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Some common email questions I've received!
Q. "I was minding my own business and happily keeping three hens
quietly and cleanly in my backyard. Someone must have called the
City on me, because now they have sent me a notice that says chickens are
illegal to keep in my neighborhood and that I might have to get rid of
them. What should I do?"
A. If you want to fight City Hall, I can give you my two cents: 1. Definitely show up in person to council meetings (they happen usually once a week) with a slide show or large pictures of your compliant coop set-up. 2. Take the maximum amount of time allowed to speak. 3. Bring as many other chicken owners as you can find with you. Numbers of people at council meetings speaking louder than words. 4. Go more than just once. Go to every meeting so they don't forget you. 5. Emphasize that you've already had chickens for a number of years but a neighbor with a grudge ended the peace. 6. Be organized. Prepare for the long haul. Doing it half-*ssed is often worse than not fighting at all. 7. Again, numbers of people. If a small crowd shows up at city hall and everyone gets a chance to speak, then they can be ignored less. 8. Ask city council members (via email perhaps) ahead of time the procedure for challenging laws of any kind. Don't even mention chickens until you know the procedure for challenging laws in general. Laws are hard to change but other towns have done it, and they were organized, persistent, and had more than one person. 9. See the first article on this page for a newspaper article on one woman's fight to keep her chickens. 10. Glean lots of info from the following three websites from these different cities. They have kept notes on how they changed the chicken laws in their towns: http://www.a2citychickens.com/ . . . . . http://madcitychickens.com/ . . . . . http://www.duluthcitychickens.org/ . . . . . . http://tinyurl.com/ygurdbq
Q. "I hope you can help with a problem I am having with my neighbors.
I live in the suburbs. My neighbor next door has had chickens for
awhile. I see their chickens sometimes in my driveway. Now
the neighbors on the other side of me got the idea to raise chickens also.
They now have 5 chickens and their chickens are always in my front yard
and driveway. I just want the chickens to stay in their own yard."
A. I myself would hate this, and I’m a chicken fan. In populated areas, there are animal laws, and why should some people not have to follow them? In the three different houses I’ve lived in over the years, there have been so many stray dogs and cats in my yard it’s ridiculous. For a first step, here’s what I would do. It’s my style; it might not appeal to you: Write a note and tape it on their front door. Be polite and tell them what’s bothering you and clearly state what you would like; that they keep their pets on their property. Include your phone number. In the note I would quote the chicken laws from the City Code in your town, which undoubtedly forbids chickens or any pets (yes, the law always includes cats, too!) to “roam at large.” Again, even as a chicken fan, I do not approve of letting one's chickens roam at large. Unfortunately, this type of animal-owner often doesn’t respond to the first note. Gear yourself up to call animal control eventually. If you feel these chicken-owning neighbors will ignore your note or be angry with you, just call Animal Control anonymously.
3. Q. "Where
do I buy baby chicks and supplies? Many large on-line hatcheries
have a minimum order of 25 chicks. I just want three or four."
A. Look in your 'Yellow Pages' under "feed stores." The majority of feed stores bring in a variety of baby, or "day-old" chicks during the spring months. Feed stores will also have all your poultry feed and supplies. Some feed stores start bringing in baby chicks as early as late February and carry them through June. A few feed stores will carry chicks nearly year 'round. If you can't find the breeds you want, when you want them, you might have to start calling feed stores in the next towns over. You can buy any number of chicks you need from a feed store; no mimimum number required. Also, some breeds are more popular than others and so some feed stores let you call in and "reserve" chicks of a certain breed.
4. Q. "I am definitely interested in getting chickens but what would I do with the ones I don't want any more? Like, what do I do with the ones that are too old to lay eggs, or grow up to be roosters, etc.? I don't think I want to get into the butchering business. How would I find a farmer that might take extras off my hands?"
A. In my experience, I have found CraigsList.com and FreeCycle.org the best ways to get rid of extra hens or roosters, especially if you offer them for free. Oftentimes those sites are good places to find chickens, too. There is no guarantee a farmer might take your surplus rooster home and make dinner of him, but that's a practical use for a chicken, too.
5. Q. "I think
we want to get about 6 hens. What is the minimum size coop and pen
area needed for 6 chickens?"
A. In my personal experience, I would say the footprint of the pen (any parts where they can touch ground) needs to be around 8'x 8', in any shape/configuration, for six hens. That is about 64 square feet for six full sized laying hens. I come to this number more from experience than from any math equation or advice from commercial egg production companies. You can get away with giving each adult laying hen less than ten square feet per bird, but then you have other issues to contend with, such as more mud and standing water to figure out how to manage, and perhaps chicken behavior that is caused by being over-crowded. . . . . . . But are you trying to get enough eggs for your family? We only have three hens and that more than feeds our family of four, even with me doing regular baking, and I still have enough eggs left over to give to all the neighbors throughout the summer. So my current three hens (I've had up to 30 chickens at once before) live in a chicken tractor that has an 8'x4' footprint, with a sleeping/egg-laying area built above the run area.
Q. "I had a neighbor write me an anonymous letter telling me that
my three hens are too noisy, are bothering them when they try to sleep,
and they are going to call animal control. What should I do?"
