ashley englishsmall measures

small measures with ashley: keeping chickens

by Grace Bonney

[image sources, clockwise from top left: keeping chickens by ashley english, amanda kavanagh, wikimedia, grit, green city blue lake, mother earth news, good richard]

There was a time in the not too distant past when most homes had chickens. Many even had a milking cow or goat, a garden, and the occasional bee hive or two. As urban density increased, subdivisions popped up on the fringes of cities, and supermarkets took the place of home gardens, many left behind such direct routes to their food, allowing the middleman to take care of supplying their food needs.

Well, I don’t need to tell you the degree to which that balance has begun to shift (a quick look at the many, many comments on Grace’s giveaway contest for my books bears witness to the homesteading fervor shared by D*S readers alone!). Over the past few years (and for a small number, the past few decades), growing awareness has begun to be directed at where food comes from and the manner in which it is produced. Additionally, people have become interested in exercising greater control over the way that foods are processed (i.e. limiting the inclusion of preservatives, salt, sugar, and artificial agents). Finally, there is the issue of cost. Anything that you can do yourself, from re-upholstering a chair to growing a radish, often saves you money in the final analysis (although it does incur a greater expenditure of personal physical energy in the process!).

And so, along with starting gardens everywhere from windowsills to community garden plots, trying out making mozzarella at home, baking up fresh batches of sourdough, and canning batches of puckery pickles and just-picked jams, more and more individuals are bringing hens home to roost, quite literally. While the Chinese zodiac may technically call 2010 the year of the tiger, I think it might more fittingly be referred to as the “year of the hen.” From Brooklyn to Burbank and at all points in between, urbanites, suburbanites, and rurally situated folks are welcoming chickens back into their homes and their lives.

Before you make the decision to keep a flock of feathered friends yourself, there are a few considerations you’ll want to address before you put in an order for chicks or start building a hen house. To begin, check that chicken-keeping is legal in your area. This can be determined by a quick call to your local animal control office. They’ll let you know the rules on keeping chickens where you live (which, by the way, can vary widely from one region to the next, so what holds true in one town might not be consistent for the town next door).

CLICK HERE for the rest of Ashley’s post and tips for keeping chickens after the jump!

Secondly, resign yourself to the fact that, unless you live outside of city limits absent zoning restrictions, roosters are verboten. While they certainly are grand and gorgeous lotharios, they just aren’t welcome in urban or suburban settings. Keep this in mind when selecting your birds. Also, mention your plans to your neighbors in advance. Offering to ply them with eggs is always handy, as is assuring them that you fully intend to stay on top of your coop’s cleanliness (there’s nothing like the stench of chicken poo to really get the neighbors riled up!).

It might also be worthwhile to go ahead and give some thought to who might be willing to take care of your birds when you are away on vacation, or out late at night for a soiree or late-show at the theater. Chickens need care and attention just like any other domesticated animal and it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll find someone offering “chicken-sitting” services in your area. Make sure you’ve got a neighbor, or family member, or fellow chicken aficionado willing to steward your flock in your absence. Fortunately, we’ve got neighbors and friends alike willing to lock “The Ladies” up when a dinner party keeps us from getting home at sunset or a family excursion to Florida or jaunt to San Francisco takes us away for a week or two (a wide range of predators find your chickens just as alluring as you do, but for very different reasons; protect them accordingly). Find your ace in the hole and secure it in advance.

Now, once you’ve cleared those hurdles, you can get busy with housing and feeding needs. As for housing, bear in mind that intensively confined birds (meaning those lacking access to roaming space) will need at least 4 sq. feet per bird in the henhouse (which will need nesting boxes for laying eggs as well as roosting poles for the birds to sleep on at night). Those with outdoor areas should provide 2 sq. ft. per bird in the hen house along with 4 sq. ft. in the run (the outdoor area). These figures are, as with most things in life, variable, based on bird size, degree to which they are kept confined, and the number of birds you are keeping. If you plan to build a coop yourself versus purchasing one (and there are many, many truly gorgeous models available for purchase), make sure its size doesn’t merit the need for a building permit (most small coops won’t need one). Those as equally enthusiastic about chickens as they are about tricked out design will appreciate the offerings of UK-based company Omlet .

Chickens need adequate ventilation in their housing set-ups, so be certain that your coop has good air flow. The housing should also offer your flock a safe place from moisture and a dark nesting box filled with bedding material (such as straw, shredded newspaper, or wood chips). One nesting box for every four birds is more than adequate. Your birds will need to be fed a ration according to the needs of their age. Ask your feed supply store, or, lacking one, read online poultry supplier’s offerings and make your selection accordingly. The flock will also need a constant supply of water. Galvanized metal or plastic chicken waterers are perfect (chicks have their own waterers suited to the needs of tiny beaks) for this purpose; both can freeze, however, in colder months, which can in turn affect a hen’s ability to produce eggs (quite sensible, given that eggs have an inherently watery composition). Warmers can be used, if your coop can be reached by an extension cord or is wired for electricity, or you can make a point of changing out the water during the day, such as I do, if you are often home during daytime hours.

