Thinking About Raising Chickens?
Chickens are both fun and useful to keep. Don’t expect to keep a breeding flock with noisy roosters, but your hens will earn their keep and provide enjoyment by laying eggs for you. Chickens can provide you with healthy, homegrown eggs and meat, quality nitrogen-rich fertilizer, pest control, and companionship. Perhaps surprisingly, a reasonable number of chickens can adapt very well to the constraints of an urban environment.
Check local laws and regulations. It may be illegal for you to own chickens in your city location, so start out by calling the local animal control office or your local municipality and asking what the laws are in your area. More and more ordinances are available online as well, so it’s worth doing a search. Since roosters are perceived as noisy, they usually tend to fall under your city’s noise or nuisance ordinances. While hens are normally very quiet, they may still be subject to nuisance ordinances. Check the city code before you get your birds and become attached to them!
Some cities limit the number of chickens you can have on a given amount of land. In areas that were recently rural or have a strong farming culture, no law or license may be required to keep chickens.
If chickens are illegal in your area all is not lost. Many people have managed to get pro-chicken ordinances passed, such as Madison, WI, and Ann Arbor MI. However, you may need to be prepared to practice some activism in order to lobby your local authorities.
Research the breed and number of chickens you want to keep before you buy them. There are several ways to choose the chicken breed, such as for their egg-laying prowess, their meat potential or just because they’re pretty (sometimes all three reasons coincide).
Be aware that many breeds also come in “bantam” sizes (like “toy” breeds for dogs) which are roughly a quarter of the size of large breeds. The Buff Orpington makes a good choice for beginners and comes in both large and bantam sizes. Some friendly layers like Rhode Island Reds or Barred Plymouth Rocks are always a good choice. They are both meat and laying birds and they tend to be easy birds to keep since they have a very mild temper.
Another popular breed is Cochin bantams. These are good layers, are very sweet, and make great pets. For beginners, dual-purpose breeds are probably a sound first choice. There is a ton of information available on the hundreds of breeds of chickens. Surf online to look for chicken breeds, urban chickens, and city chickens just to start with.
There are many online forums comprised of your fellow chicken owners, and they are great resources for advice, chicks, adult birds, and supplies. Some hatcheries also have online forums.
Visit other urban dwellers who keep chickens in their backyards and see what they’re doing. Ask them for advice and suggestions. If you’re the only person you know who is interested in doing this, visit the closest farmer who keeps chickens (especially if you’ve never had chickens before) and watch and learn. Pay a visit to your local farmers market, see who’s selling fresh eggs, and start up a conversation.
Build your chickens a good coop out of strong materials. The coop is a place where the chickens will spend the night, lay eggs, and get out of the bad weather. There are many different types of coops. If you’re handy, you can easily build one using a design you find on the Internet, or something you already have lying around. There are many different types of successful chicken coops that imaginative people have created, made from things as strange as an old pickup truck bed cap to a dog house. The key is to make your coop a safe place for the chickens to lay their eggs and sleep.
A rule of thumb is 4 square feet inside the coop per chicken (2 square feet per bantam) and 10 square feet of outdoor space (8 square feet per bantam).
The coop should have good airflow and a low roost for your chickens to sleep. Good ventilation is crucial but ensure that there are no drafts. Be aware that hens create a lot of moisture, including high levels of ammonia and carbon dioxide which must be removed regularly, as well as ensuring these elements are vented out.
Use removable perches; this is so that they can be taken out and disinfected regularly to kill off mites and other parasites.
Build nest/laying boxes where your chickens can cozy up and lay their eggs. The box should be large enough to hold a hen (around 12 inches/30cm square) and include a small lip at the front to help stop eggs from rolling out once laid. A little bit of straw, sawdust, or pine needles (not hay as it’s not absorbent enough) to make litter for the nest goes a long way.
You only need one nest box per four hens. Keep the boxes dark. If you build laying boxes that can be accessed from outside as well as in, you won’t need to go inside every time to collect the eggs.
