the coop at least six inches below ground to keep critters from digging under the fence. Doors on the coop and the run must latch securely; raccoons in particular are very creative.
Protection for your garden. Your chickens will scratch and dig up all parts of their fenced run, leaving no living plants in their wake, so consider how you’ll keep them out of your garden.
Design the coop for YOU, too. Make it easy on yourself; for example, the coop and run (and their doors) should be tall enough for you to walk in. A nesting box that you can access from outside the coop is particularly handy, so you can just lift the hatch to collect eggs, rather than having to walk into the coop and reach back into their nest. Outfit your coop with a feeder and a waterer big enough that you can load them up with everything they need and then take off for a three-day weekend assured that they’re self-sustaining while you’re gone.
Consider how you’ll keep the coop reasonably clean. Droppings accumulate under the roosts, so a removable tray there might be an option. Or, spread a deep layer of wood shavings on the floor, which you can rake out and occasionally replace with fresh litter. Another option is a solid cleanable floor that can be hosed off.
Feeder. Hang the feeder at the height of your chicken’s back to help keep the food clean of debris and discourage the birds from perching on it or scratching in it.
Waterer. Get a waterer that’s big enough for your long weekend away, but small enough that it’s easy to carry back to the coop when full.
Lighting. Some owners outfit their coop with a 40- to 60-watt bulb on a timer, to extend the “daylight” hours in the wintertime and keep hens laying all year long.
Location, location, location. Where should you locate the chicken coop on your lot? Some considerations: Check your city regulations. In Seattle: “Structures housing domestic fowl must be located at least 10 feet away from any residential structure on an adjacent lot.”
Consider your neighbors and put the coop where it won’t offend anyone. While a chicken coop isn’t necessarily terribly smelly — especially if you rake it out occasionally — you still don’t want it right under the bedroom window, since chickens kick up a lot of dust and sometimes make noise clucking and squawking. A convenient location near to a storage shed (where you can keep their feed) and near a compost pile (to let the manure mellow before it goes on your garden) is ideal. Under a porch or alongside a house or garage could be perfect. While they enjoy basking in the sun, chickens must have access to shade during the hot days of summer.
The view (yours, not theirs). It’s fun to be able to see your chickens from your house. Or, you might prefer to tuck the coop out of view behind a shed or in the back corner.
Designer homes. You can design a coop yourself, buy a kit online, or download plans for a coop and build it yourself. Basic requirements aside, the design of the coop is your choice. Some owners choose a “chicken tractor” design of a portable coop and pen that can be moved around the yard for the chickens to scratch around and fertilize one section of the yard at a time.
Picking Up Chicks
It’s a fun and rewarding journey to start with baby chicks and watch them grow up into adult laying hens. You'll need to venture to a farm supply store that carries baby chicks. Look in the phone book for feed stores; they’re often remarkably close to urban centers. Save yourself a car trip by calling around first to inquire what breeds they carry and when they’re available. Spring to early summer is the usual season for getting chicks.
It’s also possible to buy day-old chicks online from commercial hatcheries and have them shipped to you. While hatcheries carry all types of breeds, they typically have a minimum shipping order of about two dozen — not practical for a small backyard operation.
Chicks are cheap (“cheep cheep!”): Most farm-supply stores and many urban nurseries sell chicks. In addition, you can find chicks through an online search for reputable breeders in your area (When you pick them up, look for a clean environment and knowledgeable staff). For example, in Seattle, a recent hotbed for urban chicken farming, Seattle Farm Supply sells most chicks for $5.95 each. Chicken feed here runs from $18.95 for 25 lbs. of chick feed to $17.50 for 25 lbs. of adult feed. Your biggest costs will be building materials for the coop and fenced run.
Newly hatched chicks are sexed at the hatchery — examined and grouped as boys or girls — and sold at feed stores as males, females, or “straight run,” which means chicks that haven’t been sexed so are about a 50/50 mix. Do yourself a favor: only buy females. Taking a gamble by buying a straight-run chick means you stand an excellent chance of finding out four months later that your dear pet is a rooster not a hen, and you’ll have to face the task of finding him a new home. Buy any other supplies you need while you’re at the feed store.
When you take your little darlings home in a paper bag or cardboard box, be sure to keep them warm until they reach your awaiting brood cage. Darkness may keep them calmer during the car ride.
Care and Feeding for Chicks
Brooder basics. When raising baby chicks, you’ll need a cage or pen to keep them warm, dry, away from drafts and safely out of reach of the family cat or dog. Figure on a minimum size of one square foot per chick for their first six weeks.
