Add Chicks: The Chicken Whisperer

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BECOME A CHICKEN WHISPERER

Keeping urban chickens may seem like a new trend for some, but here at WKA we continue to love our chickens for the benefit of teaching our children responsibility and respect for farm animals. And of course we love our “organic” fresh eggs. Daily.

There are many advantages to a backyard flock, especially for city-dwellers. Many chicken breeds produce eggs almost daily, so even with just a few hens you may never have to buy eggs at the market again. Chickens are fun to keep; letting your children watch them interact and do their daily chicken routine is amusing. Your visitors may even offer to trade their home-grown veggies for a dozen eggs. If you are an urban gardener, add chicken manure to your compost for a nitrogen boost. The possibilities are endless, the work minimal.

A couple of hens are not more difficult than a dog or a cat and can be kept in a small shed and a run, and your children will love taking care of them.

KIDS AND CHICKENS 101

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Be sure you scope out your neighborhood for existing chicken houses, and to look into neighborhood’s deed restrictions for any rules regarding chickens. Certain neighborhoods are open to discussing, some simply let you take charge of your own agenda, and some have strict rules. So be sure you have the go-ahead, before you start building your coop, especially when you plan on adding a rooster (perhaps “buying” your neighbors patience with eggs might be a solution). In Austin, for example, you may keep two chickens in a yard, but if you have three or more, they must be kept in a coop more than 50 feet away from your nearest neighbor. Some of our school houses house the hens at a nearby Community Garden, others keep just two and for that we’ve build a chicken coop.

CHICKEN COOP

Although chickens may be raised for meat, small urban flocks are better suited for egg production because you do not need a rooster. If you want to start a flock, the first step is to build a coop. Chickens may be set free to roam the yard during the day, but should be locked up at night to keep them safe from urban predators such as possums, and raccoons. If you do not want them roaming around your lawn, look into building a chicken run or a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is a mobile coop that will allow the hens to keep your yard bug-free and well-fertilized. Make sure your coop has a roosting spot, nest boxes for laying, and room for a feeder and water dispenser. Invite your children to look at fun designs, pick up scrap wood together and make it a “D-I-Y Project” for the entire family. Colorful coops are our favorite.

BUYING CHICKENS

The fun part is choosing your chicks. Many feed stores carry chicks, we suggest a visit to Buck Moore Feed or Callahan’s General Store, where you can also stock up on organic feed and hay. Callahan’s has a livestock area in the back, with ducks, chickens, goats and more.

We selected chick-breeds such as the Ameraucana, Red Star/Black Star and Dominique. There are many breeds to choose from, and it is nice to have a variety. Did you know that hens with red earlobes lay brown eggs and hens with white earlobes lay white eggs? Point this out to your children, they will love to play the “Guess what color eggs my chick lays?” with friends. Day-old or very young chicks should cost around $2-4. It will be about six months before they lay eggs, and the eggs will be small at first.

Egg-laying may slow during winter months (shorter days) and when the hens are molting (chickens molt, or lose the older feathers, and grow new ones. Most hens stop producing eggs until after the molt is completed. Hens referred to as “late molters” will lay for 12 to 14 months before molting, while others, referred to as “early molters,” may begin to molt after only a few months in production. Late molters are generally the better laying hens and will have a more ragged and tattered covering of feathers. The early molters are generally poorer layers and have a smoother, better-groomed appearance).

CARING FOR CHICKENS

Hens need a little more than just fresh air and some basic equipment is required for raising and keeping chickens. We raised our chicks in a paper box when we picked them up, then later switched to a round pin (you can easily create the pin yourself by using chicken wire, just make a circle and connect, then wrap the inside with a large plastic cover). Because young chicks like to all be in one corner, this can be harmful if there are too many. By using a round pin, you eliminate ‘corner’ areas. The temporary pin needs to be equipped with a light (heating lamp, about $10 at any hardware or farming store) and paper towels covering the floor. They will need a feeder and water dispenser, which may be homemade or store bought. Be sure to not leave a large bowl of water in your pin. Little chicks can still drown in them! You will need a feeder and a water dispenser of appropriate size in the coop as well; we’ve seen friends use a large can in a hubcap as a feeder. Just be creative and build your own equipment so that your egg operation isn’t running in the red.

Chickens appreciate all sorts of foods, and neighbors may be happy to give you their scraps. They love greens, from cauliflower to broccoli, lettuce, beetroot and chard leaves–then if you eat their eggs you get much of the benefit without chomping through all that fodder. Our chickens love potato peel, carrots and beets. Anytime we have large pieces, or leaves, we put it in our Vitamix to chop–what a feast!

Have your friends and family bring you empty egg cartons so that you can give away your eggs (trading is best!). Finally, scratch eggs off of your grocery list!
RESOURCES

The Spring Chicken Festival is held on March 3, 2012, and a celebration of Spring, Gardening, and Backyard Poultry Keeping. Find more info here: http://www.sustaincenter.com/event/spring-chicken-festival/

Austin hosts the FUNKY CHICKEN COOP TOUR annually and it’s worth going on tour to see all the fun chicken coops and talk raising urban chickens! The 2012 Tour is on April 7. http://fccooptour.blogspot.com/2005/01/resources-austin-and-central-texas-if.html

Backyard Chickens is an online forum all about raising urban chickens. From coop design to answers to common questions, you’ll love the resources: http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/how-to-raise-backyard-chickens-in-your-city-the-basics-of-raising-chickens

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