A. Hens can be noisy sporadically, and if the chickens are anywhere near a sensitve sleeping person, they might indeed be bothering someone. In my own personal opinion, I think barking dogs can be far more bothersome than cackling hens, which only cackle for short bursts lasting usually under a minute, the max a few times per day, and none at all after sun set. Whereas dogs can go on barking jags that last a half an hour or more, and often after dark. . . . . . .This neighbor of yours has probably written letters to other neighbors about their dogs or radios, etc., since it sounds like they are sensitive to noises and are prone to write letters. You’re probably not being singled out. But sometimes letters are the easiest way to address a concern. . . . . . . You are doing the right thing in researching and knowing the laws on chicken-keeping in your neighborhood. The bothered neighbor may indeed call animal control to find that you are keeping chickens completely legally. At my old house, we had to actually have a permit to keep chickens, which I of course had. So once when a neighbor said something about my chickens, I was able to say, "I have a permit; would you like to see it?" (I had mentioned to them about their dog pooping in my yard a lot and instead of apologizing, they said they were going to call the cops on my chickens.) . . . . . . What I personally would do would be to put my two or three hens in a mobile chicken tractor and move them to the other side of the house. This way, you will probably be moving them away from the sensitve neighbor. My solution is to compromise as best as possible, and for me this is keeping the chickens in a coop that can be moved to other parts of the yard if needed due to a complaint. . . . . Another technique for keeping hens from cackling too early in the morning is to make sure that when your hens go into whatever "house" or enclosure they go into at night, that there is a *door* you can shut behind them after dark some time at your convenience. Then you can let them out of their house into their run whenever you want in the morning, and this really cuts down on early morning cackling. Be sure to not leave them locked in there too long. Or else make sure there is extra water inside the house part. . . . . . Another habit I have is when I first move into a new house, I go around and meet all my neighbors. I bring them half a dozen fresh chicken eggs with my card on it, which has my phone number and email address, and I ask the neighbors if my chickens can be heard and if they are ever bothersome to please feel free to let me know. Yes, I really do this! Last year, even with just three hens, I was able to give all of my six immediate neighbors a half a dozen eggs every once in awhile throughout the summer.
Q. "We just got chickens. They are 2 and 1/2 months old.
We bought a book that said that they need to have a light in the coop.
The lights said they should be on a timer from 4:30 to 10:00 pm and then
from midnight until sunrise. I wanted to know if this is the right
thing to be doing for them. We live in a suburb of San Francisco."
A. They are 2.5 *months* old? That's around 11 weeks old, and that's old enough to be outside in a wind/rain/draft proof coop, outside, without any heat lamps at all. Having a light on a timer like that I've never heard of. In fact, when you get day-old chicks, their heat light is supposed to be on 24 hours a day, to provide heat.
Q. "My hens are losing their feathers left and right. Could
they have some kind of parasite?"
A. They are probably molting. All birds molt. They lose their feathers once a year (more or less in different bird species) and new feathers grow in. Most of the time new feathers are growing in at the same time as they lose the old ones, so the chicken never gets entirely denuded, yet some chickens can get quite bald in patches. If you look closer, you will see new pinfeathers coming in, like a porcupine.
9. Q. "I have some young chickens that are out of the brooder and into their outside coop. I let them roam in my backyard during the day. When nighttime comes, they won't come home to roost! How do I train them?"
A. I don't start letting my young chickens out of their pen to roam the yard until they are at least 6 months old. Until that time, mine must stay in their chicken tractor. This gives them the time to really learn that the coop is "home." Why do I give them so long? Because they are dumb and it takes them that long to learn! :) After even that much growing up, I am fully prepared to still have the chickens not know where to go once it starts getting dark, should I let them out in the yard during the day. If they don't come home to roost, I have a fishing net that I use to go after the birds, collect them (which oftentimes requires chasing them), and put them "manually" in their pen and lock them in for the night. Oftentimes with a new batch of young chickens, I've had to do this for a number of nights in a row before they catch on. Personally, I don't let my chickens out to roam very much. Too many stray dogs, and even though our yard is fenced, I worry, which is due to experience. Sometimes I let chickens out for a couple of hours when I'll be home and right nearby. However, I have a garden and chickens love to scratch in the garden, and I've had a lot of plans dug up and killed over the years, due to just chickens scratching, so my hens usually stay in their chicken tractor, and I move the tractor around to fresh ground when I want to. Sort of a "safe" free-ranging. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Now, there's another form of this "not going home to roost" thing that happens. That is when you have some young chickens--say, only 3 weeks old--and you have them outside already, but they have a house part to their coop or chicken tractor, and you are able to have them outside at such a young age because you have a heat lamp installed in the house part of your coop. So, the idea is that the young chickens will go into the "run" part of the coop during the day, and go towards the heat lamp and perch under it for the night, so as to keep warm enough at night until they are fully-fledged. Well, just like the first scenario, some young chicks seem to be too dense to go just a few feet to put themselves under the lamp at night. This has happened to me often, and again I've had to grab the chickens after dark and put them manually into the "house" part. After doing this for up to a week, they usally catch on, and you never have to do it again.
Q. "What does 'broody' mean?"
A. Going "broody" just refers to the instinct a hen has to stop laying eggs every day and to start sitting on the ones she's already laid, so that in 21 days they will hatch into chicks (provided a rooster has been mating with the hen). Some chickens "go broody" all the time. They are often bantam breeds, such as Silkies, or mixed breeds. Most purebreds, like Rhode Island Reds, were themselves not hatched by a mother hen. They were hatched in an egg incubator in a hatchery somewhere. You see, if you want a chicken that lays a lot of eggs for eating, you don't want one that still has the instinct to stop laying eggs and sit on her eggs all the time. You want one that has had all the broody instincts bred out of her so she'll lay for you year-round. So farmers over the years have raised up what are known as utility breeds; chickens that don't go broody and that lay almost all year 'round.
Q. "My chicks are growing fast. How can I tell which ones are
hens and which are roosters?"
A. If you bought "sexed" chickens, then most likely all your chickens are females. If you bought "straight run" chicks, then 50% will be males. Professional chicken sexors are employed by hatcheries and sexing chickens is difficult. When you see some of your chicks displaying "dominance behaviors" or other fighting type behavior, that won't tell you anything. All my hens, when they were chicks, would fight, spar, act dominant to the others. The best way is to wait until it is no longer a chick and almost full grown. You will start to see pointed sickle and saddle feathers on a male. Sickle feathers are the two long tail feathers, and saddle feathers are the feathers that grow on a rooster's back right on top of the rump. They will come to a point versus being rounded. Wait until you hear a crow before you get rid of a suspected rooster if you are a novice; that's what I still do.
Q. "If my Rhode Island Red hen won't brood, what will make her set?
Do they need a special laying feed to make them go broody?"
