When Green America member Laura Gidney and her husband John were househunting in New York state, they knew their new home had to be in a neighborhood zoned for backyard chickens. The Gidney family now has ten adult chickens, with 20 newly hatched chicks this spring. They make their home in a comfortable coop with plenty of space to roam. Each morning, the Gidneys enjoy fresh eggs from their mini-flock.
As the Gidneys have learned, keeping a small flock of chickens in your backyard has many benefits, from supplying you with fresh, healthy eggs from well-cared-for animals, to giving you great fertilizer for gardening, to providing lively pets—as well as being part of the drive to local, sustainable food systems.
Why Backyard Chickens?
Most chicken-owners have the same reason for starting up their flocks: eggs. By getting eggs from your own chickens, you avoid supporting industrial farms that produce the majority of eggs sold in the US. Egg-producing hens on factory farms are often kept in such close, inhumane quarters that they cannot stretch their legs or wings, walk around, or participate in normal social behaviors.
Also, a 2010 Cambridge University study demonstrated that pasture-raised eggs, from chickens given space to peck for food, are more nutritious than industry-sourced eggs, with pasture-raised eggs containing twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. With certified organic chicken feed available, you can keep your chickens healthy while supporting sustainable farming.
Those healthier eggs may cost a little more than factory-farmed eggs at the grocery store, but they’re competitive with and often cheaper than the cost of local, free-range eggs. Taking into account only the cost of food but not coop materials or other one-time expenses, most backyard chicken-keepers estimate they pay about $3 per dozen for backyard eggs. Eggs at most farmers’ markets tend to run from $5+ per dozen.
Backyard chickens also serve as great composters for your kitchen scraps. Andrew Malone, who runs Funky Chicken Farm in Melbourne, FL, says he can’t think of much you can’t feed a chicken.
“They’re omnivores and will eat just about anything that comes out of the kitchen, including meat,” he says. Just make sure to supplement kitchen scraps with proper feed, Malone warns, to ensure your chickens are getting the nutrition they need to stay healthy and lay strong eggs.
You can then add the chicken’s waste to your compost pile and use it on your garden as a fertilizer. In addition, chickens will happily eat up insects and pests in your yard.
Provided that children are gentle with the chickens, Jim Dennis, owner of Phoenix-based chicken company Rent-a-Hen, has observed that chickens can make social and even affectionate pets.
“For my children, every morning it’s a race to see which one of them gets to collect the eggs,” says Laura Gidney. “Today most kids are in a race to play a video game, so we are happy to have our kids out in the fresh air, playing in the dirt with their chickens.”
Check Local Ordinances
Before you run out and buy a clutch of chicks, make sure you’re ready for the commitment. First, check with your local officials to ensure backyard chickens are allowed where you live. Some municipalities have bans on chickens, or limits on how many chickens you can keep on your property. Because of their infamous early-morning cockadoodle-doos, roosters are banned from many cities.
If your city isn’t yet chicken-friendly, CommunityChickens.com has articles on how to change local ordinances.
Building a Happy Home for Your Backyard Chickens
If your local ordinances approve of backyard chickens, you’ll want to provide your birds with a chicken coop, or a secure hen house that will offer the birds a place to lay eggs, as well as a “run” where they can roam and peck. Make sure your coop also protects them from predators.
“If you’ve never seen a raccoon on your property, I can almost guarantee you’ll see one within the first few nights that you bring those chickens home,” says Malone.
Each chicken needs three to four square feet of space in the coop, and another three to four square feet in the run. Because chickens are social animals, Malone suggests a minimum of six chickens—which would require an 18-sq foot coop and a run of equal size.
If you’re a do-it-yourself-er, the Internet is rife with ideas and instructions—from coops on wheels that can be moved from place-to-place in your yard to designs to build a coop for under $100.
Your local feed store and online companies like backyardchickens.com also carry ready-built chicken coops.
Experts also recommend having one nesting box inside the coop for every three to four chickens—you can use a pre-fabricated wooden box from a feed store, or utilize any number of things you may have at home, like old milk crates, plastic tubs, and even a five-gallon bucket placed on its side. Or your chickens may choose their own place to lay. Green America member Rob McLane of Tucson, AZ, says that one of his chickens wanders inside every day to lay an egg in the family laundry basket.
Daily Care Concerns
Taking proper care of your chickens will ensure that they stay healthy, and will help you get the most eggs out of your flock. Each chicken requires about ¼ cup of feed per day, as well as a supply of fresh, clean water. Chickens can survive both hot and cold weather, and will be fine outside with temperatures as low as 15 degrees, but their laying patterns will change with the seasons.
Be sure to be vigilant about cleaning your chicken coop every two weeks and cleaning your hands and shoes after handling chickens and their eggs. A report from the Center for Disease Control this summer traced a seven-year salmonella outbreak to a hatchery that shipped chicks to consumers around the country. The outbreak has since ended, but the report emphasizes the importance of good hygiene when handling your chickens.
From Rhode Island Reds to Plymouth Rocks, there are many breeds available for your flock. Different breeds come with different personalities and different rates of egg-laying—and you can combine breeds in one flock for variety. While Malone says choosing a favorite chicken breed would be “like picking a favorite child,” he notes that brown-egg- laying breeds tend to be more social and docile.
The website MyPetChicken.com’s Breed Selector Tool can help you to find the breed of chicken right for you.
Depending on where you live, there are several ways to get your own backyard chickens. Some chicken keepers choose to raise their chickens from chicks. This requires providing the chicks with additional heat and special feed; chicks can be found at local feed stores and farms. You may also be able to find older chickens locally— old enough to be outside without extra heat, but not yet laying eggs.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, many chickens with years of egg-laying ahead of them are brought to shelters and farm sanctuaries, and while they may not produce eggs at the rate of younger hens, they may be a perfect match for families who want to raise humanely treated chickens and save an adult chicken from slaughter.
Most hens start laying eggs at about six months old and will lay with the greatest frequency for that first year—giving you about four to seven eggs each week, though it may vary with the seasons. The number of eggs she’ll produce will reduce by about 10% each subsequent year, and most backyard hens can live from eight to ten years.
Different people will make different decisions about what to do with a chicken at the end of her productive egg-laying period. For many, backyard chickens are seen as pets, and their owners will choose to continue to care for them for the duration of their natural lives. Others will butcher their older hens, using them as an additional source of food. Because of the increased numbers of hens being given to shelters and sanctuaries, the US Humane Society asks that people not drop off their non-productive chickens.
If you think chickens might be right for your family, keep in mind Laura Gidney’s words: “I always encourage anyone who can to totally do it!” she says. “Besides the fact that the eggs taste better, you know the quality of the food you give your birds, you know the conditions they live in, and it’s a beautiful thing to see your kids are out there taking care of and loving these birds and getting nutritious food out the whole deal."