Backyard Chicken Coops 101

How to raise chickens at home, even in the city

09-12-2012 // Jennifer Bové
four hens

You don't need acres to raise your own chickens. With just a bit of backyard space, your family can have a small flock that provides fresh eggs and farming fun.

Across the country, chicken coops are cropping up in unexpected places. Urban families from New York to Seattle are making room for feathered friends. Not only do chickens make fun pets, they provide fresh eggs that are even healthier and tastier than the ones sold in stores.

Are Chickens Legal?

There was a time when chickens were banned within city limits, but people are now persuading their local governments to allow poultry as pets. In many cities, a handful of hens can be kept in a tidy coop (a permit may be required). Roosters are still forbidden in most metro areas because their noisy crowing can disturb neighbors. Don't worry, though, hens lay eggs without the help of roosters. Find your city on this list of ordinances or call your local city hall to learn the rules for your town.

Where Do We Get Them?

chick

A farmers' market is a great place to meet someone who raises and sells chickens in your area. If you can't find fowl close to home, try online sources like McMurray Hatchery or My Pet Chicken where you can order from a variety of breeds and have baby chicks delivered in the mail!

Do We Need a Chicken Coop?

A coop is necessary component of chicken ownership. It's a shelter where chickens roost at night, lay their eggs, and avoid predators. Ideally, a backyard coop will be secure and capable of locking up at night to keep your hens safe from dogs, possums, and raccoons. You'll also want a wire enclosure attached to your coop so that your hens can soak up sunshine and peck around in the grass during the day.

Boy feeding hens

If you'd like to build a coop from scratch, there are many different designs online, ranging from basic to deluxe. If you prefer to buy a pre-made coop, check out the cute choices at EarthWare Living, ChickenCoopSelect, or Omlet. More information about preparing the perfect coop can be found at Urban Chickens.

What Should We Feed Our Flock?

Chickens aren't picky eaters, but they need a good balance of nutrients in order to be healthy and lay nutritious eggs. You'll find baby chick food and hen food (called "layer ration") at a farm supply or feed store. You might also be interested in ordering organic poultry food or making your own

Chickens are pretty low-maintenance pets, especially if you equip your coop with a feeder and waterer that will allow them to nibble and drink without making a big mess. These containers are sold at farm supply and pet stores.

What About... Poop?

It's unavoidable--chickens do poop. A lot. Some coops have a removable tray that catches poop so that you can easily transfer it to your compost pile.

Chicken Egg

You can also use dropping boards to catch poop under perches, or you can simply shovel out your coop once a week. The poop can be thrown away in the trash, but it makes fantastic fertilizer for gardens. If you can't use it, consider advertising it in your local newspaper for free. Really! An eager gardener will be glad to pick it up. 

How Many Eggs Do Chickens Lay?

In general, a healthy hen will lay one egg per day from spring through fall. She may slow down during the winter, and she will go through a couple of brief molting periods each year when she will not lay.

Collecting eggs is a fun and rewarding job for kids. Just make sure your family understands how to gather and safely prepare eggs fresh from the hen.

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Jennifer Bové, mom and former field biologist, is an award-winning contributor to Your Big Backyard® and the editor of three anthologies including Wild With Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors. Jennifer's blog is filled with timely tips and family fun. Stop by for a visit at www.bovesboots.blogspot.com.

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