A. If a hen doesn't have the instinct to sit on her eggs, there's nothing you can do. She doesn't have the mothering instinct. Special foods won't help, nor will keeping her confined with her eggs or bringing in a rooster. You might be thinking of "layer pellets," which is simply food fed to hens that have started to lay eggs and hence need extra calcium and other nutrients to make strong shells. So leaving the eggs in the nest in hopes she'll sit on them is kind of wasting good eating eggs.
Q. "How often will a grown hen lay eggs? How many a day? What's
the physiological reason that a chicken lays an egg?"
A. I do get a lot of emails asking me about the basic biology of chickens such as this. A "production" breed, or chickens that have been bred over the decades to really crank out the eggs might lay you an egg every 24-36 hours, and keep that up almost year 'round. That would be a good production breed. Secondly, hens don't need a rooster around at all to lay their maximum number of eggs. In addition, here is a picture that shows the internal sex organs of most birds, including chickens. You can see that the external genitalia are the same in males and females. This external part is called the cloacae. ("klo-AY-kuh.") The cloacae is the common chamber into which the intestinal, urinary, and generative canals discharge in birds, reptiles, amphibians, and many fishes. That is to say, chickens poop, pee, lay eggs, and mate all via the same hole.
14. Q. "We'll probably get a couple of chickens now, and then maybe another later. Is that okay?"
A. That's the one thing that's hard to do with chickens: Introduce a new one into a pen of other chickens. The new one gets picked on, often severely. There are tricks you can do to get around actual bloodshed, however. You can introduce even numbers of birds, like put five new chickens in with five original chickens. Or you can toss up the ages and ratios: Put in a dozen youngsters in with just three adults, for example, and the adults will be overwhelmed. Another thing to do is to let the original chickens chase the new ones around, but provide hiding places for the new ones. Put a second feeder and a second waterer at the opposite end of the chicken pen or coop, so the new chickens can always access food and water. Also, I'll refer you to a good link: http://www.feathersite.com/Poultry/BRKRaisingChicks.html. Scroll down to the very last paragraph on that page for another technique on introducing new birds to a flock.
15. Q. "Our
young chickens are about 8 weeks old and getting pretty big. They
live in a chicken tractor.
Every night I make sure to close the little door that is on the house part
to keep them in the house part of the chicken tractor at night. Every
morning I open the door and let them into the run part. Will they
go into the house part at night by themselves? Do they have to?"
A. In theory, a chicken tractor has the best of both worlds for a small number of chickens. That is, it has a “hen house” part that is fully enclosed, and a “chicken run” part that is mainly chicken wire, and gives the birds access to the ground. In my experience, chickens tend to put themselves to bed in the house part. Sometimes you have to prompt young chickens to go to bed in the house part the first few nights they are in their new tractor. I do this by physically putting the chickens into the house part when the sun goes down. Then after spending the night in there, they tend to want to go back in there again the next evening when it starts getting dark. You might have to put them in there a couple of nights in a row to “train” them. Now, do you then have to close a little door of some kind to lock the chickens into the house part, and then let them out yourself in the morning? With a well-built (not overly flimsy or lightweight) chicken tractor, the answer is no. When the sun comes up, they will be able to come out of the house part and down into the run part themselves. When they are of laying age (roughly 6 months old) they will go into the house part where the nest box is to lay their eggs. When I first had chickens, I was a tad paranoid, and I would indeed block the chickens into their house part at night. But I have since learned it’s not really necessary with a chicken tractor. A raccoon cannot reach its prying paws into the house part at night, and a dog should not be able to get into the run part at night, if the chicken tractor is of sufficient strength. I might also add that my current six hens refuse to go into their house part at night. Even though there is a perch inside the house part. They instead fly up to a high perch that is out in the run part and sleep there, even though that is more out in the weather. I tried to make them go to the house part at night by removing that perch. They still wouldn’t go in. I might make some wind breaks on the outside of the run part so that at least the wind won’t whip them when they are out on the perch they insist spending the night on.
Q. "I am new at keeping chickens. I got them when they where born.
Well, 2 of them have tried to attack me. I let them roam free and today
one of them chased me into the house. I am afraid to go into my backyard.
Have you ever heard of this?"
A. You really should keep your chickens in a pen of some kind. I would never let my chickens scare me out of my own yard. Take back the streets! I mean yard. Get those darned chickens in a pen where they belong. It will also keep them safer. If you let your chickens roam free all the time, it is my personal opinion and experience that it's just a matter of time before they are harmed by predators.
17. Q. "What about parasites on or in my chickens? Do I have to deal with all that?"
A. Every long-time chicken owner does it a little differently, so I can only tell you how I've done it: I check my chickens once in awhile--probably what amounts to once every month or so--for lice and mites. You pick up the chicken and part the feathers near the top of the head. If they have lice, you will see flesh-colored flat bugs on their skin. If they have lice, go to the hardware store or Lowe's or Home Depot and get some all-purpose pesticide dust, such as Sevin dust, or Hi-Yield Livestock & Garden dust. It will come in a canister or bag. It is usually in the pest or garden department. On the package, it will usually say it can be used on animals and plants; real all-purpose stuff. Here's how I apply it to my chickens: Sit down, hold the chicken's two legs in one hand, flip the bird over onto its back on your lap. With the other hand, dispense some of the dusting powder onto the bird, working it down to their skin, hitting all the body parts. When you let them go, they will shake off but enough will be left on them. Go and wash your hands right away. With that said, most of the time, I see no evidence of lice on my chickens. So you might not even need to dust them. If you want a hands-free way, you can try this way: Get a big shallow drawer, wooden box or bin, put sand or clean dirt in it, and mix a couple of cups of the pesticide dust in with it. Chickens love to take dust baths and will be dusting themselves in no time. Just leave the dusting bin in their run until you've seen them all take a dust bath in it. Also, chickens sometimes get worms. Just like puppies and kittens. I used to say I liked to dispense worm medicine to my flock every six months, but I have changed to not worming them at all unless I am seeing them acting like they have worms (droopiness, emaciation and diarrhea). To worm: Buy a small bottle of chicken wormer from your local feed store, or you can order from the 'net, too. It simply involves adding some liquid medicine to their drinking water. Carefully follow the directions on the bottle. Also, if you have a sick chicken, you can try to diagnose what it might be yourself, by visiting this handy page: http://msucares.com/poultry/diseases/dissymp.htm. Also, here's a slightly gross but cool page featuring actual photos of individual chicken droppings to help you diagnose if your chickens ae sick or healthy.
