This is a guest post by Meryl of My Bit of Earth where she blogs about family, crafty stuff, chickens, dogs, gardening, and whatever else happens to tickle her fancy on any given day.
Each night that I put our two-year-old son to bed, we go through a little litany, “Mama loves you, and Dada loves you….” and so forth. He knows it by heart, but his favorite part is the last line, which we always have to say together, “And Tori, the chicken, and all her sisters love you!”
Tori, a Buff Orpington, is the oldest hen in our little backyard flock of seven. She’s been part of our family since we began keeping a flock almost three years ago. While some might just see extra work in keeping such pets while keeping up with a young child, putting the two together has been, for us, much more rewarding than either one alone would be.
We began our backyard flock a year before our son was born, so he was a chicken keeper from birth. His first spring and summer were spent rolling around on a big blanket in our backyard, observing—and being observed by—our pretty hens. The ladies, as we call them, were wonderful enticement as we were encouraging him to crawl and walk. They’ve also provided many a lesson on how to “pet nice,” and, in general, to “be nice.”
Now that our son is fully mobile and getting more independent by the day, he’s just beginning to show interest in helping with the chicken chores. He’s not quite reliable enough to collect eggs yet—if you want them whole, anyway—but he loves giving the ladies their daily ration of chicken feed, and every time we let him try he gets a little better at herding them into their coop in the evening.
And, in addition to their entertainment and teaching value, our hens also provide us with a steady stream of beautiful eggs. They lay dark brown eggs, speckled eggs, and the blue eggs that our son claims are his favorite. Even though we don’t have a full-fledged farm, I love that our son will grow up understanding where his food comes from and understanding that it’s important to treat the animals that provide us food with care and respect.
While every family must, of course, come to their own conclusions, for us, keeping a backyard flock has been every bit as idyllic as I could wish it to be. With spring on the way, in the Northern hemisphere, at least, it’s a good time to start a flock of your own!
Basic chicken care
If you purchase older hens, their care is easier than keeping a dog. They’ll need food and water each day, a secure coop to roost at night, and someone to let them out each morning. You’ll want to collect eggs once a day. A few times a month, as needed, you’ll also need to clean out their coop and put down fresh bedding material. (We use pine shavings.)
For baby chicks, the care is more complicated. For the first few months, chicks need additional heat from a heat lamp. Most recommend that you start the chicks at about 90 degrees, and gradually move the heat lamp further away (about 10 degrees a week) until the chicks’ brooding box is the same as the ambient temperature outside. You’ll also need to check that the chicks are eating and drinking properly and not “pasting up” on their wee bottoms.
Where to get chicks
We’ve sourced our chickens from an online hatchery, from our local feed/farm store, and by searching craigslist for farmers with extra to giveaway. Each of those sources has good points and bad points.
If you have your heart set on certain breeds, an online hatchery may be the best way to go. Hatcheries will ship day-old chicks to your post office, and typically you can get any breed under the sun.
The downside is that many hatcheries have minimum orders of 25; far too many for the average backyard flock. There are now some hatcheries that will ship as few as 5 (we used one called “My Pet Chicken” our first year, with success), but the special shipping methods required bump the price per chick up significantly over what you would pay elsewhere.
If you just want to get a few layers and aren’t picky about breeds, the easiest thing to do is find them locally. In the spring, most feed stores will have chicks available to buy. You can also watch on craigslist for local farmers with extra to sell. In either event, try to buy “sexed” chicks if you can. While the methods to determine which chicks are hens and which are roosters aren’t perfect, your odds of getting mostly hens are better if someone has at least attempted to sort them out.
A few common concerns
A common question I get about keeping chickens is “Don’t you have to have a rooster to get eggs?” Happily, the answer to that question is no. Hens will lay eggs without a rooster, but those eggs will just be unfertilized (i.e. delicious for your plate, but incapable of ever becoming a baby chick). In fact, most city ordinances that allow chickens, specifically do not allow roosters. They’re very noisy, and—in the one experience we had with one grown to maturity—can be a bit mean and nasty.
If you do get an accidental rooster, and you will, it’s good to have a plan for what you will do with it. We’ve been able to re-home a few of our roosters to farms in the country fairly easily. The one rooster that was incredibly mean, we made into a delicious, home-grown pot of chicken noodle soup. That last option is not for everyone, but, for us, it felt like the most honest thing we could do with him.
Another common question more specifically related to chickens and kids is, “What about sanitation?” With a baby who wanted to put everything in his mouth, and now a toddler who touches everything—and then puts his hands to his mouth and face—keeping clean is certainly a concern.
But, in my humble, non-scientific opinion, it’s a concern that can be remedied with common sense measures. Now that our son is old enough to understand, we’re always reminding him to wash his hands after touching the chickens or anything around their coop. And when he was smaller we did a reasonable job of keeping a bottle of hand sanitizer at the ready for when it was needed.
Would you consider raising urban chickens?