backyard chickens, anyone?
I have all of a sudden become very interesting in having a couple of hens in our back yard for environmental reasons.  It would be nice to have them eat our vegetable scraps, and add nutrients to our very sandy soil, and provide us with eggs. 

However, I know nothing about keeping chickens.  We have a smallish back yard with some mulching and plants and a bit of lawn.  I figure we would have a small shelter for them to nest but let them free otherwise.

Does anyone have any experience with household chickens?  How do you get them in the first place?  Does this sound feasable for our situation?
(06-02-2009, 02:48 AM)SouthernCross Wrote: How do you get them in the first place?

First, you get an egg from a chicken which comes from an egg which was laid by another chicken who also was hatched from an egg which was laid by a chicken who was...

Well, this question was never fully solved, so getting them is only possible in theory.

Seriously though, I'm sure someone will come and post something productive; I had to get that off my chest before I went to bed. :)
First, you must read the tale of Petunia, the official Fish Eaters trad chicken (she lays brown eggs).  First you have to read a Lovecraft story, but it's worth it.

Next, get Storey's Guide to Chickens (on Amazon or at a feed store).  Then, you can build a small coop, or you can get/build a chicken tractor (moveable housing).  Chicken tractors are nice especially if you have a small yard.

You can order chickens by mail (as unhatched eggs) and incubate them, or as chicks.  They come by mail, but some usually die.  The other way is to buy them at feed stores - this is the right season.

I strongly urge you not to get birds until you have housing, etc., ready,  This stuff can't be thrown up in a day unless you get a chicken tractor kit.  So, you may end up not getting birds until next season unless you find someone to sell you a grown chicken.  But, it's better to wait and have housing for the animals ready.

Also I should add one big concern is protection from predators.  Our birds are just in a yard with field fence.  Even though we have coyotes and cougars (and bears sometimes in the area but so far not in our yard), we can get away with it because we have a 200lb Mastiff that wanders the yard (he's gotten in the bird yard before, but he seems to want to drink out of the duck pond and carry ducks in his mouth - he hasn't hurt any of the birds except by slobbering on them).

If you are in an urban area, you probably only have to worry about neighborhood dogs and racoons.  But, part of the purpose of housing is to protect the birds.  You'll want it strong enough to keep out whatever type of predator you have, and you should put the birds in at dusk when the predators come out.
This month's edition of "Mother Earth News" has an article on keeping chickens.  They have some resources for chicken coups and ideas.  I hope it helps.
#6 has good tips as well. 

Funny that this topic came up today.  Yesterday, one of the biggest cities in my part of the Kansas City suburbs rejected keeping suburban chickens. (  It's a total crock with totally made-up rationale.

...and then they came for the chicken farmers...
I had both chickens and ducks when I was little.  I think it would depend upon the size of your backyard and your willingness to deal with their poo. 

Edited to add: if you decide to buy them, get them locally.  Like Quis says, chicks are easier than eggs.  Also, if you live in a suburban area and you're the first one to get chickens, prepare for scorn from neighbors and think twice before you get a rooster. 

Let us know how it goes!
How do you keep neighbors' kitties from going after them?
(06-02-2009, 08:54 AM)Satori Wrote: How do you keep neighbors' kitties from going after them?

I don't know about other people, but I had a ferocious little French poodle who ran off anything that tried to come into our back yard.  That and the chicken coop (mine was tiny) worked just fine. 
Quis covered the basics, so I'll just riff a little, and second his recommendation of the Storey book--it's excellent.  We've got chickens in our small (maybe 1/16 acre) backyard for the first time this year, but my mom has had chickens since she was a kid, so it's old hat to me.

It may be too late to get them at a feed store this year; at least in our area they only had them from late March to early April.  You might be able to find someone selling a few in the classifieds of your local paper, though.  There're usually some people who thought chickens sounded cool, and either bought too many or decided they couldn't handle it.  Mail-order places usually have a minimum order of 15-25, which is way too many for a first-timer in a town backyard.  If you can find someone to sell you a couple that were born this spring, that'll also get you past the early "chick" stage when they're very sensitive to temperature and drafts.

If you want eggs, a good laying hen will give you about two eggs every three days.  So "a couple" hens won't exactly give you loads of eggs, but that's okay if you don't eat four every morning like I do.  Once you've eaten good eggs, it may be hard to take the ones at the store, though.  One thing: you don't need a rooster to get eggs.  It's surprising how many people think you do.  You only need a rooster if you want the eggs fertilized so you can breed your own chickens.  A rooster will crow and annoy your neighbors; he'll be way louder than any barking dog, and he'll do it at dawn just like in the cartoons--but he probably won't stop after one or two crows.  He'll keep crowing off and on for a couple hours.

Like Quis said, you need closed housing to protect them at night and during storms.  Once they roost and fall asleep, they're completely defenseless.  Sometimes one of ours will roost outside when it starts getting dark, and I can just pick her up and put her inside before she knows what's happening.  By the time they're full-sized, the Storey book says you need four square feet per bird, and that's if they get to go out during the day.  So you can handle 2-3 birds with a small house you can pick up pretty easily, and there are tons of plans online for that size.  For our eight birds, I built a 4x8x4 plywood house that's not exactly mobile.  I can shove it to a new spot every few days, but I really need to put wheels on it or something.

Since we got ours as baby chicks, they lived in a cardboard box under a heat lamp in the garage for a while, so I didn't have to have the house built right away.  They grow fast, though, and they'll need more space before you know it.

If your yard has at least a 4-foot-high fence, that might hold them.  I've seen ours jump (not fly, just jump) on top of something at least 3 feet tall, but I don't think they could get much higher than that.  Some of our yard fence is only 3 feet tall, so I made some mobile fence panels with 4-foot chicken wire that we move around to new spots for them.  Sometimes one gets out, but she'll stay close to the others (and the feed) until we notice and get her back in.  If you just have a couple birds, a chicken tractor that has wire across the top too, that you can move every day, can be much simpler than trying to keep them inside fences.  I'd still want them inside something solid at night, though.

A full-sized chicken will hold its own against a cat, so you only really have to protect them from cats while they're little, which is when they should be inside somewhere protected from drafts anyway.  But a raccoon can devastate a whole flock of adult chickens.

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