How to keep backyard chickens: Tips from a farm girl turned city dweller
Backyard chickens, we’ve had them for going on five plus years now. Before that though, I grew up on a 10 acre farm where we had a large coop and lots of chickens. My family raised both egg layers, as well as tried our hands at meat chickens.
Chickens were also my Grandma Judy’s favorite animal. She had chickens, gunnies, peacocks, rheas, emus, and ostriches! Seriously! She also raised miniature donkies, had horses, lamas, and more. Believe me, summers spent at her house were the best! The emus were a favorite because they loved a good watering down. They’d lay and flap their wings while you misted them with the hose. After those big birds, backyard chickens seem like no big thang. 😉
(Check out the garden at our last house and see what we used as a chicken coop before making their current enclosure!)
Since I grew up around birds of all sorts, I’ll be bold in saying I’ve been around the block when it comes to feathers beasts, and know a thing or two that could help your urban chicken experience!
Are backyard chickens for you?
Chickens require work and commitment. You can’t do things anymore like jet out of town for a two day vaca without asking someone to check in on them. They need daily tending and a sturdy, safe enclosure.
Chickens are also great at helping you master your squeamish side. If you’ve ever had an egg bound chicken or some other problem or illness, well let’s just say you’ve gotta be willing to get your hands dirty and become well acquainted with chicken anatomy.
There are far more good that goes along with having a mini flock in your backyard than bad, but just know going into it there will be some issues that arise that you’ll have to deal with. If you’re up to the challenge, let’s move on!
Placing the coop in the right area
Chickens love sunshine, but they also need to be provided with shade. Too much sun in the summer without proper shade will cause your birds to overheat.
Often times people with put their coops close to or integrate them into their garden. We did this at our last house with great results. When I decided to let the chickens out of their coop, I could choose to let them roam the garden only or open up the fence and let them into the whole yard. Being in the garden area also allows you to kind of “hide” the coop. Planting sunflowers, vine plants, or other garden decor around the coop helps to soften the look of it in your yard, as well as make a natural noise barrier.
Another thing to consider is how close you want your chickens to your house, or to the neighbors houses. If you have a neighboring house six feet off the north side of your backyard fence, I wouldn’t suggest building the coop right next to it. Often neighbors are skeptical of chickens, and the possible smells and noise that comes with them. And that leads me to the next point.
The noise factor
I’ll be very honest, when chickens lay their eggs daily, they have a few minutes of, well, how do I put this tactfully? Lots of clucking and noise! So, I suggest finding the point in your yard farthest away from all the neighbors houses and setting it there.
In urban areas, roosters are also something to avoid. You don’t need a rooster for the hens to lay, and my flock has lived happily as a girl gang for several years now. No crowing in the morning or throughout the day, which again, your neighbors will thank you for. Plus, with the limit of the amount of chickens you can have depending on your city rules and square feet available, having a chicken in the flock that doesn’t lay is simply a waist.
How many chickens can you have?
As a general rule, it’s said you need about two to three square feet per chicken inside the chicken coop, and eight to ten square feet per chicken in an outside run. More square footage is better though so air on the larger side!
Skimping on space requirements for a flock of chickens can cause stress, invite disease, lead to pecking and, in worst cases, death.
Letting your chickens out in the yard: pros and cons
My chickens consider it a special treat getting let out in the yard. I love sitting in my comfy wooden bench in the evenings watching them scatter across the lawn, on the hunt for bugs and yummy greens. While chickens love getting let out from time to time, there are some things to consider before releasing them into your yard.
They can be destructive:
Chickens love a good flower garden and anything planted in a pot is not safe. They also love to congregate on the patio for some reason, pooping in the most inopportune places. And while mine rarely try to leave our yard, some are Houdini’s and will need their wings clipped so they don’t fly away.
However bad the above sounds, it’s not all terrible to let them out. Here are the when’s and why’s of how I decided to let them roam the yard.
Evenings are best:
Evenings are a great time to let the ladies out for a while. As soon as it starts to get dark they’ll put themselves away for the night. I’ll let them out a couple hours before dusk. This keeps them from getting into too much trouble.
Fall, after the harvest:
Once my garden is harvested and the frost has taken most of my plants, I’ll let the ladies out most days in the morning to help clean up and eat any of the remaining produce they find laying around the garden.