Location and light. The location needs to be warm, bright, and away from drafts. Inside the house near a window is a good choice; if you opt for the basement or garage, make sure you provide at least ten hours of light (up to 18 hours is recommended for the first week of life). Chicks generate a surprising amount of dust, so place them in an area that’s easy to keep clean.
Heat. For warmth, a heat lamp works fine — you can buy just the bulb at a hardware store. Suspend it about two feet above the floor of the cage. Keep a thermometer in the cage at chick level and check it often. Have the cage preheated and the lamp and temperature adjusted and fine-tuned before your chicks come home — try it out ahead of time. The temperature should be 90°F for the first week, then reduced by 5 degrees per week by moving the lamp higher. It’s best to have the lamp situated such that the chicks can move closer to get warmer or further away if it’s too hot.
Bedding. Cover the floor of the cage or pen with a litter that you can keep clean and dry. Several inches of wood shavings or straw are good options. Old towels work well while they’re very young (change it out every day). Newspaper can be layered underneath the litter, but don’t use newspaper alone; there have been reports that paper is too slippery for chicks and can cause knee and leg injuries. Why risk it?
Food and water. The first thing to do when you introduce the chicks to their new home is to teach each chick to eat and drink by dipping its beak in the water and in the feed. You’ll need a small feeder and waterer for chicks; later, when they’re older and in your backyard you’ll want a larger feeder and waterer.
Chickens have different nutritional needs at different phases of their life. For example, while laying hens need calcium for strong eggshells, calcium can actually be harmful to chicks. Give chicks “starter” feed that you can buy at the farm supply store. Keep their feeder and waterer full and clean. It’s a good idea to secure the feeder and waterer to the side of the cage, or suspend them at the height of the birds’ backs, in order to keep chicks from tipping them over, spilling the contents, getting wet or perching on the equipment and leaving droppings in the food and water.
What's up? Chicken butt. You may need to wipe their little butts with a wet washcloth occasionally if droppings stick to their behinds; vents on chicks can become blocked with dried droppings, causing the chicks to die.
Adolescence to Adulthood: My, How Fast You’ve Grown!
The cute fuzz-ball stage of chick hood only lasts a week before your babies start to grow pin feathers and become awkward teenagers. It’s amazing how quickly they grow up! Give them low perches to get them used to the idea of roosting — they may or may not figure it out at this age.
Chicks can be moved outside at about six weeks old if the weather is mild and they are protected from weather and cold temperatures. Consider bringing them back inside for the evening while the spring nights are still chilly.
Pullets 2 Henz. Chickens are considered chicks up until 20 weeks, when they reach laying age. From 20 weeks until 12 months old, a laying chicken is called a pullet. After one year of age they’re called hens.
Feed. Chicks can stay on starter feed for six to eight weeks, and then go to a chick-grower feed until they’re ready to lay, at 20 weeks of age. At that point you’ll switch them over to layer feed. Feed is available (back at the feed store or at some pet stores) as crumble or pellets, and it’s designed to meet their balanced nutritional needs.
Going organic. Organic chicken feed is often available for an additional expense. Word on the street is that rats love it. Rats are already a problem in many urban areas, even before your chicken feeder becomes their all-you-can-eat buffet. Reduce rat problems by feeding chickens in the morning, so that they have all day to eat, then leave the feeder empty at night when the rodents roam. Or use commercial (non-organic) chicken feed, which rats seem to leave alone.
Storage. Keep chicken feed dry in an airtight container; otherwise it gets moldy, which can make your birds sick. Don’t buy more than a couple months worth at a time to ensure they’re getting fresh feed. A chicken eats approximately 100 pounds of feed per year.
Calcium. To help make strong eggshells, supplement the diet of laying hens by providing a dish of crushed oyster shells for added calcium. Hens will eat as much as they need. Some people also save old eggshells, toast them, crush them up finely and give those back to their hens.
Grit. If your birds have an outdoor run area, they won’t need grit. Otherwise, provide a pan of grit (crushed rock, also sold in feed stores) which helps birds grind up the feed inside their gizzard (stomach).
Scratch. You’ll see “scratch grain” sold at feed stores. Scratch is OK as a treat, but it’s not a balanced diet, and uneaten grains can sprout weeds.
Water. Chickens must have access to clean fresh water at all times. Each chicken can drink about a pint of water a day, even more in very hot weather. It’s a basic necessity; besides, they’ll quit laying if they get thirsty.
