The Basics of Backyard Chickens

So you want to raise a hip urban flock? Cooking Light Garden Gurus Mary Beth and David Shaddix keep dozens at a time. Here, wise words about the birds.
Text: Mary Beth Shaddix

The Cooking Light Garden has killer tillers. Our hens prey upon unwanted insects, wanted earthworms, and sometimes a coveted red tomato. But even so, they win us over every day with their personalities, not to mention their fresh eggs. Visitors are wooed by the girls, soon wanting hens of their own. Nationwide, cooping is cool. Urban bylaws are loosening. Hens are popping up in backyards from San Francisco to Brooklyn. Chickens are both fun and useful. But it takes pluck and planning, as I have learned the hard way, to tend your flock.

KNOW YOUR ENDGAME
Figure out how you’re likely to view your birds—as pets or urban livestock? It will be six months until Henrietta lays an egg; then she’ll lay one every day or so for about three years. Production decreases with age and with winter’s shorter days. Old Henrietta might live for seven more years and not reliably pay the rent with fresh eggs. Of course, she could be converted to dinner. But if you’ve named her Henrietta, is that likely?

The breed you pick should reflect your goal. A few fuzzy, fashionable Silkies and mini-hens known as bantams can be fun, but they won’t keep you in eggs. If you dream of green, blue, pink, brown, speckled, and white eggs by the basketful, choose breeds known for reliable production and by egg color. Ameraucanas or Araucanas lay blue eggs, Australorps lay a pinkish brown, and Cuckoo Marans dazzle with dark cocoa-brown shells.

BREAK THE EGGS, NOT THE LAW
Before you collect that first flock of fuzzy peeps, ask: Is the neighborhood association into feathered residents? Call your city zoning officials to see if regulations allow backyard birds. If the local municipality does approve, it might be polite to check with neighbors, too. Hens are allowed more often than roosters, but they also cluck and squawk out a proud song after laying an egg (well-deserved airtime, in my opinion, but a little different from your average barking dog).

KEEP IT TO JUST THE GIRLS
Many think a hen needs a rooster to make an egg. Not so. You only need a rooster if you want fertilized eggs—that is, future chickens. Hens will lay eggs regardless. Roosters are great protection for the flock, sounding an alarm when they spot predators such as hawks or dogs. But that alarm can irk neighbors. Although roosters may herald the sun’s rising, they also crow randomly and quite loudly throughout the day, every day.

GET THE SCOOP ON COOPS
Whether they’re city girls or free-ranging country girls, your flock will need a coop. Make no mistake—keeping chickens is hard work. A smart coop design helps make daily care easier. First, build larger than you think you need (chickens are addictive; you’ve been warned). Make access easy, for you and the birds. My coop has laying bays with hinged lids, so I can easily reach in for eggs. We have a gravity-fed trough that keeps food flowing from a 50-gallon bucket, although our chickens also forage outside under my watchful eye when I’m working nearby in the garden. The smartest coup in our design happened when my husband solved the problem of changing water bowls daily. His creation of a rain barrel container with beak-activated drippers supplies fresh water on demand. Also, place your coop away from those prized petunias, which might not survive a hunting-and-pecking raid. Like bulls, chickens charge ahead when they see red. This is when you see how aggressive they can be. It’s funny when a cherry tomato results in a game of chicken soccer. It’s not so funny when you wanted that tomato for your lunch.

GROW A GARDEN, TOO
You’ll have a continuous supply of wonderful fertilizer. In our coop, we use the deep litter method, a lazy chicken tender’s secret. Pile leaves from the yard at least 12 inches deep on an earthen floor. It works much like a compost heap: Debris breaks down into nitrogen-rich matter while serving as warm, fluffy flooring. Change it twice a year, and use the aged litter later as a superb amendment for your garden’s soil.

YOU'LL NEED A LOT OF EGG RECIPES
Golden-yolked eggs will be laid, sometimes at your feet. If you have 10 hens, you may be collecting 10 eggs a day, if you’re lucky. Yes, they’re delicious, and the richly hued yolks from free-range hens are high in omega-3s and vitamins A and E. But you’ll have lots of eggs. Soon, you will have a new Pinterest board called “Uses for Eggs.” After scores of frittatas, omelets, quiches, and deviled eggs eight ways, try angel food cake and lemon curd. This is a smart one-two punch because the cake batter uses a million whites and the curd is enriched by all the yolks. Still have too many eggs? Here’s another trick: Buy your neighbors’ approval with regular deliveries of fresh, local, lovingly cultivated eggs.