With the current food uncertainty, a garden is essential. But if you’ve already got your garden in, you might want to think about a little light animal husbandry as well. There are lots of options along these lines, but if you’re tender-hearted like me, there’s only one real choice–chickens.
And when I say chickens, I really mean hens. Sex complicates your life, even if you’re not the one having it. I don’t need to deal with possibly aggressive roosters. Also, while many cities now allow small backyard hen coops, they still draw the line at cock-a-doodle-doers.
If you want hens, that usually means you start with chicks. I bought mine at the local feed store just before following the stay-at-home directive, but believe it or not, you can still get them by mail. One place that I know of is Murray McMurray Hatchery, which can ship you not only chicks, but ducks, turkeys, and quail.
The little fluffballs are absolutely adorable, but they grow fast. Trust me when I say that’s a good thing. I love my six, but as they get more active, they become a bathroom apocalypse. Young chicks need a 90 degree environment for their first week, although it can be dropped by five degrees for each week that follows. Since I lack a heated brooder in my garage, into the tub my little chickies went.
These are mine, at one month old. Starting on the left, they are: Jenny, Marguerita, Nellie, Rosita, Anne, and Penny. The yellow ones are Buff Orpingtons, and the brown ones are Rhode Island Reds. Marguerita, the largest RIR, is the bravest, and she, Rosita, and Penny are the most affectionate. Jenny and Anne, the two biggest yellow hens, are too busy deciding who’s going to be the boss chicken, and Nellie is too nervous to be petted very much.
I’ve had parakeets before, which turned out to be surprisingly useful. Basically, I treat my chickens like large budgies. I press my hand against their chest to get them to step on it, and then I stroke their back feathers gently. They’ve gotten to the point that they sometimes vie for the attention. They’re really cute, and I’m very fond of them, but they’re also outgrowing their tub.
Fortunately, we’ve just finished their coop. It’s actually a chicken tractor, which is an odd name. It brings up a mental picture of chickens pulling a plow. But it’s really a mobile coop, so you can combine the advantages of free-ranging with the safety of an enclosure. Having built one, I’d say that like all compromises, it has limitations. Mine is 9 1/2 ft by 4 ft, so I could use ten-foot long pieces of two-by-four for the handle supports. My friend and I built it to be very sturdy, to discourage the many predators in our area (coyotes, raccoons, and hawks, among others). This also makes it very heavy. I’m going to be able to move it only on flat ground. Also, I wouldn’t build one for a flock bigger than my six. They’ve got 38 ft of run plus 16 feet of coop above, plus a little vertical space in the middle which has a perch, a swing, and a ramp. Maybe almost 60 ft of usable space, what with flying from the ramp to perches. That’s kind of a minimum for six chickens.
On the other hand, six chickens should be enough for most families, unless they’re very large. That should be two dozen eggs a week. : )
But as soon as I finish getting my garden in, I’ll need to also build them a more permanent coop. I need a perimeter that animals can’t dig under. Right now my little hens still spend the night in the tub, but later, predators may dig underneath to get into the run. As long as my chickies are locked in their coop, which has a solid wooden floor and walls, they’ll be safe. Still, that ties me into being home by sunset every day to close their door, which is okay for now, but not long-term. If I still lived in the suburbs, I’d just build a small permanent coop and run.
If you’re interested in learning more about chickens from someone who knows more than I do, I recommend Becky’s Homestead, on YouTube. Much of what I know I learned from her.
But raising chickens isn’t that difficult. They need access to food and water, as well as sunlight and shade. They need a safe place to roost at night, but they’ll go into it by themselves. All you have to do is close the door. They need diatomaceous earth added to their feed to keep down worms, and some grit to help them digest their corn. They’ll also need a nesting box to lay their eggs in and a run to get some exercise. That’s about it. Other than cleaning out the coop once a month or so, a lot of people spend maybe ten minutes a day with them. If you really want to automate, you can set it up with a door opener on a timer, and feeders and waterers that will allow you to leave for a week or so at a time. Dogs and cats are more time intensive.
I like birds generally, but one additional thing that attracted me to chickens is that they make a complete ecological circle if you have a garden. Chickens happily eat all the garden stuff you don’t want–carrot tops, the insides of bell peppers that you usually throw away, lettuce leaves that bugs have munched on, even weeds. And in return, they make terrific fertilizer for the plants.
And the timing is right–chickens hatch in the spring. If you’ve ever wanted chickens, now would be a good time to consider starting a small backyard flock. : )