Kitchen scraps, etc. Your chickens will be delighted to devour kitchen scraps — vegetable trimmings, over-ripe fruit, stale bread and almost anything else you can think of. Leftover rice and leftover plain spaghetti are always a favorite, as are bananas and cantaloupe. Your household may play the game “What WON’T the chickens eat?” Transform leftovers into fresh eggs — how efficient! Just avoid feeding meat to chickens so that they don’t develop a taste for it, since excessive pecking and cannibalism can become a problem in a flock. Also, give the chickens only as much as they’ll consume during that day so that food scraps don’t attract rodents and other pests to your yard at night.
Treats. Cracked corn is a favored treat. It’s not a complete food (being high in fat and low in protein), but do keep some around. Corn is an excellent bribe for when you need to lure an escaped chicken home from a neighbor’s yard or coax them back in to the coop before dusk. Get them used to coming for a handful of corn when you call them. Training them to come this way is a whole lot easier than trying to chase and catch them!
Medications. Chicks are vaccinated at the hatchery, and starter chick feed contains some medications. Some owners recommend feeding them pumpkin seeds a couple times a year to cure any worms they might have; others give them vitamin C in their water once in a while.
At around 20 weeks of age, your young ladies will begin laying their first eggs. Hurrah! This is the moment you’ve been waiting for! Every day is like Christmas when you get to collect the eggs from the nest and proudly share them with friends and family.
You’ll notice that when cracked open into a pan, fresh eggs sit plumper than store-bought eggs, and the yolk is a bright sunny yellow or even orange if the chickens are eating grass. Most people say the taste is noticeably better than commercial eggs.
Egg-laying is often accompanied by a lot of fuss and squawking coming from the coop. Apparently it’s a bit painful. Others say the hens are proudly announcing their accomplishment. Go check and you might find the egg still hot off the chicken.
Eggs will easily last at least two or three weeks in the refrigerator. The eggs sold in supermarkets can legally be up to 100 days old. Pencil the date on each egg before you put it in the ‘fridge so you know how old it is. As eggs age, they lose moisture and the air pocket at each end grows larger; that’s why fresh eggs will sink in water while an egg that floats is too old to eat.
Should I wash the eggs? Eggs are laid with a protective coating that resists bacteria. Brush off any dirt, but avoid washing the eggs unless necessary. Once washed, they should be used promptly.
How many eggs does a hen lay? Technically, about one every 30 hours. Realistically, that means an egg every day or two per hen. The first winter they may keep laying through the winter, but otherwise they tend to take the winter off unless you outfit their coop with extra lighting and heat during the winter months. Chickens are most productive their first couple years; egg-laying declines after that. Time of year, age, health, temperature, breed and other factors affect productivity.
Will they hatch? Don’t be silly. No rooster means no chicks.
Broken eggs. Sometimes all you’ll find in the nest is broken eggshells. If your hens are getting enough calcium for strong eggs and a bed of straw is cushioning the nest, the problem might be that they’re eating their own eggs. Try collecting the eggs promptly to break them of this habit. Also, rats are known to eat eggs — another reason to collect eggs at least once a day.
The optimal life expectancy of a chicken is around 10-12 years. A better question is: How would anyone know that? Chickens seldom die of natural causes; something nearly always gets them before they’ll reach a ripe old age.
Predators. While a fox in the henhouse isn’t an issue in the city, raccoons are. Raccoon-proofing your coop is the single most important thing you can do to keep your chickens safe. Coon-proof means wire fencing on the top and all sides. Make sure they can’t dig underneath the fence or undo a latch. You can let you chickens roam free in your backyard during the day and they’ll put themselves to bed at dusk, trotting back to the coop and hopping up onto their roosts. Then it’s your job to lock the gate behind them before nightfall. Cats and full-grown chickens get along fine together, but dogs and chickens just don’t mix — the temptation is more than any dog should be asked to resist.
Even if you tried your best, it’s possible a chicken will at some point fall prey to a raccoon or dog. The heartache is real; some people give up having hens because it’s just too sad when bad things happen to good chickens.
Neighbors. Be proactive. Give extra eggs away to your neighbors — it builds goodwill, makes them less likely to complain about clucking noises, and perhaps they’ll return the favor by looking after your flock when you’re away on vacation. Show some kids your chickens, and your yard will soon become a neighborhood attraction.
