What could be more idyllic than a flock of hens, contentedly scratching around in your garden? If you're dreaming about joining the backyard-chicken boom, consider asking yourself several questions that could spare your chickens a return trip to wherever they came from.
We speak from experience, having raised chickens here at Sunset for the past 8 years. For more advice, try our backyard-farming book, The One-Block Feast, which devotes an entire section to chicken-keeping.
1) Does your city allow you to keep chickens?Every city has its own rules. Our municipality (Menlo Park, California) lets residents keep hens, but not roosters. That’s fairly common in cities: Many have no problem with a few quiet hens (usually classified as pets), but they ban noisy roosters. Check your local regulations before picking out your flock.
2) Do you have space?Each chicken should have at least 10 square feet to run around in, plus 4 square feet of house.
3) Can you keep them safe?Making their digs secure is extremely important, especially at night. Chickens are prey, and they sleep so soundly that basically they're morsels waiting to be devoured. They are vulnerable to attack by raccoons, skunks, foxes, weasels, and other predators. Raccoons are particularly nasty, and they’re particularly clever about using their little nasty hands to get into your coop. Also, keep in mind that your other pets (cats, dogs) may be predators.
Tips: Don't use chicken wire, despite the name, for the yard; racoons can rip it apart. Use 1/2-inch hardware cloth, stretched between wooden posts and buried 12 inches into the ground. Also, situate the chicken house so it opens right into the yard, within the hardware-cloth enclosure. We also topped the yard with a corrugated, translucent plastic roof to allow light in but keep predators and foul weather out.)
4) What will do you with them when they stop laying eggs?Hens lay best in the first year, and may lay sporadically for four or five years, but they can live for eight years (or longer; our two Buff Orpingtons are nearly 9). After their prime egg-laying years are over, will you be happy to keep caring for them?
5) What will you do if one gets injured or sick?Before you acquire your flock, and regardless of your philosophical feelings about whether your chickens are pets, you must make sure you have a plan for what to do in case something happens to one of them. If you choose to take your chickens to a vet, locate an avian vet in your area in advance, preferably one familiar with chicken health problems.
Not everyone who raises chickens chooses to treat them when they get sick. Some people will euthanize a sick or injured animal; others have a friend, family member, or neighbor willing to do it in an emergency.
6) Can you afford it?You’ll be getting good fresh eggs for free, but setting up a coop can cost a few hundred dollars, depending on the materials you use, and chicken food is an ongoing expense. If you decide to visit the vet, those bills can add up quickly.
7) Are you expecting too much?Chickens don't exactly have the emotional range of cats or dogs. If you're looking for a cuddly creature with whom you can form an emotional relationship, chickens may not be the most rewarding option. That said, chickens do have personalities, and the friendly ones may hop up on your lap for a scratch under their downy wings. Also, we enjoy watching them peck around in the garden. And nothing, nothing beats the taste of a truly fresh egg.