You’ve checked regulations, chatted up your neighbors, found a go-to “chicken tender” for times you’ll be away, created housing, and secured food and water equipment and supplies. Now it’s time to get your birds! If you live in an area where chicks can be purchased from farms, I’d encourage you to pursue that purchasing route. That way, you’ll know what your birds have eaten and how they’ve been handled before coming home with you. Absent a local supplier, go online. A quick internet search will turn out numerous suppliers. There are also enormously assistive websites such as “My Pet Chicken” to connect you with suppliers, as well as other chicken fiends to pose questions to. A diverse selection of periodicals can be found nowadays for the chicken novice and seasoned chicken tender alike (personal favorites include Backyard Poultry and Hobby Farms ). I’d also highly recommend the purchase, or library rental, of books on the subject. They’ll provide indispensable advice and troubleshooting tips to get you moving in the right direction.

Keeping chickens already? Got chicken fever? I’d leave to hear about your adventures in the realm of all things chicken!

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  • I am so excited to see this contest. We have two little girls that love to be outside. They can be seen eating a fresh tomatos or peeling an orange from our backyard on any day. We live in DeLand, Florida and have been changing our lives from fast to slow.
    When our first one was born I thought I would have her and go back to work after my 6 week leave was up. She had a terrible tummy and was nursed for 17 months and I wrapped her most days to keep our tummies touching. We decided that after nursing for so long that putting any baby food wasn’t good enough. We started making our homemade baby food. Then my husband and I thought making baby food with store bought food wasn’t good enough. So we started gardening…. which is an adventure in Florida.
    The garden started with a compost area and 4 raised beds (4×4’s and 4×8’s). We now have great compost (can you believe leaves as our mulch in the yard, 10 raised beds and things growing just about every where. We utilize the multiple growing seasons in Florida but get very annoyed by the bugs and wilts. We do not use chemicals on the plants and have bug searches daily. My two little ones will go out in the yard with a small glass jar of water and hand pick the bugs off the plants and place them in the water. When they are finished working we cover the jar and wait for them to pass and we use the bug juice along with out compost tea to fertilize the yard. We use cornmeal for the cut worms, pepper for keeping the squirrels out of the boxes and soap in a stocking for the deer.
    Then the second one came with sensitive skin and 15 months of nursing. By this point we had eliminated all chemicals from out home and started cleaning with vinegar, tea tree oil, borax, etc.We were still using store bought soaps beacsue I was uncertain how to make it… now I make all of our soaps for bath, dishes and laundry.
    I just started canning and gave my neighbors homemade strawberry preserves. I cannot wait for our summer crop to come so I can can more… I still have a lot to learn.
    My husband and I are lookng into getting some chicken and have so many questions. Ashley English’s books would be great on both canning and chickens. So excited about about having chickens and I can’t wait for the girls to see where they get eggs from now that they know that veggies don’t just come from the store. Happy growing and enjoy something homemade.

  • I just bought this book for my mother. She lives on five acres in Montana and just ordered six chicks to start her own flock. She’s so excited. Today’s her birthday, and she should be getting her book soon. Perfect timing!

  • What a great post AND a great comment! I have been slowly moving my family in these directions. I have been cleaning our house with vinegar and lemon, making our bread and taking off my makeup with olive oil! I love the feeling of knowing what is on and in our bodies and the empowerment of providing for my family in such a way. My fiance and I rent an apartment in Boston and do have a small back yard but so far the landlord hasn’t been open to even letting us have a garden, much less chickens! But I have seeds going on our porch and chives and herbs growing in my kitchen window and I nurse our 6 month old and have already dived into baby food making books. And I started canning this year! I cannot wait until the day we can have our own yard and space for a wonderful garden and chickens – I’m thrilled at the prospect of my little boy having a good understanding of how everything is intertwined and to have a great relationship with nature. Ashley your books look AMAZING! I’m so sorry I missed the giveaway yesterday but I think I’ll splurge a little of my bday money on your books – is it possible to buy signed copies?! I’m also a book collector ;P

  • I would love to have a piece of property with chickens for farm fresh eggs and gardens with herbs and produce. But I have one hesitation: what about snakes? Snakes and chicken coops seem to go hand in hand… and I am petrified of snakes. Any thoughts or words of wisdom about keeping snakes out????

