Lexington, KY – Each morning I wake up, enjoy my morning cup of coffee, slip on my shoes and head out to greet the “girls.” The girls, as I fondly call them, are my two mild mannered Salmon Faverolle hens. I open their coop, carefully collect the beautiful brown speckled eggs, give them fresh food and water, and let them out to play and peck happily in our quaint neighborhood backyard.
Down urban and suburban streets across the country, chickens are the latest trend in backyard life.
Fanciful thoughts of creating my own “Little House on the Prairie” life led me on a quest to find the perfect city chicken. I knew of no one who had urban chickens but there was a buzz circulating in magazines, newspapers, and online about this growing trend. After months of puzzled stares from family and friends regarding my chicken endeavors, my husband finally surprised me with my very own baby chicks.
I have found that as with any pet, chickens require daily maintenance. But unlike household animals, the maintenance is much lower and the benefits they provide are well worth the effort.
Chickens make ideal pets, and they are the perfect size to teach children animal care.
Chickens enjoy being around people and are quite curious and comical. Each has their own distinct personalities and just watching them scratch around the yard can give you and your family hours of entertainment. Our children spent weeks watching our baby chicks grow and develop under a heat lamp in our spare bathroom and they still enjoy watching the hens graze on clover as they swing and play happily along side them.
One of the biggest benefits to backyard chickens is, of course, the eggs. Let me say that you can certainly buy eggs in the grocery store cheaper than you can raise chickens in your backyard. Those of us who raise hens for eggs are not saving money by doing it (although we are not losing much either), but money is no longer an object after the first egg. “Once you have a fresh egg, you’ll never go back to the pale eggs at the grocery store. If chickens are moving around, getting fresh greens and eating bugs, they’re going to lay more flavorful eggs,” said local chicken owner Mary Koepfle.
When fed and kept properly, hens can provide your family with healthy, fresh eggs that are richer in nutrients than their commercially-raised counterparts. And in order to debunk any myths that you need a rooster for egg production, this is not so. Hens will lay an egg, typically every 24 hours, with or without a rooster.
Additionally, raising just a couple of hens is an enormous backyard gardening resource. Chickens eat cockroaches, tomato horn worms, aphids, grubs, and many other pests that would otherwise require chemical sprays to eradicate. You also may be interested to know that chicken droppings are high in nutrients and are a great addition to your garden beds. Supplying your garden with compost made from chicken poop, which is high in nitrogen, will give your plants the nutrients they need to flourish.
Chicken breeds are vast and choosing one that fits your particular lifestyle is important. Salmon Faverolles, our breed of choice, are a perfect fit for our family. The hens are described as calm and quite dignified, as well as pleasant and shy. They are hearty chickens that will continue to lay eggs through the cold winter months. My Pet Chicken (www.mypetchicken.com) is a helpful Web site that offers a free online questionnaire to help you determine which breed is right for your yard, your family and your lifestyle.
Once you have chosen the perfect breed, you will need to track that bird down. The easiest way to do this is through a hatchery. After placing our order online through a hatchery in Minnesota, our chickens arrived happy and healthy through the post office as sweet little three-day-old chicks. And adding to the hilarious absurdity of receiving a box of chickens in the mail was the look on our postman’s face as he carried our box full of chirping chicks to our doorstep.
Hatcheries, which ship baby chicks around the country by airmail, say they are having one of their best years yet. Many are increasingly making small shipments directly to people who want just a few chicks for a backyard flock. The Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa is the largest supplier of two-day old chicks and sends about 1,000 chicks a week to people in urban and suburban areas. The postal service said that in the first six months of 2009, it shipped 1.2 million pounds of packages containing chicks (mostly chickens but also baby ducks and turkeys), a 7 percent increase from 2008.
If you are wary of ordering your hens online, you do have many local options to search: local online farming forums, the farming section of your newspaper classifieds, 4-H clubs and Craigslist ads (I found 20 postings with a quick “chicken” search).
As with any pet, you must determine how you will feed, shelter and care for your new chickens before their arrival. Chickens require a coop as well as food and plenty of fresh water. Baby chicks need more care and attention in the first few weeks and will need to be kept under a heat lamp, possibly indoors, while they grow and develop.
The rise in popularity of urban chickens has also brought the arrival of high tech, high cost chicken coops to the marketplace. These cater to urban professionals, who want to keep up appearances, even in their backyard chicken endeavors. For most people however, housing a couple of hens is relatively simple and inexpensive. We built our coop with materials purchased at the local Habitat for Humanity Restore and assembled it in a weekend. The most important elements in any chicken shelter are plenty of space for the chickens to move (4 square feet per chicken is ideal), air circulation, a place to perch, a small box within the coop to lay eggs and the availability of both sunlight and shade. Even in the city, chickens have predators. Your coop needs to be a safe haven for your chickens from the perils of raccoons, weasels and hawks. Investing just a few minutes of research online will give you a great start to planning your own backyard coop.
Chickens are grazers. They love to peck around the yard for grass, clover, broadleaved weeds and bugs. They also enjoy eating certain kitchen scraps such as vegetable peels. Our chicks have a particular fondness for oats and will even come peck on our back door with the hopes that I will give them a small bowl of dried oats to munch on. A few times a year we head to the local farmers supply store which has everything from feed to bedding for our hens. Feeding chickens is a simple task that your entire family can share in. As long as their water, food and coop are clean, they are happy and content.
Since raising our own hens, we have met several families in Lexington who are successfully raising urban chickens of their own. Keeping hens in Lexington is legal so long as you have a coop, but local ordinances and neighborhood restrictions set limits. Be sure to check with your neighborhood association before you make an investment. Aside from city ordinances, I would also recommend talking with your neighbors about your plans. We have had great response from our neighbors, and they now eagerly anticipate a gift of fresh eggs whenever we have extra. For those who may still be skeptical about the idea of your neighbor housing hens, consider what one urban chicken owner said: “On any given day I have more dog poop in my front yard from other neighbor’s dogs than they have chicken poop in their front yard from my chickens. I have more cat prints on my car from other neighbor’s cats than they have chicken prints on their car from my chickens. And I’m awakened at 2 a.m. more from other neighbor’s dogs barking than they have ever been awakened at 2 a.m. from my sleeping hens.”