Q. "What is coccidiosis?"
A. Coccidiosis (pronounced, “cock-sid-ee-O-sis”) is a common chicken disease. Poultry raised in crowded or unsanitary conditions (conditions that permit the build-up of a lot of oocysts in the environment) are at greatest risk of becoming infected. Wet areas around water fountains are a source of infection. Oocysts remain viable in litter for many months. In this way they can contaminate a farm from year to year. Oocysts are killed by freezing, extreme dryness and high temperatures. Several factors influence the severity of infection. Some of these are: An increase in the number of oocysts eaten causes an increase in the severity of the disease. Old birds are generally immune as a result of prior infection. Coccidiosis generally occurs more frequently during warmer weather (May to September). The most easily recognized clinical sign of severe coccidiosis is the presence of bloody droppings. Chickens droop, stop feeding, huddle together and by the fourth day blood begins to appear in the droppings. The greatest amount of blood appears by day five or six and by the eighth or ninth day the bird is either dead or on the way to recovery. Keep chicks, feed and water away from droppings as much as possible. Place water vessels on wire frames to eliminate a concentration of wet droppings, in which the chicks can walk to pick up or spread the disease. Keep litter dry and stirred frequently. Remove wet spots and replace with dry litter. Avoid overcrowding. If coccidiosis does break out, start treatment immediately. Amprolium (the stuff they put in medicated chick feed) or one of the sulpha-based drugs (such as Sulmet, which you can get at the feed store) is usually recommended. Follow directions on bottle to the letter.
19. Q. "My chicken
appears deathly ill with some mysterious condition. I don't want
to take it to the vet. What should I do?"
A. If you own a dog, you tend to take it to the vet if it is ill. But chickens bridge that gap between pet and livestock. You don't have to take a chicken to the vet if you don't want to, and I feel you shouldn't feel guilty about that. . . . . . . . However, I myself prefer to put terminally suffering chickens out of their misery rather than let them suffer until they die. How do you know if your chicken is surely on the way out of this world and you just want to help it along? I can only tell you about the three times I myself have chosen to euthanize a chicken. It's happened just 4 times in the past 14 years, so don't fear you're going to have to euthanize chickens often. . . . . . . One time a raccoon chewed one of my young chicken's wings off. Rather than let it slowly bleed to death or who knows, I chose to chop its head off because that was the only killing means available to me. The second time a very young chicken had a virus that was making it flop around uncontrollably. It probably would have died soon, but I helped it along by chopping its head off. The third time a hen had a terrible and grossly distended crop for weeks. I called all around to vets and feed stores to find medication for this condition but didn't find any. I decided to take her out of the flock and--you guessed it--chop her head off. The fourth time a hen had a severely "prolapsed vent" which was just getting worse and worse, and so I chopped her head off. My hands shake a little afterwards, but the stress is worth it to me to know that the chicken wouldn't suffer for a few more weeks and die slowly and painfully.
Here’s how I do it:
Get a board, like a fence board or a scrap of 2x6. Hammer three nails (or use screws, as I do) in the board as shown in the picture. Use a length of wire to tightly lash the sickly chicken’s legs together at the ankles. Put an old mismatched sock over just the head. This makes them calm down and just lay there. And you don't have to look at its cute little face. In fact, I used a perfectly healthy young Australorp to be the model for this macabre photography session. (I'm sorry that beheading is the only way I know how to kill a chicken; there are other ways but this is my method.) Chickens become very calm with something covering their eyes. Now lay the chicken on the board (which should be on firm ground; not like soft grass). Put its neck between the nails and slowly stretch the chicken so it's head stays stuck in the nails and its body is laid out. Bend the nails further open or closer together to get a good fit for the head to stay in there. Lash the loose end of the wire down to the far single nail with no slack in the wire. Now with a slightly stretched out chicken, you have exposed more neck area. You've felt a chicken's neck before; they are very thin. The feathers make it seem big. Trim away some bulky neck feathers if you want. I suggest a small hatchet and not a big axe. You don't need a big axe swing. A mild hatchet swing will decapitate a chicken. This set-up as seen above has the benefit of you not having to touch the chicken at all while chopping (just one more way to remove yourself from the scary-ness), and it can’t run away after it’s chopped. Now give the neck area a whack, or have someone who isn’t scared do it. You might have to whack again if you didn't sever the head off completely. The chicken won’t go anywhere because it's lashed down, and when the body is still, put the body and head (no need to take the head out of the sock) in a couple of plastic grocery bags, tie them closed and throw it in the trash can. I don’t bury my chickens. Yes, you can throw away a chicken carcass; you probably have done it already lots of times when you were done with a roasted chicken dinner or Thanksgiving turkey.
There are other ways to euthanize or kill a chicken. For example, you can buy online something called a chicken “dispatcher.” It mounts to a sturdy garage or barn wall. Insert then neck of the chicken into the U-shaped gap and pull the lever down quickly and sharply. This will break the neck of the bird, sever the spinal cord, yet keep the chicken from bleeding externally, because it doesn’t remove the head. An adjusting screw is provided to regulate the gap from one size or type of bird to another. I’ve never tried one of these.
Q. "Do your chicken eggs have little red spots in them?"
A. The blood spot that many people mistakenly take as a mark of a fertilized egg is actually blood from the hen. Not all eggs will have them. It happens when the hen is creating the egg in her body and a tiny blood vessel somewhere along the process ruptures and a tiny bit of chicken blood gets mixed into the formation process. People have long thought all sorts of erroneous things about chicken eggs: That fertilized ones are healthier, that free-range eggs are so much better for you, that organic ones have less cholesterol, that the blood spot is a mark of fertilization, etc.
