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Chit Chatting About Chickens

Happy Earth Day! Recently, Green Mama sat down with Juliet—Mother, Chicken Owner—to talk about keeping hens. A resident of the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, Juliet has been the proud “parent” of Speckles, Cookie, and Crackers since June 2012.

Juliet, you have small kids, your husband works long hours, and you do a great deal of volunteer work. Why did you add chicken ownership to your list of responsibilities?

Living in the city or suburbs, it can be hard to feel connected with nature. I wanted to make this more of a priority for my family. I also wanted us to eat better, healthier food, and to be more self-sufficient. I started with a 4’ x 12′ kitchen garden in our small yard. I started juicing. We began making more effort to enjoy hikes in New Haven’s great local parks. We started composting and became more conscious of the waste our family produces.

Slowly, these small life changes made a transition to keeping hens feel really natural and easy. I have found that stewardship over the animals is very rewarding, and it doesn’t seem to take up that much time–maybe ten minutes a day. The benefits seem well worth the effort. And it’s fun!

Let’s cover the basics. Where did you get your chickens? Where did you get supplies?

My “ladies” came from a friend in Woodbridge. He has a large lot and raised 11 birds, but determined that he didn’t want them all, so I took three. It’s great to have a friend with chickens because we care for each other’s flocks when we vacation.

My initial investment for supplies was only around $50. I bought some 2x4s and chicken wire from Lowe’s and built a coop inside the corner of my garage, with a window. Outside of the window, I fenced in an outdoor area for the chickens to run. I built a chicken ladder going up to the window from the outside, and a perch underneath the window on the inside. Every morning I simply go out and open the window unless the weather is awful, though the “gals” won’t go out in the cold or pouring rain anyway. At night, they instinctively come back in, so I simply close it and collect any eggs from the nesting box (just a milk crate).

My chicken supplies come from Agway. I recommend the galvanized hanging feeders and waterers for ease and durability. I also recommend layer feed pellets (less waste with pellets) and pine shavings for the coop floor. (Pine costs a bit more, but is clean and easiest to maintain.)
 You can also purchase coops at Agway or online.

Chicken coopSo, how do you take care of a chicken? What do they need? And how is your three year old involved?

Once you understand the animal, you realize how easy they are to keep. (I always thought cats are the easiest animals–until I got chickens.) They need: food and plenty of water; a secure, well-ventilated coop that is cleaned thoroughly every six months or so; protection from harsh elements; and someone to collect their eggs. That’s about it. Oh, and in the winter they need supplemental light and a warmer to keep their water from freezing. I was surprised how clean they are and how they will eat anything. We never throw food away anymore.

It is my three year old’s job to collect the eggs. She has a little basket and every day she and I go out together to the coop after lunch. She sings, “Chickens, make an egg for me!” and gets really excited when she picks them up. Sure, she’s dropped a few, but the chickens make quick work of them, so no worries. She feeds them garden scraps, too.

My daughter has also taken it upon herself to police the chickens. She likes to sit and watch them and if they fight over food or peck each other she is quick to scold them. She calls them by name and knows their places in the pecking order. I like that she’s learning responsibility and appreciation for where her eggs come from. And it’s really cute.

What resources (local or otherwise) have you used to learn what you need to know? How much research did you do before taking on these special pets?

The first thing I did before getting the chickens was to read Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. It teaches you what you need to know and is a great reference.

No thanks to a “concerned” neighbor, I got an extra lesson on Westville’s chicken regulations. Fortunately, my coop was within code! Before you build, make sure to check with your neighborhood regulations. For example, in Westville, the bird enclosures must not be within five feet of a neighbor’s property line, and you can keep a maximum of six hens (and no roosters!).

What are some of the best aspects of having chickens? What’s not so hot?

My favorite part about keeping hens is the role they play in helping us have a greener, healthier lifestyle and connect to the earth. The chickens eat the weeds from our garden and leftover food from our kitchen. In turn, they provide us with eggs. The droppings help produce great fertilizer for the garden. (Another fun fact about chicken poop: it contains something that kills flies. So flies eat the poop, die, and the chickens eat the flies, as well as other bugs around the garden. Gross, but great!)

I also like the stewardship aspect. I love having and caring for the chickens, but I am not attached to them in the same way I am to house pets. If the time comes to make a chicken dinner, it will not feel like loosing a pet. I can’t really explain it, but it just feels like a natural circle of life relationship.

A bad part about chickens is that, while they do have individual personalities, they are mostly really dumb. This helps you to become less attached to them, but it also makes them easy prey to predators. Secure their living space but also prepare yourself for the possibility that someday an animal could maul a bird, forcing you to humanely put her down.

Also—safety first! Know that chickens are attracted to shiny things – including eyeballs. A hen isn’t going to chase you down and peck your eyes, but don’t get right up in their beaks. Best practice is to wear glasses or goggles in the coop and keep your small kids a safe distance from the birds. (They don’t want to hurt you, but they don’t know the difference.)

What else would you tell someone interested in having backyard chickens?

People don’t generally raise urban chickens to save money. In fact, if you plan to keep only a few birds, you should know that the eggs you get will probably end up costing you more than what the grocery store is charging. You don’t start really saving money unless you have more birds than most urban and suburban areas allow. [N.B. Contrary to Juliet’s experience, many think you can save $; see this article, for example. In any case, be realistic about your yield and the possibility that you might not save money, or at least not in the short term. ~Green Mama]

A hen can live 15 years, but she is most productive laying in her first few years. (There are ways to inspect her to tell her approximate age.) It takes about 25 hours for a hen to produce an egg in optimum conditions. I find one egg a day from three hens to be a realistic yield.)

Even though eggs from your own chickens may cost a bit more, they are much more delicious (big golden yolks and firm whites) than store bought eggs, they keep longer, and you can feel good about the fact that your chickens are living wonderful, humane lives. And food can’t get more local than from your own backyard!

Additional Resources:

  • “City Hatches Hen Ordinance” in the Yale Daily News, 10/22/09
  • Best Practices Manual for Chicken Keepers from CT NOFA, the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
    An indispensable 26-page resource for everyone in the New Haven area considering keeping hens. It’s chock-full of information on everything from regular care to egg safety, along with many additional local, online, and library resources on various chicken-related topics, like building coops and choosing your breed. (The document is a few years old, so some of the links are dead, but most are not.) Also included in the document is the full text of the New Haven ordinance, along with an explanation.

And don’t miss Chicks & Chickens Day at Common Ground on Saturday May 4, 2013!

 ~ Green Mama

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