Chickens have been one of mankind’s backyard food sources for thousands of years. Because of enthusiasts from sites like Backyard Chickens.com and Living the Country Life, they’re back in popularity. But are they for you?
First, check whether you’re even allowed to keep chickens. City and county zoning ordinances vary all over the place, although recent court cases, both pro and con, have opened up the field, so to speak. Some laws, like Michigan’s Right to Farm Act, are being used as ammunition.
Take our Denver-area town, for example. It’s more in the country, though a lot of housing developments are here: a ‘bedroom community,’ you’d call it. Castle Rock zoning allows up to 4 chickens, hens only. Across the fence, though, in our part of Douglas County, there are no restrictions at all.
That doesn’t mean you should go hog-wild. How many chickens can your yard comfortably accommodate? Numbers vary, but most sources recommend at least 5-10 square feet per chicken. Keeping an open yard will minimize smells and noise, but you’ll also need a coop for colder weather and protection from predators. (Our yard is also netted on top to keep owls and hawks from swooping down and helping themselves.)
What kind of chicken should you get – and how many? It depends: do you want eggs, meat – or both? Our nine hens are all the same breed – Black Australorps, known best for eggs but a ‘meatier’ breed, too. (In laying season, hens can lay at least one a day. Nine hens should cover our egg needs – about 2 dozen a week – plus give us extra to sell or trade.) Some breeds are not as noisy as others. Many people prefer a mix, like the flock shown below, to cover all the bases. Our daughter keeps a few Araucana hens, the “Easter egg” breed. Their eggs are tasty, but like the chickens themselves, tend to be smaller.
If you do get chickens, they’re going to cost time, effort and money. As many authorities, including the superlative Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, point out, chickens do a few things very well: they eat and they poop. If you get chicks (as we did), it’s a long two or three months before they mature enough to start laying. Your neighbors will be far more willing to bear with you if you keep only hens (roosters crow a lot!), build an unobtrusive chicken yard, keep it clean…and share your bounty now and then.
Our hens have cost surprisingly little, in great part because we’ve used wire and wood we already had for building. (I’m also thankful for Craigslist – you can find anything on there.) Along with their regular feed, they scarf down any leftovers (watermelon rind and banana skins are special favorites), plus weeds pulled from the garden. (That same garden, incidentally, is already looking better, thanks to regular infusions of chicken manure.) I find myself hanging out by the coop on occasion, just watching them peck and talk to each other…it’s very peaceful.
Even if you decide against your own flock, there’s nothing better than fresh-laid eggs. The yolks are a richer color, the whites are firmer…and the taste – yum. You can sometimes find fresh eggs at organic food stores or farmer’s markets. Even better, check around the neighborhood: there’s bound to be someone who’s added chickens to their lifestyle.