Monday, February 25, 2008

The City Chicken, The Country Chicken

If the idea of getting a few chickens has been on your mind, now is a good time for making preparations and starting on your back yard poultry project. Keeping chickens is fun and easy, and it is not against the law in many urban areas. To see a partial list of US cities and towns and their respective laws on keeping farm animals within the city limits, visit

In many ways, keeping chickens in a city is much easier than at a farm. There are far less predators around, which is the main consideration when erecting shelter and fencing for your little flock. In the country side, housing ends up being a major fortress, to keep coyotes, raccoons, weasels, skunks and neighbors’ dogs out. Locking up our chicken flock at night, my husband says: “Everyone loves chicken meat” – but in the urban situation all that is needed for protection is typically just a little house for hens to sleep and lay eggs in; most of my urban friends don’t need to lock up their flock at night. At our farm a door to the coop left unlocked spells major problems the following morning.

Two to three hens are all you need for a family of three people. Depending on their breed you will be getting anywhere from four to six eggs per week from each chicken, for about 8-10 months per year. There is no need to have a rooster, although some chicken-rights activists point out that a rooster makes for happier hens, and I find it hard to argue about. Whether or not your neighbors will embrace crowing at the onset of each new fabulous day is something to explore before it occurs! The sound is really rather wonderful and great to wake up to, but this is a clear case of the beauty that is in the eye of the beholder.

There are many breeds available through the local feed stores, but I would caution you about purchasing any of the so-called single purpose breeds, such as chickens that are bred to be layers only. If you go this route you will end up with an over-bred hen, who is cranking out low-quality eggs and the expense of her own health! Most of these breeds are developed for commercial use and as such they will also require a very hefty diet of grain, be less resistant to diseases and natural challenges such as cold, wind or predators. They also don’t make good moms and will never set their own eggs; and they are not very smart – which will mean more work for you, ultimately. Stick to the good old heirloom breeds, also called as dual-purpose or multi-purpose breeds. While you may not be interested in your heirloom hens as meat birds, dual-purpose breeds will grow at a slower and more sustainable rate, eat less, be more alert and exhibit by far a more pleasant attitude and stronger health. They will lay fewer eggs, but they taste better. Some good breeds to consider are Americana (Araukana), Dominique, Wyandotte and all kinds of bantam chickens. Banties are small (size of a parrot), do not require a lot of space and they lay slightly smaller eggs with bright yolks; they are a great choice for small backyards. Breeds to stay away from are the Rhode Island Red and White. These are too over-bred for their own good. A good local source of baby chicks is Privett Hatchery from Portales, NM; another one is McMurry Hatchery. They sell many heirloom and traditional breeds which can be purchased by mail order. The only drawback is that you have to buy a certain number of chicks, and therefore it is best done by teaming up with several friends, or else requesting that your local feed store consider buying the breed you are interested in.

Besides laying eggs, chickens can help you around the yard with gardening tasks – from turning the compost pile, to conditioning the soil in your vegetable garden, or under the fruit trees, to fertilizing. To allow them to do the best job, you will have to learn to manage their natural inclinations and work with them, rather then against them. All chickens scratch, which is a great thing for a veggie bed in the winter, but is very annoying to find a hole on a garden path mulched with wood chips. Aerated and turned compost pile is also a wonderful thing to have, but if it spills over the compost enclosure it is much less fun to contend with. So the trick is to learn to work with your flock. You can make small chicken runs to confine your hens to garden beds only; moving them every few days to cultivate new territories. You can place the chicken house in such a way as to allow for rotation from place to place – perhaps some days are spent working on the compost pile, and other days spent eating fallen fruit from under the trees or cultivating a portion of the garden for next season’s planting. The options are many.
A great learning tool for aspiring and experienced chicken owners is website – it features poultry house designs, answers questions, provides directions for incorporating hens into your garden routine, and much more. On my website, I also have a list of plants that can be added to anyone’s gardens to offer chickens more options for feeding themselves in your yard.

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