Rats. Backyard chickens can attract rats, which eat chicken feces (incredible as that sounds, it’s true). Rats also apparently love organic chicken feed. If rats are a problem in your city, make an extra effort to keep the coop clean, collect eggs promptly, and feed chickens each morning so that their feeder is empty at night when the rats commence to roaming.
Getting rid of chickens. Sometimes even the most promising relationships don’t work out. If you no longer want your hens, try to find a friend or neighbor with kids who could give them a good home. Or, if one of your chicks turns out to be a rooster, you’ll find yourself in the awkward position of have to get rid of him. When in doubt, put them on Craigslist. As a last resort, drive them out to a feed store, where employees might know someone who can take them off your hands — though they might end up on that someone’s dinner table.
Prepare for urban chicken “retirement” with the helpful transition plan outlined on TheTangledNest.com.
Moulting. At some point, your hens will have a really bad hair day. In fact, it’ll be a really bad hair month. About once a year, often in the fall, their feathers will gradually fall out and new ones will grow back. This is called moulting. It’s normal, and the hens usually stop laying during this time. Try not to make fun of them; a near-naked chicken is not a beautiful sight.
Cannibalism. Hens maintain a literal pecking order that reflects social status in the flock. Sometimes, things can get out of hand and a hen will pick at others' feathers, particularly if they’re crowded in their space or if they’re bored. Nip this in the bud if you can. At its worst, excessive pecking can progress to cannibalism; once they get a taste for chicken, it’s hard to stop the gruesome habit.
Flight risk. Some hens are able to fly just enough to clear the backyard fence. Leghorns and bantams are known flyers. Some other chickens never even try it. If flying is a problem, it’s OK to clip one or both wings. Hold the chicken, extend its wing, and cut the wingtip with scissors. Clipping about half the length of a feather should do it. Let the chickens keep all their feathers going into winter, though; they need the extra warmth.
Getting help. Thanks to the current popularity of urban chicken-keeping, there are plenty of resources available should you have questions or encounter problems. There are excellent books for the hobby hen-keeper, as well as online information and message boards where you can get any question answered by your peers. Facebook pages and twitter accounts for resources like urbanchickens.net help you stay connected and, yes, tweet about your new favorite pet.
Resource for Raising Chickens in the City
This list is by no means complete; there are plenty of books and websites on every aspect of urban chicken-keeping. Here are just a few to get you started:
Urban farming classes
Urban farming websites
Seattle Tilth: City Chickens. Seattle Tilth provides expert advice, information, and resources in their comprehensive "City Chickens" guide.
Seattle Farm Co-op: Offers a Yahoo list serve for members ($50 lifetime), as well as classes and other resources
City Girl Farming. Great overview information for starting your urban flock.
Saltbox Designs Chicken Coops. Check out this site to peep amazing custom chicken coops and runs.
Backyard Chickens. Enthusiasts’ site for owners of pet chickens. Has an active message board where people can get answers from one another.
Murray McMurray Hatchery. This hatchery’s site has lots of pictures and info about various breeds, as well as excellent info on chick care.
Oklahoma State U’s Chicken Breeds. Oklahoma State University’s site discusses the dispositions of various breeds.
Mad City Chickens. When the city of Madison, Wisconsin, made backyard chicken-keeping legal, folks there flocked together and assembled these resources to help beginning chicken owners.
The Easy Chicken for Beginners. General tips for getting started.
Just for Fun
The Tangled Nest. Seattle nature writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt shares inspiring musing and images from her own backyard chicken coop. She also includes a helpful plan for building an urban coop.
Mike the Headless Chicken. The story of Mike, who survived his 1945 decapitation to live another 1.5 years, earning fame and fortune for his owners.
The Natural History of the Chicken. This highly entertaining PBS documentary focuses as much on the nutty people who keep chickens as on the birds themselves.
Chicken Stories. Including answers to the famous question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History from Neolithic Middens to McNuggets. This 2002 Yale conference site has an overview and papers tracing the complex history of the relationship between humans and hens.
Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces, by Barbara Kilarski
Chickens In Your Backyard: A Beginner's Guide, by Rick and Gail Luttmann
Keeping Pet Chickens, by Johannes Paul, William Windham, Joe Stahlkuppe
Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens: Care / Feeding / Facilities, by Gail Damerow
Poultry House Construction, by Michael Roberts
The Chicken Health Handbook, by Gail Damerow
ABC of Poultry Raising: A Complete Guide for the Beginner or Expert, by J. H. Florea
Extraordinary Chickens, by Stephen Green-Armytage