If you’ve read the post below, it should be clear that I am far from a chicken expert. But I can answer some of the concerns of potential chicken-people.
Q: Do I have to build a chicken run?
A: In my experience, chickens are much happier roaming free. Clearly, they eat a much more natural diet that way, so I’d imagine that ranging is good for their health and the nutrient contents of the eggs, too. Of course, if you live in a city or suburb, it’s nice if the yard is fenced so they don’t wander into the neighbor’s place and poop on their chic outdoor fabrics. However, if I lived in the country, I wouldn’t even worry about it. They’re domestic birds. They want to be near their coop and near the people who toss them treats.
I have friends who’ve had great luck with chicken tractors, which are portable, bottomless cages that you move to a different patch of yard every day, allowing the chickens to sup on grass and grubs while remaining contained. I haven’t done this because it amuses me to have chickens running around–and because we go away on the weekends a lot and I don’t want to leave my chickens trapped in something so low to the ground.
Q: If I get chickens, will I never be able to go out to dinner again? Do I have to be home every night to shut them in?
A: Chickens are amazingly predictable. Right at sundown, they will head towards their coop and bed down for the night. Since my friend Rick, the genius, made me a fly-in coop with an opening three feet off the ground, I don’t worry about predators getting in. In fact, I’ve left my chickens overnight without a qualm. Of course, time will tell whether this is truly smart of me or just foolhardy.
Q: Is it a lot of work to take care of them?
A: In a word, no. They are the easiest pets we have, and I’m including the goldfish. I have a hanging feeder that holds a week’s worth of food high and dry in the coop and a galvanized waterer that refills itself automatically. I just toss out the dirty water in the bottom of the pan every day and let it fill itself up with clean water. I only take the waterer apart for a good hosing out twice a week or so. I rake out the coop every two weeks and compost the straw or wood shavings I use as bedding. I think you could get away with doing this much less frequently, but in the dead of winter, I’m glad to have an excuse to dig.
Q: Do they really lay eggs?
A: Pick a good laying breed according to Henderson’s Chicken Chart, and you will get an egg a day per hen, with that tapering off during the low-light months. Hens have to be the most efficient, most cost-effective source of high-quality protein in the world.
Q: What about winter?
A: If you live in a cold climate, as I do, you’ll have to get one of the breeds described as hardy in Henderson’s chart. When I first had chickens, I worried that they would freeze to death on winter nights and screwed heat-generating bulbs into the roof of their coop. This freaked the chickens out so completely that I soon abandoned the idea. I just make sure that they have lots of straw for insulation and let them huddle together on their perch for warmth. Think March of the Penguins. The most important thing is keeping their water from turning into a block of undrinkable ice, something I accomplish with a low-tech stand for their waterer that holds a single light bulb.