Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Chicken Dilemma

I've finally decided to take the plunge and raise a little flock of laying hens.  My decision was not arrived at lightly, but they seem to be a logical addition to our backyard farm and a natural progression in our attempt at a homegrown life.  Their benefits are many.  Chickens are an excellent source of food; both their eggs and their, ahem, meat (should they really, in the end, actually find their way to my table).  They'll fertilize my yard and garden with their nitrogen rich droppings, and give me plenty of compostable material to help my nutrient poor soil.  I can control quality, nutrition, and now snub my nose at the industrial farming practices used in the keeping of layers.  It's no secret that those eggs that land on our grocery store shelves are there at the expense of any quality of life for the animals that produce them.  It is true, as well, or at least so I've read, that they make relatively loving and interesting pets.  It sounds like a win-win to me, but I am not sure (thus the hold-out) that my suburbanite neighbors will think highly of my new found hobby.  I'll readily admit that before I knew much about them, the idea of keeping poultry conjured up thoughts of early morning crowing, barnyard smells, and bird flu.  Who could blame my neighbors for thinking the same thing?  However, I've since had my misconceptions corrected and have discovered that backyard chickens can be neighborhood-friendly and (let's hope) discreet.

It turns out that it is really just the roosters that make a majority of the chicken noise and not the hens.  Some can be chatty, but mostly, it is just "here a cluck and there a cluck" and definitely nothing that would ever compete with the bark of a dog.  Some breeds are reputably noisier than others, but a little online research will help you to weed out those with the most to say.  I can't speak from experience, but I  hear it noted that most hens do punctuate the arrival of an egg with a little celebratory squawking; their equivalent of a touchdown dance, I guess.  

Chickens can and will smell, so your best defense against this assault on your neighbors is cleanliness.  Keeping the coop dry and cleaned out on a regular basis will eliminate smell and also ensure healthy, happy hens.  The smaller the flock (we're keeping four), the easier the coop cleaning and smell reduction chores will be.  Every couple of weeks, sweep out the old cedar shavings or straw (excellent compost!), and add a fresh layer to the bottom of your coop.  When you notice a build-up of droppings either on the roost or coop floor, take an extra few minutes to do a little scraping before adding the new straw.  This should keep your coop plenty clean and smelling like, well, not roses, but at least it should prevent eau de barnyard.

Keeping healthy chickens again goes back to keeping clean chickens.  Buying your chicks (or pullets) from a reputable hatchery, nursery, co-op, etc. will ensure that they arrive healthy and get a good start on life.  If you are keeping a small flock, it should be easy to spot any unordinary behaviors that would indicate a concern.  I've been assured that chickens are pretty hardy animals and not prone to disease if cared for properly.  Keep the coop clean, and keep them away from other birds and flocks so that no sick chicken germs can be shared.  If you do notice something unusual, immediately separate that chicken for monitoring.  Chickens care for their own hygiene by taking regular dirt baths.  This prevents parasites like lice and mites. Be sure to always wash your hands and those of your children after handling, since chickens can shed bacteria in their droppings.  All in all, it appears that you don't need the skills of a veterinarian to care for a backyard flock, just a keen set of eyes. 

Once my neighborly concerns were addressed, I had to check into the legality of the matter, and that information is not easy to find.  Not all cities allow the keeping of chickens, but with the rise in popularity of the backyard flock, laws are changing.  Apparently, city hall keeps ordinances governing poultry, and can help you determine if chickens are in your future.  Fortunately, we live outside city limits and have a green light as far as the county is concerned.  UNfortunately, our neighborhood covenant doesn't allow it.  Because of the above information, I've decided to go for it anyway and beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission.  However, if you get an invite for a chicken barbeque, you'll know things didn't quite work out. 

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