Raising Backyard Chickens

Anyone who has visited our garden I’m sure has noticed our aviary, containing a variety of birds including a few chickens.  We’ve kept chickens for almost as long as I can remember and have been spoiled with superior tasting eggs for nearly as long.  These days, as people recognize the health benefits of eggs from chickens allowed to roam, scratch, hunt bugs, and eat fresh greens, backyard chicken coops are much more common.

Photo courtesy of Simon Howden from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Keeping chickens is an excellent way of connecting directly with the source of your food after all, what is better than knowing the animal it comes from?  Additionally, once you get started, chickens are fairly low maintenance.  Here are some quick tips for putting together your first chicken coop.

  • First, check your city’s local ordinances regarding backyard chickens.  You could start here, but if your town doesn’t show up on the list, try checking on your city’s website or call someone at city hall.  Because many of these ordinances only get enforced if someone complains, check with your neighbors before putting in a coop.  It never hurts to resort to bribery…you could always offer them some of the spoils (ie. fresh eggs).  Finally, check your HOA bylaws.  There are many that prohibit keeping farm animals on your property.
  • Second, you’ll need a coop.  What you build will depend on the climate you live in.  My parent’s aviary is open on three sides and they cover it with plastic in the winter for a bit more protection, that’s all that is needed in the temperate Santa Cruz climate.  Where I live, we get a lot of cold and a fair bit of snow throughout the winter, so we’d need something a bit more substantial.  Because chickens are roosting animals, they enjoy the comfort a structure like this provides, plus it will keep them safe from the neighborhood raccoons, cats, (and other animals).  Once you have that, you can either choose to let them roam free during the day, or build a mobile coop that allows you to move them over the grass as necessary.  My parents used to have chickens that acted like dogs—they were imprinted on my mom and would come when she called, never strayed from the yard and were fairly gentle to her garden so letting them roam at will was an option.
  • Third, even if you let them out to scratch you will still need to provide a food and water source.  You can mix your own feed, or you can provide a pre-mixed variety.  Just make sure it doesn’t contain GMO grain.  Also, you can supplement your chickens scratching by providing table scraps, bugs (mealworms, crickets, etc.), grit (needed to help them digest their food), and a mineral source such as oyster shell.
  • Fourth, you need to choose your chickens.  You could get chicks, but then you’d have to make sure they had an incubator or some sort of heat source until their adult feathers grow in.  An easier option would be to buy adult hens, or get someone else to raise them for you.

An additional benefit to keeping chickens aside from the obvious eggs, are the benefits to your garden.  Chickens poop, and that is an excellent benefit for your compost pile.  You could spread it fresh, but is should be used sparingly as ‘hot’ manure is high in nitrogen and you should be careful using too much in any one spot.  The chickens also consume all sorts of bugs and creepy crawlies, keeping them from eating what you want to keep.

Finally, if chickens are not allowed under your municipal code, it is possible to change!  Make friends with people who have influence, mobilize other citizens who are interested in keeping backyard chickens.  There are plenty of resources on the Internet where other individuals and groups have done this effectively, or are making progress.

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