  • I built a coop last year with my neighbor and am a proud to be know as the chicken lady in our neighborhood. My little daughter and I have four 1 year old hens we purchased from our local feed store when they were just 2 days old. Now one of hens is broody. So we put glass eggs in her nesting box (we are not allowed to have a rooster in the city} so we went out to my aunts farm and got some fertilized eggs. All green! That night I removed the glass eggs that she was sitting on and put the other ones in. Just another week or so we hopefully have some chicks! Just before she was brooding we bought 4 more chicks at 2 days old who currently live in our bathroom. Susan Orlean wrote an awesome article in the New Yorker last year about backyard chickens. Here a video about it. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2009/09/video-pecking-order.html
    Can’t wait to read the book!

  • amanda-thank you! i don’t have any signed copies at this point, but, if i do a tour in the future, i’ll put the word out and gladly sign yours then!

    stephanie-i’m a snake wuss, too. i’ve been trying to make my peace with them, though, seeing as that i live where i do.

    it is definitely possible for snakes to get into hen houses. my suggestions for limiting their access include having your hen house elevated (although this certainly won’t stop them, but it may make them more visible to the chickens, and, thereby more likely to be discouraged by chicken pecking). also, they generally are seeking the eggs, so make sure your nesting boxes are well-constructed and have 3 strong sides.

    aside from that, just brace yourself for the reality that, snakes will be snakes and, if one should show up, seek a friend to help you shoo them on their way. snakes are actually great to have around (non-poisonous ones, that is!)!

  • Hi there! I love this post! I too have chicken fever, but sadly I live in a second floor apartment in the city. It didn’t stop me from visiting a friend’s local/organic chicken farm recently. He held a workshop on how to harvest a chicken, which was grizzly and emotional but also deeply satisfying. When I’m able to raise chickens, I will most likely only raise them for eggs, but it was humbling to recognize where by food comes from and how it gets to my plate. I wrote about it, if you’re interested: http://johannainman.blogspot.com/2010/03/chicken-dinner-workshop-from-farm-to.html

    Thank you for this excellent post!
    Johanna @ Whirly Bird.

  • We are on our second set of 3 laying hens. The first set stopped laying and my husband thought it would be a good idea to harvest the birds. One made it into a soup pot (verdict: broth = delicious; meat = rubber bands). The other two are in our freezer. I miss them, but the teenage pullets we have are pretty darned cute too. They are like puppies, with giant feet and little bodies. Two are clucking already but one still peeps like a chick. SO CUTE! Chickens are an addictive hobby. We converted our old doghouse into a 3-hen coop. We love it.

  • Why this is not a good idea:
    #1 Keeping chickens can easily be more expensive than buying your eggs at the supermarket.
    #2 Chickens smell bad. Even clean coops will have the worst smell you’ve ever encountered.
    #3 Chickens can be nasty. They have and will attack small children and pets.
    #4 Chickens attract RATS. If you are anywhere near an urban area, you are inviting disgusting, disease ridden rodents into your life.

    Please go visit someone with a real chicken coop before you go thinking this is a splendid idea. There are reasons why farm animals are not allowed in more urban areas folks!

  • RE: Objections from Heather Jean

    1) Yes, probably more expensive, but if you care what’s in your food and prefer fresh, you will never find fresher. There are values beyond money.
    2) Everything smells. Do you own a dog or a cat? Do you accommodate the smell and keep as clean as possible. It may be an acquired “taste” but I don’t find this smell as bad as other animal waste. Also, very easy to clean an coop and the waste is great fertilizer once composted.
    3) Most chickens are peaceable, but children need to be taught to respect all animals.
    4) Mostly mice, which can be controlled. The reason chickens are not allowed in urban areas is mostly prejudice–once and still in small towns, everybody coexisted.
    5) The pleasures far outweigh the pains. All my neighbors are absolutely on board and always have been and I live in a city. Just give them nice warm brown eggs. Plus, they make gorgeous Easter eggs when boiled with onion skins and put in regular dye.

  • We have 10 chickens on my plot of land in Northern California. We’ve had them now a little less than a year. We heard some of the same “fears” about rats, predators, and smells when we were considering getting into raising chickens. But, all I can say is WOW! They are such a joy!

    We started with them in a fenced pen and homemade coup, and now they are roaming around on their own during the day. We lock them in at night, of course, so no one can get them.

    They are very social. They follow me around and come running when I call them. Another tremendous benefit is they keep the weeds down. We call them our Chicken Dozers!

    The home grown eggs are wonderful. The smell of their coup isn’t any where near as bad as horses, which are in the neighborhood too.