The floor should be lined with untreated pine wood chips (cedar can be toxic to chickens), sawdust, straw or pine needles and cleaned once a week. You can use dropping boards to catch droppings under perches; these are easier to remove and clean. Litter collected from the hen house can be turned into great compost for your garden!
Prepare adequately for your chickens for the whole year. They will need shade in the summer and heat in the winter. If you live where there are cold winters you may need to set up a heat lamp in the coop or a water heater and make sure you have chosen a cold-hardy breed of chicken.
Protect against burrowing vermin such as rats and mice by burying about 6 inches (15cm) of the fencing wire below ground level and curling it outwards. Then when pests try to dig under the wire to get in your coop, they run into the wire instead. Predators are very patient and have all night to get themselves a good chicken dinner, and chickens sleep very soundly.
Check the finished coop carefully for dangers such as protruding wires and nails. Chickens are very curious and it’s cheaper to prevent accidents than it is to take them to the vet.
Give your chickens room to roam. If you have a safely fenced yard or an off-street area, let them wander freely during the day. If you give them a good spot to get out of the weather and up off the ground, they usually won’t go very far from it. Often chickens prefer not to go anywhere they can’t see their coop from. If you can’t let them roam free, try making a little run for them out of hardware cloth (strong, welded wire fencing that has small, square openings, most hardware stores have it by the roll), or if you have to, you can keep them in the coop with a small run attached to it.
Don’t use chicken wire, as it is way too flimsy and is easily torn into by predators such as dogs, and even humans. Spend a little extra money on good fencing materials and save yourself the heartbreak of finding your birds torn to shreds one day.
Purchase food for your chickens before they arrive. Feed supply stores are a good source as well as the Internet. You should have a bag of pelleted poultry feed (for large breeds) or crumble (for bantam breeds). Be aware that the health of the eggs is determined by the health of the feed; for example, protein-rich eggs come from protein-rich feed, while a hen intended for eating will put on weight eating a good balance of protein and carbohydrates.
Put the feed in a covered feeder and replace it regularly, as it does go stale. Allowed to roam free, chickens are effective weed eaters and insect control, set them loose in your veggie patch.
Fresh and cracked corn is a favorite as well as tomatoes, apples, and anything baked. You can try growing your own corn, wheat, or barley to feed to chickens; all are good sources of protein, although corn is lower in protein than the other crops.
Chickens love table scraps. A good rule of thumb: if it’s healthy for you, it’s usually healthy for your chickens (with the exceptions noted next). However, only feed as many table scraps as the chickens eat within a quarter hour; any more than this and they’ll neglect the healthy balanced feed they should be eating.
Steer clear of giving your chickens onions and garlic, as it can flavor the eggs. Also, chocolate, raw potatoes, and avocados are toxic to birds and your chickens should never eat any of these food items. Also, never let your chickens eat damp feed; it may have grown molds or toxins which can kill them.
Laying hens need calcium replenishment. Ground-up eggshells, crushed limestone, or ground bone meal can provide this source when given regularly.
Use common sense and keep pesticides, antifreeze, and other chemicals out of your birds’ reach.
Clean up uneaten food before it spoils and stinks up their home.
Find your chickens. There are many ways of finding local chicken farmers. Ask around at farmers’ markets, health food stores, and feed supply stores. Check the classifieds for a livestock section. The other option is to purchase your chickens online. Your county fair, 4H Clubs, county agriculture extension service, etc., all are good starting points.
You can even buy fertile eggs to incubate and hatch on your own! Hatching your own chicks is an amazing experience, especially for kids. If you decide to do this, be well prepared and do your research––it’s fairly easy but you need to be prepared for those little balls of fluff.
Keep everything clean. Once every week or two (depending on how many chickens you have in how little space), clean out the coop, wipe down the perches, and scrub down their feeders. If the hens are laying, thoroughly clean their nest boxes, especially if an egg is cracked at one point. Keeping their environment clean will reduce the risk of disease and parasites and it’ll also keep your neighbors from complaining.
- Watch your chickens. Check the feed and water every day. Observe them regularly and look for changes in behavior and habits that will alert you to ways you can improve their habitat:
- Are they eating their food and drinking their water? Always make sure the food and water are fresh, cool, and clean.
