Stop Putting off Chickens, Seriously

| 8/26/2008 1:21:38 PM

Tags: chickens, Cold Antler Farm,

I can’t image life without chickens. Which is an odd thing for me to say because chickens and I aren’t exactly old friends. These animals came into my life for the first time just a few years ago, but ever since the first flock scratched outside my kitchen window — it felt like they’ve always been here. Maybe in a way they have? Not physically of course, but in this odd form of our collective American nostalgia.

You know what I mean, we see chickens everywhere. On toasters and T-shirts. On oven mitts and television programs. These yardbirds have not shied away from modern culture. Which is exactly why it both disturbs and amazes me that you can show a fourth-grade classroom a picture of a hen and they’ll all know exactly what it is. But if you ask how many of them actually have held one, or have a coop at home, the hands drop.

Why? These aren’t jungle cats! You expect a group of kids to know what a tiger is and never had held one — but chickens are the great backyard bird of everyman. One of the few kinds of livestock nearly anyone can keep cheaply and easily. So why don’t more back yards have small coops behind them? A flock of layers isn’t exactly a herd of shorthorns. Those birds take up barely any space at all, and I bet if you checked your county’s zoning codes you’ll find even in your suburb or city limits small laying flocks are allowed (roosters, for good reason, aren’t.) Heck, I bet if you listened closely, you might hear some when you walk the dog this afternoon.

Jenna's ChickensAs for me, ever since I collected that first egg from my own coop I was hooked. I was hooked because chickens give us so much, yet require so little. If you have ever considered a small flock of your own, stop putting it off. Seriously, these animals are low maintenance, fun, and easy for neighbors to watch when you go on vacation. All they need from us is a few scoops of feed, a fresh source of water, and some dry hay to nest in and they’re golden. That’s honestly the whole drill. If you can commit to standing in line at the same coffee shop every morning before work, you can commit to chickens. And it’s well worth it, son. From our happy birds we get these amazing eggs. Eggs that enhance everything from garden veggie quiches to butter-battered French toast. Your kitchen will sing. So will a little bit of your rural heart. It’s beating deep in there even if you work in Brooklyn (by the way New Yorkers, hens are allowed in your city) So get some hens!

There was a weird hole in time that I didn’t have chickens. It was when I was moving to Vermont from Idaho. I had to move 3,000 miles away and couldn’t bring my chickens with me. My Rocky mountain flock went home to friends and local homesteaders, so they were fine. I wasn’t.

When I arrived at my new destination in Vermont the house seemed dead without a flock of birds. Well, not dead. Comatose. I had learned to accept a clucking hen, a rooster’s crow, or a young pullet running across the driveway as the arteries of my homestead. They’d pump around the yard giving life and character to the rented freehold. Without them the farm felt lifeless, unplugged, and in need of some serious resuscitation. It took a few months until the new chicks arrived (along with a duck, turkey and some geese) but just having their brooder box in the bathroom was like one of those respirators used to revive a heart attack victim. They were an emotional shock and relief at the same time. As they milled about under the heat lamp near the sink I could almost hear “CLEAR!” and then feel the farm house’s heart start up again.

betty henderson
11/17/2008 12:03:45 AM

Love all the articles ! The article about the outside cats really caught my attention. I live in an older subdivision and many of the people have lived here most of their lives. Consequently, most have pets, mostly cats. I do not own a pet, I find I do not have the time to look after one, properly, walks and such. The neighbors cats use my yard as a giant litter box, and I have to tell you I find it very frustrating trying to grow a garden , and dig in my flowerbeds. The smell of cat musk is overwhelming sometimes. I have tried, at much expense, every product, and device, to keep them out. Nothing works! The owners can see them coming to my yard, but ignore the problem. I do not want trouble with the people, but I find it really irresponsible of them to not control their pets. The answer to your question is YES, if pet owners don't have the common sense to look after them, then I guess we will have to pass laws that make them. Thank you for providing a forum for discussion!

