In the wake of an era dominated by corporate chains feeding us with boxed meals, we are moving back toward the simple goodness of locally grown and raised foods. What can get more local than your own back yard? More and more people are starting to keep chickens, even inside of towns and cities, so that they may have the freshest of eggs for their kitchens.
There are other reasons to keep chickens, like weed control and for fertilizer. The trick to using chicken products for fertilizer is that it needs to be diluted in some way or composted- a fresh pile on top of a garden or around a tree will result in injured plants due to a high nitrogen content. Another great reason for keeping chickens is that they have unique and fun personalities that make them great pets. As long as they are introduced to friendly humans early and often during their “chick-hood,” they can be quite social and pleasant to be around.
If you plan on bringing home chicks from the feed store, know that they have special needs. For the first weeks of their lives, babies need to be kept in a warm place; 90-95 degrees for the first week, then 5 degrees less each week after that. They prefer a bedding of pine and corn cob shavings rather than slippery newspaper. (Newspaper doesn’t do much for absorbing odor, either.)
Adult chickens do well kept in a clean coop. The rule of thumb is to have three to four square feet of space per chicken inside the coop and at least ten square feet of space per bird in the outside run area. Too cramped of quarters makes for fights and poor egg laying performance. Of course, any chicken enclosures need to be fortified against predators. Free ranging chickens is an option, as long as they have a safe coop to return to and are kept away from predators and toxic substances. You may have to chicken-proof certain areas of your yard, too, as they do enjoy digging up flower bulbs and munching on different plants. Even if you free range your chickens, you will still have to provide food and water for them.
Just as any other animal, chickens need to have some fun built into their daily routines. What constitutes as chicken fun? Being allowed to roam the yard for a while to pick bugs, scratch, and bathe in the dust is much appreciated. To get them back into the coop easily, teach them to come to a command (just like a dog, give them treats every time they come to it), or let them out just before dark. The fading light will keep the chickens close to the coop and as the sun sets, they will put themselves to bed. Treats are another great way to give chickens variety- these are simple things that can be found in your kitchen, like veggies or bread crumbs.
So, what about those eggs? Most chickens lay an egg about every 25 hours, rooster not required. The exact frequency will depend on the breed of the hen and laying cycles can be interrupted by a lack of fresh water, shorter daylight hours, the temperature, or stress. The size of the egg will depend on the hen’s breed, age, and weight while the shell color is dependent only on breed. Though the size of a hen’s eggs may change throughout her lifetime, the basic shell color will not. The color of the yolk (on a scale from bright yellow to orange) depends on the hen’s diet. Speaking of the hen’s diet, laying eggs depletes her calcium stores greatly, so be sure that her meals have a good source of calcium in them. Ground up oyster shells or even chicken egg shells (finely enough that there are no sharp edges) work great.
Here are a couple of tips about the eggs themselves: If you’re not sure how old that egg in the fridge is, put it in a bowl of water. Fresh eggs will sink to the bottom while old eggs float. Don’t eat the floaters. Each egg has a natural antibacterial coating on it; it’s a good idea not to wash it until right before using the egg.
It is, by the way, a misdemeanor to keep fowl inside the limits of the City of Livingston, though a permit can be obtained from the Sanitarian to do so. Stafford Animal Shelter does not routinely keep or adopt out chickens, but is the place where at large chickens end up. So, if one of your birds is missing, give them a call.