If you are considering a flock of backyard chickens, you must first and foremost check your city’s ordinances to ensure that chickens are in fact legal at your home. In Jefferson County, backyard chickens are not legal in every city – sorry, Westminster! – but they are legal in most. Keep in mind that the legality of your backyard flock is still subject to quantities and space requirements: in Arvada, for example, residents may not keep a rooster and must keep the chicken enclosure at least thirty feet from neighboring property lines. To avoid any unpleasant issues, please verify your city’s regulations before making any commitment to chickens. Horror stories abound about certain city residents forced to relinquish their birds, and many chicken-keepers have graciously adopted abandoned or illegal birds. A little advance research here may save you a good deal of trouble later.
As with any household pet, preparation is required before bringing chickens home. Do some reading – numerous books as well as websites exist to introduce the novice to backyard chickens. Appropriate housing, protection, food and water are the basics required for any domestic animal and as with other household pets, these can range from the simple, re-purposed and economical to the absurdly expensive. You can easily build your own chicken house and run from found, re-purposed or purchased materials, or you can buy ready-made set-ups from a variety of different sources. Again, carefully consider your own space and budget when evaluating housing options, as this will be the most significant investment you’ll make in your chickens’ welfare.
Your chickens will require easy access to both fresh water and food, and numerous options exist for both feeders and waterers. We feed our chickens pellets purchased at a local feed store, heavily supplemented by kitchen scraps and the greens they forage. Our hens love most fruit and lettuces of any sort, and they devour tomatoes. I consider feeding the chickens my kitchen scraps as a sort of pre-composting! The birds also get a few handfuls of scratch grains as a treat, and they adore their scratch so much that we have found that “scratch bribery” is the quickest way to convince them to return to the run once they’ve been let out to roam.
Fresh free-range eggs are the primary motivation for most people to raise their own birds, and numerous studies have shown that backyard chicken eggs (i.e. “pastured” eggs) are substantially lower in cholesterol and higher in beneficial omega-3s than store-bought (i.e. “battery” eggs). Many people are unaware that hens do not require the presence of a rooster to lay eggs. We collect an average of four to five eggs each day and since we do not have a rooster none of these eggs are fertilized (able to produce chicks). Different breeds will lay different color eggs; this has no effect on the egg itself but is attractive as a selling point. I am only interested in productive layers and cold-hardiness in my birds, so all our eggs are brown. Chickens will lay for a number of years, again depending on the breed; ours will most likely produce regularly until they’re five or six, though their productivity will drop off after the first couple of years. Laying also varies according to the season and other factors, and thus far we have been immensely pleased with both the quantity and flavor of our fresh eggs – if they are in fact healthier it is simply an added benefit.
After eggs, chicken fertilizer is certainly a close second in terms of household contribution. Chicken droppings are incredibly rich in nitrogen and make a terrific addition to the home compost pile. We use straw in our chicken house, and when I clean out the house I just add the straw and droppings straight into our big compost pile, which is then turned and watered as needed. Every so often we rake out the chickens’ outdoor run and add this rich fertilized soil directly to our various beds, specifically the vegetable beds. I am definitely looking forward to the upcoming growing season to find out if the chicken fertilizer makes a noticeable difference!
We purchased our flock in July 2011. Half of our hens were nine weeks old and half around thirteen weeks old; they were raised together from day-old chicks and all started laying around five months of age. First-time chicken owners might wish to purchase pullets (hens under one year of age) instead of hatching eggs or raising day-old chicks. We were happy that we bought pullets for our first round, but are definitely interested in raising day-old chicks and hatching our own eggs at some point in the future.
We’re now just over eight months into our chicken-keeping operation, and I can state for certain that we will be chicken-owners for life. We do not consider the birds to be pets and though we are not raising this flock for meat there will come a time when I will need to humanely dispatch the birds. I consider this part of my responsibility to these lovely animals and plan to butcher the birds myself as needed. (In the metro-area, alternate options are available to those who do not wish to handle this task.) I certainly knew that I would appreciate the fresh eggs and the fertilizer, but I had no idea how much amusement the chickens would provide. They are definitely not the world’s smartest creatures, but watching the hens peck, flap and scratch around the yard is considered valid entertainment at my house.