21. Q. "When
you say you can raise chickens in the city, you really mean in the suburbs,
right? One can't raise chickens in a high rise apartment."
A. I raised a hen from a baby chick when I lived in an apartment once. It was actually "military family housing" when my husband was in the Air Force. They were brand new town houses, right in the heart of "Silicon Valley" in California. Right where all the dot com companies were taking off. I had a temp job I could walk to at the NASA-Ames Research Center! My chicken was a bantam breed and so only grew as large as a parrot, which people keep as pets all the time, and chickens can live outside. Except unlike a parrot, my species of bird would eat my kitchen scraps and give me eggs. The only thing I would do differently is raise two chicks at a minimum, as one chick gets lonely. My apartment had a little patio, and I don't see why a person couldn't modify a chicken tractor design to work for a patio. I personally think it's not too nice to keep a dog cooped up in an apartment, and people do that all the time. It might be challenging at first, but why couldn't city folks keep pets that are super practical and give them fresh eggs? There are cages called "patio homes" for small pets. See examples of them here or here.
Q. "I prefer organic versus store-bought eggs and I have read all
kind of hen house horror stories, so I would prefer to buy my family's
eggs from chickens which don't spend their lives caged up in misery and
pumped full of antibiotics and hormones."
A. It may not be supporting my own cause, but I am compelled to say: The only real difference you will be getting with backyard eggs is that they will be fresher, and a lot of people like that. They can have more brightly colored yolks. Otherwise they are essentially the same internally as store-bought eggs. I don't really like the idea of battery hens standing on wire the whole year or so they use them, but it might be a necessary evil; there are poor people who need cheap eggs out there. (Yes, we could force children to become vegans but that morality is still a luxury for many, for economic reasons.) However, even backyard hens have to live in a pen of some kind, because even city folks have raccoons, dogs and hawks to contend with. If I let my chickens roam the yard at all times, they would be predated eventually. But you're right; backyard hens definitely are not on wire floors and are able to scratch about happily in the straw or dirt, eat grass and food scraps, fly up to perches, lay in the sun, take dust baths, preen each other, interact with each other, etc. I know egg industry hens are sometimes fed feed with antibiotics in it, but it's a myth that they are given hormones. (Read this good page on poultry feed.) It does please me, however, to have my own happy egg producers, vs. supporting the less humane egg industry, even though I don't actively protest it.
23. Q. "There are so many pesticides and chemicals used in food production it can be scary. Food production currently in the US is not exactly the healthiest thing for people, the economy, or the environment. I think there are a lot of people out there like myself who prefer organic so we can to try to reduce the amount of pesticides and chemicals we are ingesting and to hopefully contribute a little less damage to the ecosystem."
A. Your points are valid.
Q. "Isn't it true that some free-range, organic, vegetarian hens
lay eggs with 35% less cholesterol than regular eggs?"
A. It might indeed be true that the new "Omega 3" eggs developed at the University of Nevada can have up to 19% less cholesterol than regular eggs. However, it's the folks who are producing them who are reporting this; not an independent researcher. Foodwatch.com says Omega 3 eggs "do not have any less cholesterol but they have more omega 3 fatty acids." Foodwatch.com also says, "Despite these differences, all eggs have approximately the same amount of protein, total fat and cholesterol." These engineered eggs don't claim to be "organic" eggs. They are not free-range eggs. They just claim to have more Omega 3 fatty acids. What jumps out at me is that they are doing a lot of work (genetic selection, restricted feed, etc.) to make a relatively little change in eggs. The hens are still in cages and the hens are fed a fairly unnatural diet. So to me the eggs might be slightly healthier but are not particularly "natural." I would say it would be up to each individual consumer to decide which is their own personal lesser of two evils. Some folks who have high cholesterol might be grateful for any small change in an egg; others will still consider these to be battery hens that are caged and the resulting eggs are not free-range nor organically produced. Also, you might find some farms that make fairly amazing claims about their eggs. Buyer beware of such claims.
25. Q. "No matter what I put my chicken's water in, they get dirt in it! Do you have any tricks for keeping their water supply unfouled?"
A. They sell automatic watering systems, like the one seen here. But they require you to have them always hooked up to a water source, and most back yard poultry keepers don't get that complicated. I've used the plastic one gallon gravity feed ones (you have to refill them often), the 5 gallon plastic Dura Founts (two of them leaked/cracked on me), a plain plastic shoebox but placed very high on some boards and bricks, and other made-up methods. The problem I have with the galvanized gravity feed ones is that although they can hold a lot of water, the actual reservoir holds only about a cup of water, and it gets dirty fast. So the chickens, although using a five gallon waterer, only have access to the trough of a cup or so of dirty warm water. That bothers me every time I look at it. Currently I'm using a five gallon bucket, as seen in the picture. You must keep the water topped off or the chickens won't be able to reach the water easily. With gravity feed waterers, you have to go into the poopy chicken pen to remove it, open it, refill it, and then lug 5 gallons of water back into the chicken pen. The bucket can be filled from outside the pen by sticking the garden hose through the wire; no top to unscrew. The bucket water level is right near the head-level of a standard breed bird. The water surface is high enough to keep most scratched-up dirt out of it. The dirt that does land in the water settles down to the bottom of the bucket. It is heavy so if the birds fly onto it, it won't tip over like a smaller bucket. It is inside a locked chicken tractor so that no children can fall into it. I will undoubtedly change around my watering set-up; I often do.
Q. "I gave my chickens a few worms. They loved those.
Is it OK to do so?"
