PHOTO BY FREDERICK J. DUNN
Today, chickens are popping up in the most unlikely and unexpected parts of the country. City chickens are no longer rare and there are chicken-friendly cities all over the United States.
If you're considering keeping poultry, check zoning and local ordinances to see what restrictions, if any, there are on owning chickens. In the suburbs, expect limitations on quantity and sex — often there are “no rooster” regulations.
Next, consider why you want chickens. There are many purebred chicken varieties and hundreds of breeds. Each chicken breed was developed for a specific purpose, and it would be wise to select the breed that best suits your purposes.
In these difficult economic times, many people will choose chickens to provide fresh eggs with some regularity. Few white egg layers out-perform the Leghorn breed. The Rhode Island red would be a very good choice for brown eggs. There are many hybrid birds available, but personally, I stick with traditional purebred stock. Spend some time researching breeds and you're certain to find a good match for you. (Check the Mother Earth News Hatchery Finder to help you find the breed you're looking for.)
Consider the availability of feed rations in your area. If you want strictly organic feeds, a visit to the local feed mill will be important. Talk to the mix master and see if the mill offers organic mixes in the quantity you need. Commercial rations are more widely available and have a longer shelf life. If you're in an urban setting where chickens are not the norm, find out where horse owners get their feed, or ask your pet store to order it in for you.
If you start with day-old chicks, a wide variety of breeds is available through the mail. All the large hatcheries offer fliers or catalogs. Look for a hatchery with a long record of healthy stock. I recommend buying day-old chicks instead of purchasing mature chickens that are ready to start laying eggs. That way, you won't have to determine if the chickens are healthy before you buy them.
You will need a place to keep your chickens. A fancy coop is not necessarily better chicken housing. In northern climates, shelter is necessary to protect birds from the weather. In all areas, shelter is necessary to protect your birds from predators. Housing needs are also determined partly by the breeds you keep. A lightweight chicken, capable of flight, will require a covered run. Heavier breeds may not be able to clear a three-foot fence. The general rule for housing is to allow 4 square feet of floor space per chicken. There are many solutions for portable chicken housing. If you're handy, constructing your own coop will result in greater comfort for you and the birds. Often you can make use of an old tool or garden shed. (For an easy, affordable option anyone can make, see the Portable Chicken Mini-coop Plan.
If you'd like to learn more about raising chickens, check out the DVD, Regarding Chickens.
PHOTO BY FREDERICK J. DUNN