11/2/2008 7:22:04 AM

I'm back, Ive been gone for a couple of years I guess, I had a doozy of a time figuring out my old password. Anyway we continue to read MEN magazine. I am looking forward to catching up on whats happening in the Homesteading world. Hendo

10/20/2008 1:48:29 PM

I loved reading this article. Made me think of my youth on the farm when each morning we would rush out to the hen house and gather the eggs in our shirt-tails. Breakfast of fresh scrambled eggs tasted so good. I now live in city limits of a town that does not allow poultry to be kept. I long for the day when I can get a small tract of land outside city limits and once again raise my own protein source. In the mean time, I will have to continue buying farm eggs at the local farmers market. At least they haven't outlawed that yet. Thanks again for the lovely memories of my youth. JJ

10/20/2008 9:37:44 AM

Does the top have to be solid or can it be a chicken wire top?

john d_1
10/18/2008 1:37:52 PM

A useful tidbit...some of our local ordinances prohibit "livestock" but many people have had success keeping an outdoor aviary...simply a matter of having a top to the enclosure...they are not then livestock..they are pets.

john d_1
10/18/2008 1:36:31 PM

A useful tidbit...some of our local ordinances prohibit "livestock" but many people have had success keeping an outdoor aviary...simply a matter of having a top to the enclosure...they are not then livestock..they are pets.

10/17/2008 5:37:37 PM

I always see pictures of chickens roaming a yard. I cannot allow my chickens to roam. I have had a hard time with hawks, possums, and racoons! I have had to put up a fence with a fence roof to allow them to come outside the barn. Since hurricane Ike, they are temporarily lodged in a chain link dog run...a racoon got to one. Anyone have ideas on how to keep these predators at bay?

10/17/2008 9:14:42 AM

M. Masi, I have my chickens in MA and my father has some in extremely Northern Maine. They do just fine if you have their house built snugly. You can insulate if you'd like, depending on how far north you live, just be sure to get rid of all drafts. Heat rises, so have the roosts near the ceiling, and again, use the deep litter method and get some composting going within the coop by winter and that will create some heat. See my comment above, that is why I lined the lower part with vinyl flooring, so I wouldn't be composting my walls! Also, buy heavier breeds that have very small combs, like pea or rose combs, for less chances of frostbite. Roosters are very much at risk with their larger combs, so buy pullets, not straight run, unless you will be putting the cocks in the freezer before the hard winter arrives. Look up the articles written by Harvey Ussery, he writes some great stuff about keeping chickens. I follow all his advice, and have had great success with my little flock.

10/16/2008 10:00:38 PM

I really loved this article by the way, and I am not sure why my comment loaded twice....? To anyone wishing to get a small backyard so. They are not smelly if you keep their house clean. What you get back is good food, and hours of cheap pun intended!!

10/16/2008 9:54:53 PM

Hello all.....I can attest to the wonders of having a small flock in the backyard indeed...but would like to comment on Debbie's comment made earlier.Canada is not the frozen wasteland she thinks it is.....we actually get to over 100 degrees in the summer, and in my area....not much below -10 (not sure what that is for you Americans out there!!) in the winters. I have never lost a chicken( except to marauding racoons...but that's another story), and have never insulated my coop either. A nice hot light bulb works just fine, and they are happy and healthy.You may want to insulate and add a woodstove if you live in the arctic...which 3/4 of Canada is definitely NOT.I am sure you would not enjoy sweeping assumptions made about Kansas....... Canada is actually quite pleasant.....the chickens seem to like it!

10/16/2008 1:24:14 PM

Any ideas on what one should do if you've already gotten your chicks and then much later find out through word of mouth that your town has some ordinance against them? I dont understand how any town could make rules like this about what people can and cannot have on their own property. What will I do if I am confronted by the town? I dont want to give up my chickens.

sharon reihart
10/16/2008 1:01:38 PM

Funny that I should see this article now. This past summer I was really becoming serious about getting chickens but thought that they would be too much trouble. I live in the country setting and have 6 acres where I thought the chickens could roam during the day. I am quite impressed with the number of bugs that they eat (this did not cross my mind when I was entertaining the idea). I dislike bugs worse than any human could. I think that I will re-evaluate this idea for next spring. Thanks Mother Earth News for your informative article on raising chickens!