A. You will find that chickens are better than pigs for eating anything. Get a pretty ceramic bowl or container (I use a kid's sand pail), set it next to your kitchen sink, and throw all your food scraps into it. This will become your "chicken bucket." Then feed these scraps to the chickens. Empty the container daily so as not to breed germs. Dump the "chicken bucket" of food scraps into an old metal cake pan or the like that you leave in the chicken run. This way the scraps are kept off the ground and droppings. You can then easily dispose of any food that the chickens didn't eat that was left in the cake pan. You will find that chickens hardly refuse anything. It gives them food variety, too, and you will feel like you are not wasting food but recycling it. Think you can't put scrambled eggs or cooked chicken meat into the chicken bucket? Think again; those are among their favorites. I used to put even raw meat scraps in, but I've read that raw meat can transmit toxoplasmosis to animals, including chickens, and I wouldn't want myself or my kids to then come in contact with contaminated chicken manure. This is especially important for pregnant women. Some chicken fanciers are wholly against feeding human food to chickens. I just don't understand how some leftover Cheerios, which are enriched with vitamins, or bread or pasta made with enriched flour could possibly be bad for chickens. One time a mouse made a nest under one of my chickens' nest boxes, and when we moved the box, about 7 baby mice went scampering. My hens ate those baby mice so fast you wouldn't believe it. Chickens are the ultimate omnivores. Oh, and chickens love fresh grass clippings; be sure to put your garden clippings into the chicken pen. (Earthworms and other bugs, actually, can be carriers of microscopic parasitic chicken worms. My personal solution is to administer worming medicine via their water roughly every year versus never letting them eat worms or bugs.)
Q. "What kind of chicken food do I buy for my laying hens?"
A. Very simple: One should always provide free-choice commercial chicken food. Chicks should be fed "chick starter" clear up until you get your first egg, then switch to "layer pellets." That's it. Cracked corn or scratch grains are not sufficient. A chicken fed on only "chicken scratch" will be malnourished and fat.
28. Q. "I was watching my chickens and they are pecking the feathers off of each other a lot. Could feeding them straight barley for a long time make them pick?"
A. Absolutely. Chickens have been bred from the wild jungle fowl. In the wild, chickens eat beetles, worms, mice, carrion, bugs, flies, seeds, grasses, etc. They are omnivores, which means they eat meat and vegetable matter. They are omnivores in much the same way we humans are omnivores. So feeding them plain barley for a long time would be just as if you ate plain barley for a long time. You would start having strong cravings for protein, vitamins and minerals. You would become malnourished. Your chickens are picking each other and eating the feathers for protein and other trace minerals. "Scratch grains," such as barley kernels and cracked corn, are just extra treats for chickens. "Scratch grains," as they are called, should never be their only food. You should always provide commercially prepared chicken food for your captive chickens. It should be "free choice," too, which means a supply should always be available and should never run out. So go out today and buy an all-purpose chicken feed like Triple Duty or Chicken Mash or Crumbles. If your chickens are all older and are egg layers, you can feed Layer Pellets, as it is nutritionally complete for laying hens. Don't feed this to chicks or chickens who haven't started laying yet. They need Chick Starter until you see your first egg. A 25lb. bag of chicken feed (not scratch) costs about $5.95. Also, put grass clippings in your pen as often as you can, as this helps cut down on pecking because it gives them something to do and is healthy for them, because regular chicken feed, although nutritionally complete, has no green leafy living matter in it, and that is good for chickens and they really like it. Also provide grit (small gravel rocks you buy at the feed store) for your chickens if they are not able to find little pebbles on the ground.
Q. "If you read the fine print on a bag of commercial chicken feed,
you'll see that some chicken feed uses by-products from butchering animals."
A. I don't have a problem with that. I would have a problem if we raised cows and pigs and just took out all their fancy parts (filet mignon, etc.) and completely wasted all the rest of the parts. In the old days, and even today, even humans eat: Haggis, head cheese, kidney pie, blood pudding, tongue, tripe, etc. Only today can we afford to waste certain body parts just because of our current sensibilities. When my chickens ate the baby mice, or eat beetles and worms, they are eating eyeballs, legs, hair, teeth, reproductive organs, bone, etc. When I see a crow or vulture eating a dead animal in the woods, I see them eating all the body parts. So suffice it to say, I have no problem feeding "offal." I believe that some people think offal is bad to feed chickens because of popular tastes (and there's no arguing with taste) and the fact that morality is often a luxury; we can afford to make our chickens vegetarians (with commercially prepared, carefully balanced feed) if we want to play that game, even though chickens are not naturally vegetarians.
30. Q. "Is there
any way to quiet my crowing rooster?"
A. The only trick I've heard of, but have never tried myself, is to put your rooster into a low cage at night. Apparently, roosters have to stand up tall and crane their necks upward to crow. Supposedly, if you keep them in a cage which keeps them from being able to stand all the way up then they can't crow. Then you would be able to let the rooster out at a more reasonable hour in the morning. Don't, of course, keep a rooster in a little cage like that for longer than just for its overnight sleep. The rooster would still undoubtedly crow during other times of the day. Catching a rooster each night and letting it out each morning sounds too time-consuming to me. Another thing I've heard of is that you can surgically de-crow a rooster. Chickens don't make sound with vocal chords so it's not a matter of just snipping the vocal chords as they do with dogs; it's more involved surgery, it's expensive, and it's very hard to find a vet who can/will do it.
31. Q. "What
kind of bedding do you put in a hen house or chicken run?"
A. I can only speak from my own experiences, and I've tried a number of things: Sand, pea gravel, wood shavings, straw, etc. The main thing is that you want something that promotes drainage. If you have a muddy chicken run, it is more conducive to disease. Some people throw straw in their chicken tractor or run, and then when it gets layered with poop and moisture, they throw on another layer of straw. This works, except for eventually, you have to remove the dirty straw, and in my experience the layers become very matted and almost woven/cemented together so that even with a shovel it is hard to get up. So I would suggest using one of those compressed bales of wood shavings for $9. A bale for three hens in a chicken tractor lasts a long time and make things look "petting zoo" cute. It also doesn't mat together quite as bad as straw, you can layer fresh wood shavings on top of old, and it absorbs standing water or mud which can harbor an excess of pathogens. If have very well-draining soil in your coop, or live where it is dry and warm a lot, you can also use no litter; just bare earth. Just rake out the dried poop occasionally.
