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Saturday, April 12, 2008

My backyard chickens

We talk about having chickens a lot on this blog but I know to some of you chickens seem strange and difficult animals to have. So I decided to share the story of how I got chickens to take some of the mystery out of it.

Last September I got four little chicks at the feed store - they were one week old and cute. At the feed store they told us exactly what kind of food to get, which waterer, and told us what temperature they needed to be at over the next few weeks. I got the supplies but of course I forgot everything else. That's ok though since there are sooo many sites which explain everything you need to know in complete detail. We put them in a box in our pantry and watched them grow. I was a little worried - I had no idea how to take care of chickens. I'd think, "Who am I kidding? I'm a suburbanite! "An old neighbor of ours offered us an tattered doghouse and then I spent the next few weeks drawing and designing our coop. Ever since I was a kid I've loved drawing and making plans but usually they never materialized so this was like a dream come true! Since at about 5 weeks the chicks are ready to be outside my husband Mike took my amateur plans and turned them into a real live coop. I was ecstatic!Here's our simple coop. It's nothing fancy but the chickens love it. We were able to free our 5 week old pullets(or adolescent hens) into our backyard. I was glad to get them out there - they were getting stinky. And they loved it - roaming around our backyard, scratching at bugs and munching on grass. Much to our dismay though, within a few weeks we had lost two pullets to a hawk. And then on Christmas morning two months later we lost a third to a raccoon. I was devastated. I wondered if perhaps I wasn't cut out for this whole farming thing - something I had dreamed of since childhood. I kept going though because we still had one hen left and I didn't want her to be alone. But I also didn't want to start with chicks and have to wait five weeks before I could get them outside. I had recently joined a group supporting "pet chicken" owners and at the first meeting I attended I found out about a local poultry auction that just might have some older hens for sale. We went to that auction and got her some friends. Most of the hens we got only cost us around 3 or 4 dollars. We put in extra measures for security and we were finally able to just enjoy our birds and wait for our first egg. I waited very impatiently and was finally awarded our first egg in February of this year. Hens typically start laying around 20-22 weeks. Since then we have gotten over a dozen a week from three hens. Much more than my small family could ever eat! Like Marisa said, it's a fun thing to be able to share with friends and neighbors.

I always wanted chickens but I never knew how satisfying it would be. And I certainly never expected them to be such a low maintenance pet with such great rewards. I love being able to walk by the eggs at the grocery store with a sort of snootiness because I have my own free range chicken eggs coming from my own backyard.

So in the end what I know now is that:

One - chickens are cheap. Chicks cost about from a dollar or two and their starter feed, which lasts for months if you only have a few chicks, is about six dollars. The feed, especially if you are letting them also free range on bugs, lasts forever and is much less expensive than cat or dog food.

Two - They are low maintenance animals. I kind of hate having animals underfoot - needy and smelly. Chickens are independent animals. Thought they may like you they won't stare at you with needy eyes as you finish your lunch. And they don't make much noise at all - I'd be surprised if any of my neighbors ever heard them at all. Their waste degrades very quickly and can actually be a really good addition to a compost pile.

Three - They have big personalities and are a lot of fun to watch. People say that fish are relaxing to watch but in my mind - they've got nothing on hens. I love to sit out back and watch the hens peck around, take dirt baths, or sun themselves lazily in the grass. I also think it's funny to watch them get broody and moody and get into little squabbles with each other.

Four - They're beautiful animals and a sort of pride comes in owning pretty birds. I had a friend who told me that her brother got a pet chicken and on a whim entered it into a local contest and eventually took state for such a being such a nice looking hen! If you're not careful you can start to look at all of the rare and beautiful breeds and pine over them!

Five - There are great support groups out there for chicken owners. From websites to forums to local clubs. Even the local feed store can be a lot of help answering any questions you may have. Not to mention this site...

So, if you thought chickens might be too far from your reality you may want to consider it again. It's the easy, fun, and cheap way to get out of buying eggs from those terrible factories full of chickens. Your kids will have a lot of fun and learn quite a bit about where our food comes from and the life cycle. Not to mention that your neighbors and friends will all think you're so cool!


*Something I forgot to mention is about how sanitary chickens are or are not. It's not the chickens you need to worry about but the person who is taking care of them. Large factories where thousands of birds are housed together in confined spaces are disease spreaders - not backyards. If one of my chickens were acting funny I'd notice it immediately and take action. Chickens are clean animals and if they were starting to get really dirty that would be a sign that something is wrong - which a backyard chicken owner would notice when a factory worker might not. They aren't complicated animals and they don't come into contact with other chickens so they are pretty safe and healthy. Also, when I first got chickens I was worried about the bird flu until I read an article on whether or not backyard chicken owners should worry about bird flu. It's an informative and actually pretty funny read. Click here to go to that article. And as for other sanitary conditions - my birds are clean - there are only three of them with plenty of space to roam around. I think you'll find that cleaning out the hen house when it starts to smell - maybe every few weeks around here - is all you'll need to worry about.


Em said...

Thanks for sharing your chicken story! I'm hoping to get some chickens in the next month or so... for our backyard! I've been drawing up plans - now I just have to get permission from the neighbors!

m. & m. said...

Em - good luck with the neighbors! It's kinda silly considering they make so much less noise than dogs do but oh well. Maybe someday it won't be that big of a deal. Obviously already there is a big trend to do things like grow your own organic food or raise chickens. If your neighbors still aren't going for it you could even tell them to read this article!

And it's always good to butter them up with fresh eggs - but that's after the fact. Let us know how it works out!

Pecos Blue said...

Right on. Make sure to say that without rosters that they are not noisy! We love our chickens! It has been a great experience and our two year old son loves them.

Stiggy said...

Chickens are strangely great things, and indeed they have very different personalities!

Good luck with them, although they are insanely easy to look after, and the rewards are huge.

Mine follow me around the place, and I wouldn't be without them for the world!


knitsational said...

You have made chickens beautiful! Lovely photos.

m. & m. said...

Stiggy - I am afraid I am just as attached to my chubby little hens now too. I love how they follow me around and sit next to me in the grass. They're my peeps.

Em said...

Thanks everyone, I'm currently working on an informational flyer to give them when I stop in to ask their permission... Right now I have counted about 20 people I have to approach about this... anyone within 500 feet of our property! UGH!

marisa said...

Stiggy, I love your white silkies! I have a black silkie, they are so fun.

Em, 20 neighbors you have to talk to! Wow!!! You are smart to put together an informational flier.

Channa said...

Great post and pics! We just bought our first chicks today, and we're so excited! I'm in Utah County, and I'd love info on any "chicken support groups" in the area.

Susan said...

I am from South Africa and also play with chickens. Like you r say their is nothing more relaxing than sit and watch them playing around.
They are like my kids and can't do anything wrong so Good luck and enjoy them
Susan Truter

Kiki said...

We have 4 americanas and LOVE it! We use a mobile chicken tractor with built n house/nesting boxes. Use cedar shavings in house....kinda spot clean w regular old garden trowel and add more shavings once a week. No trouble with smells! The whole process takes maybe 10 minutes. For water we use chicken nipples and wouldn't have it any other way! Look them up online. They are cheap and unbelievably easy! You NEVER have to dump out gross water or scrub slimy waterers! Farmtec is a good source. My chickens are less trouble than my dog or cat and eggs are yummy! Make sure to get your kids in on it...good family fun!