- Are they huddling together in a particular spot? It might be too cold for them, or there could be a draft.
- Are they breathing heavily? Check that they have enough shade to find a spot where they can cool off.
- Are they losing feathers? The proverbial “pecking order” may be in effect. If any of the hens are bleeding, consider separating the victim until the hen has healed, as other chickens will continue to peck at the wound.
- Are they all there? Count your chickens every day, especially if you have more than ten.
Be on the lookout for signs of disease. Some possible symptoms to look for indicating injury/illness/disease include coughing, wheezing, labored breathing, warts/scabs, swollen joints, loss of feathers, reduced egg production, thin egg shells, fever, abscesses or open wounds, paralysis, twisting of neck/head, discharge from nose/mouth, diarrhea/blood in stool, not eating/drinking, weight loss, retarded growth, lack of coordination, enlarged abdomen.
- Tell your neighbors what you’re doing. They’re less likely to get upset over a wandering chicken in their yard every once in a while if they know where it came from. Better yet, turn them into allies by giving them free eggs! You will likely end up with more eggs than you will know what to do with.
- Protect the outdoor run from hawks or other predatory birds by draping bird netting over it and tying it down. Bird netting is very cheap and, without it, you may be inviting hawks over for a daily feast.
- If there is no one in your area to buy chicks from, try mail-ordering them. Keep in mind, you may have to order quite a few, but this will allow you to order just hens and you don’t need a rooster for good eggs!
- Try to keep your chicken hobby as cute and clean as possible. No one likes living next to an ugly, smelly mess. By ordering plans to build a cute “city-friendly” coop or purchasing a ready-made one, you fend off a lot of problems before you begin.
- Use fly traps and keep your coop really clean. If there is no smell, the neighbors can’t complain.
- Roosters are a liability in the city. The noise and trouble they create are usually not worth it. Hens lay lots of wonderful eggs, with or without a rooster.
- Check online for plants in your yard that may be toxic, as chickens love to eat greenery and your garden is ‘on the menu’! It follows that you should never use pesticide spray on or around plants that chickens may eat, and never use slug and snail killer pellets as they will kill your birds. Chickens naturally scratch and dig in the dirt with much gusto, so don’t expect them to steer clear of your prize-winning petunia patch. If you don’t want them to eat it and/or dig it up, fence it off.
- Be careful what you use to clean the chicken coop with; ensure that it is non-toxic. Also, when cleaning, consider wearing a respiratory mask to protect yourself from any airborne parasites, especially if you are sickly or liable to respiratory illnesses. Always wear gloves when cleaning out bird droppings.
- Roosters are loud! All male chickens love to crow and they do it in the morning, noon, night, and every chance they get in between. Keep that in mind if you have close neighbors. Hens, on the other hand, are not as noisy, but they do cackle loudly here and there.
- Chickens can carry diseases just like any other outdoor animal, so if you have very small children, make sure you monitor their contact. Tell them to wash their hands after petting them, and never kiss a chicken. Educate yourself on chicken health, including common diseases and parasites, many of which can be carried in by wild birds.
- Consider what you will do with unwanted birds. If you’re hatching your own chickens, about half of them will be roosters. They can’t be kept together because they’ll kill each other and harm the hens as well. Likewise, if your main reason for keeping chickens is for the eggs, remember that chickens can live 8-10 years but only have a productive life (one egg every 1.5 days) of about 2-3 years. It’s not easy to find homes for roosters and unproductive chickens, and usually, your only option is to sell them for meat. However, keeping older chickens is often an option. They don’t eat quite as much but still produce delicious eggs. The roosters make good chicken jerky if you’re ambitious. Be aware that rooster meat is pretty tough and would rarely make something like fried chicken tastes good.
Things You’ll Need
- Chicken coop or house
- Litter (pine chips, pine needles, straw, sawdust, etc.)
- Appropriate feed
- Removable perches
- Laying/nest boxes
- Items for cleaning out the coop regularly
- Book on caring for chickens
- Basket for egg collecting