32. Q. "I do like the chicken tractor idea - but they'd also need a regular hen house and pen, right?"
A. In a word, no. A chicken tractor, depending on how long you built it, could house from 3 to 8 hens. Chicken tractors are perfect for city folks' chickens. In the U.K., they call chicken tractors 'arks'. When building a coop of any kind, a lot of people assume they have to bury the chicken wire three feet into the ground. I don't, because in all my years of chicken-keeping, I have yet to see evidence of anything digging under. I think that chicken tractors are safe, and are good accommodations for city chickens. I wouldn't worry about something digging under. Unless you came out one morning and saw that something had been scratching at one spot the night before, which is unlikely. Even then I would just put some boards or rocks around the perimeter. What is more likely is something that happened to me; someone left the coop door unlatched and a dog got in at night and did away with a hen.
Q. “Tell your site readers that chicken wire will not keep their
chickens safe from dogs. We built a chicken tractor like the ones
pictured in your chicken tractor gallery and still our dogs tore through
the chicken wire and killed our two chickens.”
A. I’m so sorry to hear that. I will mention again about the danger of dogs around chickens. Determined dogs might indeed be able tear lightweight chicken wire off of its framework if it was not attached very well. I will advise builders to use plenty of long staples when attaching the chicken wire to their chicken tractors or hen houses. I will also suggest that if using a chicken tractor to house chickens, the extra-safe way is to keep the pen inside a fully fenced yard. That way, no stray or roaming dogs can come into your yard. If you have your own dogs sharing your yard with your chickens, I must simply say that there is no real way to fully trust dogs around chickens. If you have dogs, a chicken tractor may not be appropriate for you. You would have to use something very dog-proof to keep your dogs away from your chickens. (See my segments on using a modified dog kennel as a chicken yard.) Also, if a dog can’t tear through the chicken wire, it still might be able to tip over a very lightweight chicken tractor. So if you are going to leave your own dogs unattended around your chicken tractor, I would suggest building a heavy chicken tractor or else put some kind of heavy object such as an old tire on top of it.
"Dear Katy...Just found your website and found it helpful and encouraging. I have been wanting to raise chickens for some time but always found an excuse. Your site covers a lot of the issues that stopped me because it's such unknown subject for me right now. My experience is my memories of my grandmother's many chickens and gathering eggs for her. Thanks for the boost to my determination to raise some chickens!" ----Carol D., Bartlett, Illinois.
34. Q. "I've
been told by several people that bantam hens have a very good disposition
and are exceptionally easy to manage. In your experience are there
any breeds that do better than others as pets?"
A. I've tried a lot of breeds, and ultimately, they are all chickens. In my experience, how "pet-like" a chicken is is directly related to how much it was handled while it was growing up. It will be unafraid of humans if humans handled it a lot and hand-fed it, etc. Some chicken fanciers will tell you that some breeds are born friendlier than others. My personal opinion? It's dependent on how much human contact they had when growing up. Some breeds will *look* more pet like, because they are fluffier, or slower, or have shorter legs. Remember, they are birds. They are all flighty, unless you work against their nature and hand-rear them a lot. Get some baby chicks, brood them in your coat pockets, only hand feed them, etc., and your chickens will hang around you forever. But I don't have that kind of time, and I’d hate to think what my coat pockets would smell like. :)
Q. "Would my chickens be safe to wander around our fenced yard unsupervised
during the day, as long as I put them in their house at night?"
A. In a word, no. Your key word is 'unsupervised.' There are too many things that like to eat/kill chickens. I had chickens only 64 blocks from downtown Portland and I had dogs, raccoons, and hawks all attack my chickens, showing me the insufficient portions of my coop set-up. And why must it always happen at 4am? So I really don’t advocate letting your chickens out, unless you are standing right there, and are sure you’d be able to catch your chickens to put them back in their pen. Running around after your chickens is not that fun. Well, maybe a little. Some chickens will come when called, with "calling" being shaking and tapping of your food-scraps bucket. But many chickens don't want go back into the pen and can be hard to catch.
Q. "Would my chickens have the capability and the desire to fly out
of our yard?"
A. Yes. The capability is there. I even keep particularly skittish hens’ wings trimmed so they can’t take off. No, chickens can’t really “fly,” but they can get over fences. If you cut the wings like in the picture here, it doesn't hurt them a bit. This will keep them from leaping most fences.
Q. "I was wondering if the smell is very bad if we are good about
keeping our chicken area really clean. It seems like it is not too
bad as long as the area is kept clean. Is that correct?"
A. Since your chicken pen is outside, then even if it got quite poopy you wouldn't notice the smell much. But you're right; cleaner always equals less smelly. I think you have to let the poop accumulate for a LONG time before it gets really smelly. Also, a fresh dropping smells. A dried out dropping doesn't. Wet area equals smell, dry area equals no smell.
38. Q. "Do you notice a rat problem starting up because of the chicken feed that is out? If so, what do you usually do to curb that problem?"
A. I've noticed a few mice, but they've never got to the "problem" level at all. They come around looking for the kitchen scraps I feed my chickens. But then one time my hens ate a bunch of baby mice they found under their nest box. So there you go. :) I also keep my chicken feed outside, but in a metal trash can. I tried plastic; the squirrels chewed through it.
webpage. Been wondering about what it would take to have some chickens
for awhile. Just hadn't taken the time to take a look - until now!
Thanks for the info." --- MD from Beaverton, Oregon
39. Q. "Should
I be concerned about the Bird Flu?"
A. Bird flu, known as the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, does not currently pose a major threat to humans and it is not easily transmitted from person to person. But scientists warn that mutations could make it more hazardous in the future. Since 2003, the virus has infected 383 people in 15 countries, including China, Indonesia and Vietnam, according to the World Health Organization. You'll have to judge for yourself if this is a lot of incidences or a few.
