Things I Wish I Had Known About Chickens Before I Got Them
By Anne-Marie Miller
There seems to be a movement towards backyard chickens in my area. Pretty soon it is going to be more common to have chickens than not to have them. O.K. I don’t know about that, but I can dream. Speaking from experience, chickens have been known as the gateway animal to a host of all kinds of crazy homesteading adventures. I hate to say anything negative about chickens because I love my back-yard flock of girls. I love the eggs and my veggies love the fertilizer. Don’t even get me started on what composted chicken manure can do for veggies! However, this is about being real and providing advice that I wish I had when I started out. So here goes!
#1: Backyard Chickens Need their Own Space
When I got my chicks, I had my coop built and ready. I had read a book from the library from cover to cover. I found valuable info in that book about how to raise the chicks from chick to hen. I naively thought that my hens would wander about the yard all day looking cute. They would pop eggs out hopefully every other day. I would shut them in at night for protection and that would be that. Little House on the Prairie, but in suburbia.
No, No, No, sadly that is not how it happened. Spring went pretty well until the Texas sun really started to beat down on my little homestead. This is when the chickens got the idea that they would like to be inside where it was cooler! Yes, you read right. They pressed themselves against the sliding glass door opening out to my patio. Which sounds rather cute and amusing until you factor in the POOP! Ironically, I first had the idea of getting chickens for their great poop, but that wasn’t quite the way I had imagined it. Where I used to walk out into my peaceful shaded patio there was now solid poop bombs everywhere. I tried to chase them away. I sicked my kids on them with squirt guns. Nothing worked. They wanted inside where it was cooler and nothing was going to dissuade them from this goal. I had a good laugh with a friend, who had a similar experience, except he had a doggy door. While him and his wife were at work, the chickens made themselves at home! What a mess to come home to!
Lesson learned: Backyard chickens need their own space. I have seen some homesteads that fence in their patio area. A lot of homes have a space around the side of the house, as mine does, so we utilized that. A friend gave us a wrought iron pool fence that they no longer wanted. We cemented in posts and installed the 5-foot fence and finally I had my patio back. Like I said, wish I had known this before I brought my egg laying divas home. The book didn’t mention anything about “Poop on the Stoop.”
#2 Backyard Chickens Eat or Scratch Up Everything that is Green in Your Yard!
I always planted a few potted plants on my back patio to enjoy every spring. As was my usual practice, I bought caladiums, begonias and pretty shade loving plants. You get the idea. I spent the whole morning planting in the cool Spring sunshine. It looked beautiful. I sighed a happy contented sigh and left the house on an errand. Just a simple trip to the store. When I got back, what should my eyes see, but complete and utter destruction! What the chickens were not interested in eating they sat on or scratched up. One of my cheeky girls had left me an egg right in the pot closest to the door. Sadly, it did not make up for unearthing everything in the pot before leaving the egg. I was not happy and when mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!
I don’t remember the book saying anything about this either. Nothing at all about this mad passion chickens have for all things green. However, to be fair it did say to fence in your vegetable garden. So maybe they just thought I would put two and two together and assume that everything I wanted to grow must have a strong loop of barbed wire around it! Let me remind you that I am a city girl through and through.
Also, to be fair, the book did have a lot of info on building a chicken run onto the coop. It was mainly to protect them from predators though, which I have not really had a problem with during daylight hours at least. Building a coop with a large run attached would also be an option. Although it seems to me an expensive option. If anyone has an idea to build a chicken run almost for free, maybe using something recycled then shout it out in the comments. We would love to hear.
Lesson learned: Chickens can, and will eat ANYTHING green. If you don’t want them to eat it, then you have to find a way to keep them away from it. At this point I was rethinking my bright, zany idea to get chickens. Kind of wishing I could blame it on someone else, but it was all mine. I had to seriously down play my disappointment when my hubby got home. Seeing as he had just helped me cement posts into the ground and put a fence up, I thought it best not to mention the day’s events.
#3 Backyard Chickens can Fly— Well, Sort of!
Yes, chickens can fly—at least high and far enough to make it over a fence. This is where your scissors come in.You just have someone hold the chicken, stretch out it’s wing and clip straight across. It works wonders! It makes the poor girl flap in a circle, which I am probably going to get all kinds of comments about, but hey I have to coexist with these chickens. Better this than the stew pot! Furthermore, I would rather do this little thing than admit to my husband that I am indeed nuts to try these crazy things, that no one else we know is doing. There is a vein in the flight feather that can, if cut too short, bleed continuously. Don’t let this scare you. I have never cut it and I keep a simple styptic stick to stop bleeding just in case I ever do. (you can buy one at any pharmacy)
Another way to keep chickens in is to run a wire about 6 inches above the fence. The more “loosy goosy” the wire is the better. Meaning the more unstable the wire is the less they will want to fly up and perch on it to make the final leap to greener pastures!
Lesson learned: Chickens can flap further, and higher than you ever thought they could. It is not really flying at all, but flapping with great exertion hopefully with a running start first. Note to self, usually chickens flap onto something a bit higher (like their coop) and then finish with the final length of flapping right over the fence you took all that trouble to put up. So, pay attention to where you position the coop in your little chicken yard.
In conclusion let me just put it plainly—Chickens eat or scratch anything green and living. If you are planning on moving your chicken tractor around your yard then DON’T LEAVE THAT THING IN ONE PLACE TOO LONG! That is if you want a yard with grass in it. The chicken yard, if you do indeed give them their own space, will have nothing living in it. Well, maybe a mature tree would do okay. One of the advantages I have living in the city is that everyone collects their leaves and places them neatly packaged in bags on the curb. My kids start trying to distract me when we pass a big pile of leaf-filled bags in the Fall, because they know I am going to want to collect them and empty them out in the chicken yard. If I cannot get leaves, I can easily buy a bale of straw to put in their yard. The girls love to scratch and spread it all around. After a season or two of this you can use this scratched and fertilized bedding to fill your raised garden beds with! In addition, my compost pile is in my chicken yard so they can stir it around for me and eat any left overs I throw their way. They go crazy for leftover spaghetti noodles! Also, it helps keep their eggshells hard when they eat the empty egg shells that you throw in the compost. That way you don’t have to supplement with ground oyster shells.
As you can see backyard chickens should not be an impulse buy.
A lot of planning goes into caring for them and even when you think you have done all your homework, there are still a few things that might surprise you. Over all, I love my egg-laying divas, and am glad I took the step to keep backyard chickens. Almost every night hubby and I get a glass of vino and tune into the chicken channel. There is something restful about letting them out to scratch and peck around us as the sun creeps lower on the horizon. I hope you are enjoying your little farm in the big city like we are. If you are just starting out and dreaming about chickens, then give them their own space and do what you have to do to keep them in it! Then enjoy the chicken channel complete with your weekend omelet with cheese and fresh veggies!
Anne-Marie or Dash (for the hyphen in her name) is an urban farmer in Dallas, Texas. She raises chickens and rabbits on less than ¼ of an acre. Plus, she has turned her front yard into a large stand-out-in-the neighborhood vegetable garden. In addition to the farming she does on her homestead, she helped create a community garden literally from grassy field to thriving garden. What stands out about her little urban homestead is her determined out of the box approach to overcoming obstacles. You can follow her adventures on her little urban homestead by visiting her blog: BloomWhereYourPlanted.com.