It has become pretty commonplace to see chickens in backyards here in Portland, Oregon. In our world of uncertainty regarding the treatment of the food we buy, it makes me feel good to be able to have a little control over what I eat and feed my family. Eggs are one of the items I’ve decided to have a little control over. I do that by keeping chickens. Spring is around the corner, and if you’re thinking of trying your hand at keeping some egg layers in your backyard, here are a few things to consider:
• Check with your city to make sure they’re cool with having chickens in yards, and what their laws are. This will determine how many chickens you can legally have, what size the coop should be, and where to place it in your yard. Many cities don’t allow roosters at all. Hens do not need a rooster around to produce eggs, only for fertilization.
• Decide whether to buy chicks or pullets. Pullets are female chickens in their first year of life, or until they begin to lay eggs, then they become hens. Both have their advantages. If you purchase chicks, they tend to be friendlier hens, but you’ll need to keep them inside a warm place with consistent temperatures until they have their second set of feathers. It is often difficult to sex chicks, so you may end up with roosters, but you won’t know for sure until they start crowing or later. This is easier to determine with standard chicks, but forget about it if you decide on the smaller banties. I decided banties would be great starter chickens for our small yard, and ended up with two roosters out of the four chicks I purchased.
• Determine what breeds you’d like to have. Don’t get too locked in a specific breed though, since it’s often difficult to find some of the more exotic breeds. They’re not always the most reliable layers anyway. I recommend getting a variety of breeds so you have a mix of interesting eggs and hens, and you’ll be able to tell them apart. Some of the best laying breeds include: Rhode Island Reds; Barred Rocks; Orpingtons; Americaunas (aka Easter eggers. They lay green or blue eggs). I’ve heard that the egg color is determined by the color of a hen’s ears.
• Free roaming hens are happy hens. They love to have a little bit of space to roam during the daylight hours. If you have a secure space, that would be ideal. My girls have a small run attached to their coop, but I also open the door and allow them to roam around the yard occasionally. You won’t want to do this if you have an aversion to chicken poop in your yard or if you’re particular about your landscaping. They do have a tendency to rearrange things as they scratch for bugs or bury themselves in the soil to cool off. They’ll keep your yard relatively weed free. Unfortunately, they don’t know the difference between perennials and weeds.
• It’s okay to name your girls. Just keep in mind that after 3-4 years, they will stop laying regularly and you may then need to start with new chicks, especially if you’re serious about good egg production. At that point, you’ll need to decide whether to donate them or keep them around as pets. We’ve had a couple chickens die of natural causes, and a few who just didn’t fit in, but I have not yet been able to eliminate elderly hens from the flock. Our oldest coop resident is ten, and she hasn’t laid an egg for several years.
Spring will be here in a few months, and I need to make the decision to get more chickens or give it up. Chickens are relatively easy to keep, but if you plan to get some and rely on your kids to do the maintenance, think again. The novelty wears off quickly. If you’re okay with tending a little flock on your own, I highly recommend it. Besides leaving you the gift of eggs, hens provide hours of entertainment.