10/16/2008 10:17:33 AM

I love my chickens (and ducks and guineas) and have never had much smell. I deep bed with whatever is around (shredded paper, leaves & hay, mostly). A couple of things to mention. First, unless you don't mind them being eaten, they need a predator proof home at night. Something that is completely surrounded by sturdy enough wire that rats, foxes, possums, and your neighbor's dog can't get over, under or through. Second, although I let mine wander the yard some of the time, chickens and gardens need to be mixed carefully. They like to scratch (dig in the dirt) and eat green things. That's fine for grass and weeds, but not so good for that row of lettuce that is just starting to sprout. Fence them out, and let them in for the clean up. M Masi, call your county extention agent about winter care. I don't think that you have to do anything special except make sure they have water (I use a heated bucket) but I'm SE.

debbie mcsweeney
10/16/2008 9:56:26 AM

This is in response to the person in NE wanting chickens and how to keep them warm. We live in a very windy part of Central Kansas and it gets very cold here. We built a chicken coop to protect them in winter--we did not insulate the coop but instead bought Buff Orpington chickens that are big bodied and have shorter combs so they do not freeze off. No matter how cold it has gotten here in the past 4 years I've never lost a chicken. Look for northern breeds--that can survive even in Canada and then build them a coop. Their body heat and respiration will help as well. I would suggest running electricity to the coop and getting a warmer for your water font. It keeps it just warm enough that their water will not freeze. Nothing is worse than having to drag in a frozen waterer to defrost in the house.Gather your eggs before night fall or you will find split, frozen eggs in the morning. Good luck!

eleanor the great
10/15/2008 11:01:42 PM

Unfortunately, they are NOT allowed withing city limits where I live (Bremerton, WA). I have checked, because I like ducks and wanted a couple. But no livestock or fowl are allowed. Very sad to me. I would be tempted to go ahead and do it anyway, but I'd hate to have someone report on me and have them taken away to goodness knows what, so I'll wait till I move or they change the law.

garden goddess
10/15/2008 5:20:09 PM

For the city slickers info, chickens don't stink if you keep litter on the bottom of their cage and clean them every so often, i use my paper shredder and neighbors used news papers to shred and use for litter in their coop, when i don't have grass clippings or leaves i have raked up to put in. they have a yard they can graze in during the day and i am waiting patiently for them to start laying as i got them at just a few days old. I have 20 hens, they will lay green and brown eggs when they start laying and i plan to let them just have the run of the yard in the future. like the other chicken farmers, i love my girls also, i had to upset them a little today and had to clip some of their wings as they are starting to fly over the fenced in yard i have for them. Chickens just give me a happy secure feeling, I live in Florida and we have had chickens on and off for as long as i can remember.

10/15/2008 4:49:52 PM

***FROM THE EDITORS*** Great blog and comments, everyone! I just wanted to mention that we have some great info about how much more nutritious eggs from hens on pasture are than factory farm eggs. You can read the Mother Earth News egg nutrient test results at Also, we have an inspiring collection of reports about how poultry can help you reduce all kinds of pests at --Cheryl Long, Mother Earth News

m. masi_1
10/15/2008 2:31:22 PM

We live in the NE and I want to know what to do to keep them warm during the winter before I commit to a small flock. Advice, please?

10/15/2008 2:30:24 PM

Paul, they will absolutely not stink if they have plenty of room to roam and if you use the deep litter method in the coop. I lined the walls with scrap vinyl flooring I got free from a flooring store, I stapled it two feet up, and bed my girls with pine shavings, dried grass clippings, dry leaves I raked up, etc. I just keep adding until it is at lease a foot deep, (it settles) and throw some whole grains on top to encourage them to scratch it up. If the poop under the roosts gets too deep, I will turn it for them, and occasionally take a load out from under the roosts (maybe every 3 months?) It does not stink! It smells only mildly chicken-y. My girls do get to roam in a very large fenced pasture, about 2 acres, though. No more flies in the barn area since they are on patrol, either.

10/15/2008 12:36:26 PM

I adopted my little 6 at a county fair when I volunteered 2 years ago. Never had a sorry moment they are a true joy to have. I have been bleesed with an abundance of eggs at least when the weather is amiable. I freeze them for the cold spells and share the rest. My friends love them. they are just a hoot to have around especially the few times I allowed them spaghetti. I do not live on a farm and my friends thought I was crazy but I didn't care I love my chickens and cannot imagine my life without them now.