    I didn’t know I would get so much enjoyment from these chickens. I adore them!

  • Heather Jean-I’d like to address each of your concerns separately. I’d like to begin by saying that a great deal of research went into the writing of my book(s). In no way would I promote any sort of hobby or other activity that I thought might harmful to the environment, the community, or to individuals (or pets).

    “#1 Keeping chickens can easily be more expensive than buying your eggs at the supermarket.”
    Many people keep chickens for reasons far greater than cost. This recent article in the Huffington Post lists a number of the hidden costs inherent in industrial egg production: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kurt-friese/the-cruelty-of-industrial_b_530588.html. The ability to know how one’s food was processed and how humanely one’s food was raised far surpasses the extra cents it may cost to feed, house, and care for backyard chickens, as several other commenters have noted.
    “#2 Chickens smell bad. Even clean coops will have the worst smell you’ve ever encountered.”
    I’ve been in many, many chicken coops. I’ve even been on organic, free-range chicken farms where over 150 chickens were kept. Responsible chicken owners don’t have smelly coops, at all. In my own coop, there is no foul odor whatsoever, nor has there been one in any of the coops I’ve visited. The issue of smell really only enters into the picture in large-scale egg production and factory-raised poultry. Most people who take the time to house and care for chickens clean up after them just as they do their cats or dogs. Pet stewardship entails a certain degree of elbow grease, whether you keep a hamster, a fish, a snake, or a few hens.
    “#3 Chickens can be nasty. They have and will attack small children and pets.”
    It’s true, some roosters can be overly protective of their flocks. Most urban codes, however, prohibit the keeping of roosters. That said, cats, dogs, and other pets can be vicious, as well. What is important is teaching children how to handle chickens (or any other pet) properly and safely. If you have assertive hens, it might be best for everyone to keep children or other pets from them, just as one would do with a particularly aggressive dog.
    “#4 Chickens attract RATS. If you are anywhere near an urban area, you are inviting disgusting, disease ridden rodents into your life.”
    Rats, or any other rodents, are looking for food. Chicken owners who keep their food raised off the ground (which is better for the chickens, anyways, as it brings their food to beak level), and maintain coop cleanliness should not have issues with rodents. Of course, rodents are an urban issue, with any city resident susceptible to them, whether you keep chickens or not.

    “Please go visit someone with a real chicken coop before you go thinking this is a splendid idea. There are reasons why farm animals are not allowed in more urban areas folks!”
    I wholeheartedly encourage people to visit other chicken-keepers before taking on chicken stewardship themselves. I also advise that they read up on the subject and be prepared for their new wards, just as they should with any sort of stewardship, whether that be for a pet or a human child. Being aware in advance of what lies ahead of you is all part of being as best prepared as possible. While chicken-keeping may not be one person’s cup of tea, for others, it’s the joy of a lifetime.

  • When my boyfriend suggested that we build a coop in the backyard and get some chickens, I admit, I thought he was insane. Now that we have them, I can’t imagine NOT having chickens! Much like caring for any animal, it’s not for everyone. But if you’re passionate about knowing where your food comes from, and willing to do the work, I definitely recommend it! We live in an urban area, and have 6 happy Barred Rock hens.

  • For what it’s worth, I have had chickens for 2 years and never once had an issue with the chickens being aggressive. I have two little boys and they can easily pick up the chickens, carry them around, and treat them as they would any household cat or small dog. While my children have been attacked by supposedly “trained” dogs, our chickens are docile and sweet. We were careful to choose less aggressive breeds, and with no roosters and lots of love, our chickens are like little family members.

  • What a great post!!

    Nicole from DeLand, I live in Casselberry in an apartment so while I can’t have chickens of my own yet, I’d love to be your chicken-sitter!! ^_^ Good luck in your adventure!

  • When you come to visit I will force you to help me with my chickens that you will help me pick out in town. There is actually a compost shop that sells chickens out front. I meant move here, not visit.

  • I have been raising chicken for three years now and as far as I am concern I love what I am doing. From the city, I moved out into a small farm I bought few years ago and then I started to research about raising chickens and how much it cost. From 6 chickens, it became 10, 15 and now I have over 20 chickens in my small farm. I am really happy about it. It gives me a feeling of satisfaction. All this success was from an Ebook that I had long time ago. So, I guess if anyone of you are really interested in raising chickens then you should grab this opportunity of having an ebook. It’s a chance for a lifetime. Thanks for the link. Great post. ;-)

  • I have been having a difficult time finding design i like for a moveable chicken coop for about 20 chickens. There are so many adorable options for 4-5 urban chickens but nothing nice looking for a flock of country hens. Can you recommend any good websites?