40. Q. "What
should be done for chickens in the Winter?
A. Chickens, in zero degree temps and lower, can get frostbite of the comb and wattles. However, I don’t want my chickens to get anywhere near the point of frostbite. Because I can imagine there are many points before actual frostbite that would be very uncomfortable for a chicken. Chickens may be able to "survive," "handle," or "tolerate" the cold, but those adjectives don't sound very pleasant. Chickens are descendants of Jungle Fowl, a tropical pheasant that are from Fiji and other South Pacific islands. I.e., warm places. They evolved big combs and wattles because they could; they didn't get frostbite in those climates. They might live, but will suffer. Some might argue that today's buff Orpington, for example, is a much hardier creature than the Jungle Fowl, but I believe that today’s chicken is still genetically not made for zero degrees, let alone the negative temps, without supplemental heat or excellent insulation. Orpingtons have combs and wattles just like the Jungle fowl, and have the same genetic sensitivities. Okay, so now you probably want to know an exact Fahrenheit temperature at which you should put in supplimental lighting for heat in your chicken pen, right? All I can tell you is what I do, and what I've noticed. In the Portland, Oregon area where I live, it's been down to 15 degrees for a few days in the winter. My hens always seemed fine. I tend to worry more about them when it's 100 degrees in the Summer. (Always provide some shade!) With that said, if the temps get much below 15 degrees, then I might put a drop lamp in my coop. Keep lights away from bedding; you don't want a fire.
41. Q. “About
2 weeks ago I started noticing evidence of broken eggs. I can't find any
shells--they eat those--but they leave the yolk/white. After much observation
I know which two of my girls are guilty but I don't have a clue what to
do about it. They are eating a good layer mix, fortified with all the vitamins/minerals
they need plus I give them oyster shells and grit. They have a tractor
that gets pushed around the yard and frequent 3-4 hour free-range times.
Their shells are very strong and the eggs look normal. Any tips or
suggestions would be so helpful!”
A. Hmm....Egg eaters will eat all the yolk and white, too. Did you actually witness hens cracking intact eggs and eating them? Actual cracking and eating of eggs is kind of rare in my experience. You would have to actually *see* a hen going after a perfect, intact egg in the nest, more than once, before you could be sure you have an egg-eater. Now, if an egg is already cracked and spilling, *any* chicken will eat it. My question is this; how soft is your nest box? I have found that if there is not enough bedding in the nest box, that eggs get accidentally broken when each hen hops in and out to lay. Also, if the hens don't have a separate place to roost, and have to sleep in the nest box (which is fine), then sometimes they move and shift around when bedding down and step on eggs that haven't been collected. Ideas to try: You can make a separate roost in your chicken tractor, and you can put a piece of rubber foam, like from an old camping mat, underneath the nesting material in the next box(es), and add a thick layer of straw or wood shavings to the nest box(es) over that to provide cushioning for eggs. Also try putting some fake wooden eggs (found at any feed store or on-line, or you can use plastic easter eggs with a rock inside) in the nest and leave them there at all times. This way a hen migth peck at unbreakable eggs and eventually get discouraged. Also try collecting eggs more frequently, such as every morning and before you go in for the night. And one more thing I might mention here; the idea that feeding empty egg shells back to your chickens might promote egg-eating is not true in my experience. I've always fed the egg shells back to my hens, and I've yet to have an egg-attacker. Chickens seem to have certain egg instincts; like, if an egg is cracked, they know to gobble it up immediately, to not waste the nutrition and to clean up the nest area so as to not attract predators. But they prefer to lay eggs in a nest that already has eggs in it, and don't seem to exhibit any preference for their own eggs over another hen's eggs; it's rather communal. Conversely, some wild birds will push the eggs out of other bird's nests, but that doesn't appear to happen with chickens. For example, one time I let my bantams out of their chicken pen, and my standard sized hens out of their pen. One of the standard sized hens went clear over to the bantam hutch, jumped in, found the next box, and proceeded to lay her egg in the bantam nest, without disturbing the bantam eggs. You just don’t see hens attacking other hen’s eggs normally. Let me know how it goes!
42. Q. "Where DO urban chickens
go to retire? And what's life like there?"
A. I've yet to have a chicken, in all my years keeping chickens, that has died of old age. I usually give mine away to friends, or sell them because I've had to move, or raised some up for a friend, or pared down my flock, etc. I've also had a number that have died before their time, due to disease, injury, or a predator. My understanding is that the egg-production industry raises up new batches of hens every couple of years or so, because the Leghorn breed they use have been bred to crank out the eggs in their first year of laying, and then the frequency of laying kind of tapers off. A slight taper is not an issue for backyard chicken keepers, but I gather that to the egg production industry, it is more feed-cost-effective to just start over. What they do with the two or three year old hens when they are done with them I don't know. I would hope they euthanize them humanely, and then perhaps use their meat for something useful. My thought is that probably more chickens get euthanized, killed, butchered for meat, predated, injured, or diseased than actually "retire" and die of old age. I think that chickens are probably more like goldfish than dogs. People have dogs that die of old age, but you know how it goes with goldfish.
|Sarah S. of St.
Louis, MO wrote in to say, “Dear Katy...I'm taking a food writing class
and my for my first assignment I have chosen to write about city dwellers
who raise chickens…can you answer a few questions?” Sure,
Q. What, in your opinion, is the leading motivator for urban chicken ‘farmers?’ Hobby/fun, organic eating, locally sourced food, economics, or?
A. It seems that doing “green” things for the earth is kind of trendy right now. And keeping chickens is seen as one of those things. That could be one reason. Also, plenty of people just plain old like animals, and chickens are easy pets. E.g., I love dogs but don't have one because chickens are easier at this particular stage in my life.
Q. What do you think are the leading
reasons that municipalities might be against residents raising chickens
in their city?
Q. As the economy worsens, do
you think more people will look to raising their own chickens to save some
Q. How strong is the connection
between raising chickens in the city to other practices like gardening
Q. Have you learned of an increased
demand for organic eggs?
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