10/15/2008 11:11:05 AM

Our first experience with chickens.... We brought 6 cute little chicks home from TSC. Built a secure coop and have raised 6 beautiful bantam roosters to adult pet status. Hard to get eggs from roosters so be careful - ask someone who know where to get guaranteed hens. I now live in the country, but I guess I'm a city boy at heart since there is no way I could kill and cook any of our boys, so they are destined to be pets until they croak. We do enjoy them. They each have their own personality. One fellow, Mouse, likes attacking my wife. Not just a gentle peck, but a full blown flogging attack. She now carries a stick with her when she's working outside, since Mouse likes to sneak up on her. Negativism aside we intend to get some hens next spring and they will be Rhode Island Reds who will hopefully be able to fend off the attacks of the bantam boys.

suzi _1
9/10/2008 2:05:03 PM

Hey folks! I asked my born &raised on a farm (with no indoor plumbing until she was 12) Mom about chickens before I got my own --- "Oh the mess, the stink, horrible messy animals, what do you want to do THAT for?" As usual, I didn't listen to her and am happy I didn't. My daughter and I gotour first chicks the first week of Feb 2008. Just four to start with, then four more in April ..and two starting roostering,so we made chicken n biscuits.One got attacked by a dog and one got sick after we moved their set-up to another part of the lawn --I suspect she ingested a piece of broken water balloon. Yes, they are a little messy and I suppose they might smell but it's not highly noticable because we keep them in the fresh air and sunshine.Plus we move them around every so often. The girls are just awesome, so cool in fact that we just got 4 more girls and a rooster. We finally feel ready for a rooster, and he is gorgeous! Sweet KotyLee is excited that one ofthe girls and Johnny(Cash)Chicken might kiss and be married.I just hope they don't want an elborate wedding.Sorry I am rambling.. I suspect most problems that are possible are also easily preventable.Space and good airflow will cure most of what ails ya'! 1-10 birds for a family project should be fine. Our birds don't stink,don't eat their eggs,don't peck at each other excessively (just once in a while they'll squawk at each other) or have any other woes. I think they are happy because they have some room to run around and ground to scratch. We certainly are happy with them! andthe eggs are fantastic!

9/10/2008 1:09:05 PM

I acquired 5 chicks last month and have been so happy with our decision to raise chickens! My husband had a very hard time with the idea at first (we live in the middle of a city on less than .25 acre) he kept telling me, "wait until we move somewhere with more space". No deal. There were so many reasons to get chickens: the space needed for the coop is minimal, they provide one more opportunity to become self sufficient, they provide excellent entertainment, organic pest control, great fertilizer, efficient disposal of garden waste and someday soon we will have delicious, organic, fresh, truly free-range eggs. I can feel good about eating these eggs because I know they came from happy and healthy hens and they don’t travel 1,000’s of miles to get to my kitchen. The only bad thing I noticed is my electricity bill went up a bit while we had the heat lamp on them 24 hours, but it has gone down again since. As for the “smell” people talk about, it hasn’t been an issue with our flock. The addition of Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE) to the coop helps keep the smell down, is a good addition to their diet and keeps mites and other insects at bay. There is a ton of information on the web for anyone interested, I also got 'Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens: Care, Feeding and Facilities' which has copious amounts of information about everything and anything related to chickens. We are so happy to have these new additions to the family! I would highly recommend it!

8/29/2008 11:49:11 PM

We have had chickens on and off for several years, and have found that some flocks have more personality than others. They are a great starter animal for newbies, and continue to provide entertainment, eggs, and free pest control. We also have Peking ducks and they are very easy to look after. They also get along with our chickens, goats, pig and most everything else. The chicken only smell if they don't have a large enough area to spread their droppings- try raking them to spread out and use once they are composted on your gardens.

8/27/2008 8:51:24 AM

I too would like to have chickens however my wife is nixing the idea due to the stinch of chickens. Being a city boy with newly soiled fingernails can anyone give me information to combat this perception?

8/26/2008 4:09:29 PM

And, don't forget the free insect patrol with no residual chemicals in your drinking water! No one complains about being bit by horse flies or mosquitoes around our place, 'cause the birds are on duty year round.

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