Spring, before we plant:
After all the snow has melted, but before all my baby plants get sown into the dirt, I’ll let the flock out almost daily to wander. They’ll be cooped up most of the summer, so I let them get in their wandering now.
Poop in the lawn? What to do?
Our daily sprinklers work wonders in making the poo disappear into the grass. Chicken dropping make great fertilizer, so don’t worry about it killing the lawn. If there are some stubborn, harder droppings I’ll walk around the yard a couple times a week and use the jet setting of my spray nozzle on the hose to break them apart and work it into the ground.
Make the outdoor coop area a playground
Don’t simply make an outdoor enclosure and leave it at that. Chickens can become board, and it’s so much nicer to give them things to do on the days or weeks they can’t be allowed to free roam the yard.
Dust bath: Chickens love a good dust bath. I have a foot and a half by two foot box filled with fine dirt the chickens can bathe themselves in at their leisure. Add this to the dust to help fight mites and lice!
A chicken fort: We cut down a large shrub this spring and I nailed a few bigger pieces of the branches together and it is seriously my chickens favorite spot to hang. They love being on and around it. I purchase corn for a special treat and also oyster shell to help with calcium and hardening the eggs. I scatter that at the bottom of the fort and they scratch around and play for hours there.
Bring them kitchen scraps: I hate to waste food, and with chickens, I never have to! I give them our out of date food, things the kids didn’t finish at dinner, and on and on. They love a good snack and it makes me feel better recycling our waste and turning it into eggs!
Urban chickens have many predators: beware
You may think urban chickens have limited predators. You’re in the city after all. This is not the case whatsoever.
I’ve had more than my fair share of chickens taken by raccoons. It was actually a bigger problem for our urban flock than the country one we had growing up. (Though my dad took care of a couple raccoon eating chickens in his days.)
Coops can never be to safe, so go into building a coop and outdoor enclosure thinking like a preditor! No matter how safe the outdoor enclosure is, I’ve learned my lesson over the years and always lock my chickens in their coop at night.
Make your outdoor enclosure with strong wire. Dogs, raccoons, and other predators can take their claws and cut through smaller wire easily. Also make sure the top is completely covered with wire, as hawks and birds of pray love a quick meal of a fat and happy chicken. Wire should be buried under the ground at least a foot or more along the outdoor enclosure fence. Most animals will circle the coop a couple times before picking a spot and trying to dig under.
Another great idea is a nanny cam for the coop. This will allow you to keep tabs on your current predators and always stay vigil.
Most common predators of your flock:
- dogs and coyotes
- house cats
- members of the weasel family
- snakes, especially rat snakes
Death is inevitable
Chickens are fragile creatures and susceptible to lots of illnesses and injures. We try to repair and tend sick chickens as they happen, and often times we can get them back on their feet. Other times though, to be humane and stop the pain or sickness, a chicken must be put down. There are several humane ways to do this, so just know it’s a fact of farm life. The vet can also euthanize them if you need, so don’t feel like you have to go it alone.
Best three backyard chicken breeds
Rhode Island Red is one of the most popular chicken breeds around. They are friendly, easy to keep, tough little guys, and lay around 250 brown, medium sized eggs per year.
Buff Orpington’s are very easy keepers and also quality egg layers. They produce around 180 medium sized light brown eggs per year. This cute fluffy breed is as friendly as it is pretty.
Plymouth Rock, also called Barred Rocks, are the stunning black and white chickens that are so popular. These ladies product about 200 medium brown eggs per year. They are active birds and love to free-range.
Egg laying years and life expectancy of chickens
Chickens don’t necessarily stop laying eggs at a certain age, but they do become fewer and far between. I have a lady right now who’s around six, and in the winter she doesn’t lay at all, but come summer I get two-ish eggs from her a week.
Life expectancy of a chicken is generally seven to eight years. But if they’re healthy and happy they can live longer!
Finally, enjoy your backyard chickens
Chickens are a great life lesson for the family. You get to watch them grow, the kids can take on the responsibility of chores, the eggs they provide are filled with important nutrients, and they are such fluffy, fun pets! Start right with the proper breeds, awareness of what it takes to raise chickens, and a safe, solid enclosure and you’ll be set for years of chicken fun!
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