Have you seen any chickens lately? Take a peek into your neighbor's backyard and you might be surprised by what you see--chickens strolling about, clucking contentedly.
It's not only country farmers with large barnyards that keep chickens today. Lots of people in urban and suburban neighborhoods are raising small flocks of chickens for eggs, meat and fun. Tending a small flock of chickens is easy and rewarding.
But first you should check the local ordinances as it's against the law in some cities to raise chickens in your backyard. Once you know you won't be considered an outlaw, then you can decide why you want chickens. Are you looking forward to eating "farm fresh" eggs? Do you want to raise chickens for meat? Perhaps you want a fancy chicken for show. Or maybe you want a couple of chickens simply as pets. Whatever your reason may be, there are dozens of different breeds from which to choose.
Some points to consider when choosing a breed are: your climate, bird's temperament and size. Not all chickens fit the "flighty" stereotype. Some breeds are quite calm and good with children. Do you want your meat and fresh eggs too? Luckily, there are mild mannered, dual-purpose birds suitable to small flocks. Is your yard rather small? Then consider a bantam, a miniature chicken that is one quarter to one fifth the size of large breeds. Bantams can be found for most any breed. Also, take note; if you live in a city, roosters are not permitted.
Like humans, chickens need a place to stay warm and dry. They need to be kept safe from predators. Even in the city, there are creatures that would love to eat a plump chicken or a freshly laid egg. Raccoons, hawks, coyotes, stray dogs or cats and snakes will all prey on chickens if they have a chance. A well-built hen house with an enclosed yard will keep a flock protected.
Building a chicken coop can be a simple project. A hen house can look much like a large doghouse. Allow four Sq. ft. per bird. Also, chickens need places to roost or perch. A wooden ladder or a tree branch can be used for this purpose. Make sure the perch is wide enough for the chickens to get a good grip with their claws. If there isn't a designated place for laying eggs in the hen house, the hens will find clever hiding places outside to deposit eggs. So unless your are game for an egg hunt every day, include a special place for egg laying, A happy chicken is a scratching chicken; your backyard fowl will need space to scratch and dig.
Be aware that chickens are flock animals. They need social interaction with a group, so you should have at least two or three hens.
Chickens can't chew food like humans because they don't have teeth. Instead, they use tiny rocks or sand to grind hard seeds and grains in their gizzards. A gizzard is a part of a chicken's body where food is ground up for digestion.
Chickens are omnivores, which means they eat all kinds of things. You can find layer feeds specially formulated for your bird at an urban farm store. A favorite snack is cracked corn or chicken scratch. Chickens spend much of their day foraging for insects, worms, seeds and tender vegetables. They will also devour your family's table scraps such as greens, berries, apples, cereals and even pasta. Water is essential in their diet, just as it is for humans.
Urban farm stores are good places for hay and chicks. Tractor stores are known to have chick days when chicks can be bought for a low price. A post office can even deliver mail order chicks to your door!
You may be surprised to learn that chickens need a place to "bathe." But they won't fill a tub with water or take a shower. They use dust. When a chicken takes a bath, it will stretch its wings and flap them while throwing dust into the air. They do this to keep their feathers in good condition, and it helps repel insects.
Once your mature chickens are happily settled in their coop, it will take only ten to fifteen minutes a day to do "chicken chores." Some folks feed their birds every day while some use a feeder that holds enough food for several days. The water supply must be checked daily. Usually, a coop must be mucked out at least once a week. Egg collection is a very gratifying chore! Finally, in the evening, the birds need to be brought into the hen house for the night.
Your city library is sure to have books about raising small flocks. YouTube has many short videos made by chicken keepers addressing different aspects of chicken care. You can also seek out your neighbors with chickens and interview them to get firsthand information and tips.
Are you ready to do some research and start your own small flock? Will you join the ranks of enthusiastic backyard chicken keepers? Perhaps then your neighbors will be peering into your yard.
--Diana Mardi is a stay-home mom in Ohio. Her neighbors have chickens in their backyards.