Monthly Archives: January 2012

What it’s really like to have urban chickens – Part 2 – The tweens and empty nest syndrome

Abby the chicken defender.

At 3-4 weeks the girls outgrew their double wide storage containers. We borrowed a collapsable indoor dog playpen and set it up in our sunroom. Newspaper for flooring worked just fine. I found a cardboard box that would work well for a “coop,” placed it on it’s side and put some branches in it for roosting. There were also a couple of branches in the pen area for roosting. We used a screen door for the roof. During the day I’d let them run around our sunroom or on nice days take the playpen outside so they could get some real sun and forage on the lawn. Their individual personalities, likes and dislikes were coming out and they entertained us for hours. Chickens are the funniest animals on the planet!

I didn’t know when our chicks should “fly the coop” and move into their own digs. I bought a couple of books on raising chickens, my favorite being Chick Days, An Absolute Beginner’s Guide written by Jenna Woginrich, published by Storey Publishing.  It’s not only extremely informative but has lots of great photos and lots of fun to read. It’s a piece of art. All my resources told me that chickens could move into their own housing when they were fully feathered so they can stay warm at night, roughly 5 weeks of age. Babies are covered with a fuzz that has little insulating effect. Fully feathered chickens have down plus a layer of feathers and are well prepared for cold weather.

The chicken run.

We decided to place the chicken coop and run against the south-facing back of our house. The area under our apple tree turned out to be the perfect spot. It was sheltered on the north by our house and the west by our sunroom, which meant some protection from the worst of our snowstorms and wind. The apple tree would provide shade in the summer. We built our run 9′ x 9′ x 3′ high. My husband framed it out with 2″x4″s and then used a strong wire mesh for the sides and top. We needed something that had stronger and smaller holes than chicken wire to keep out the foxes, coyotes and raccoons that frequent our neighborhood. We buried the mesh 4-6″ into the ground and added a row of large paver blocks around the outside to discourage predators from digging a way in. We let the girls hang out in the chicken run for a few hours every day and brought them back in the sunroom at night to sleep in their box and play pen.We still had to figure out what to do for a chicken coop, the little house where they sleep and eventually lay eggs, safe from the elements and predators. One day we were in Murdoch’s and saw the perfect coop: It was the right size for our flock, looked great and had conveniently located doors. It fit perfectly on the concrete between the run and our sun room, and was the perfect height for the run. Made by Precision Pet . We had to assemble it, but it was so well cut and had such perfect instructions that my husband took the time to write to the manufacturer thanking them for their fine work! We were able to find locking hooks and eyes at Ace to secure the coop roof to the run and the laying box roof.

Critter proof hooks.

We filled the main compartment with pine shavings, the laying box with straw, and clamped a heat lamp in for cooler nights. We bought a larger feeder at Murdoch’s, heated water bowl at Walmart and put added those to the run. The feeder is filled with chicken pellets and chicken crushed oyster shell (for calcium) and chicken scratch is tossed on the ground so they could dig around. I also give them salad, spinach or other greens so they could get their omegas. We also give them dinner scraps. Chickens are omnivores and need variety in their diet for good nutrition. WARNING: Avocados can be toxic to birds. Keep that in mind when sharing leftovers.

Finally complete!

The chickens were happy in their new housing for oh, about a week, and then decided they wanted out. Feeling that it would be safe them roam during the day, we would let them forage the back yard. Chickens really can’t fly. The first time before we let ours loose in the back yard, I trimmed their flight feathers. Turns out, it wasn’t necessary. They can JUMP higher than they can fly. We have a 6′ privacy fence around our back yard and the chickens don’t even think about scaling it. Our vegetable garden has a 4′ picket fence around it and the chickens have tried but can’t get in—unless they first jump up on a bench near the fence. Good luck if you want to have any potted plants where chickens roam. They eat just about everything, and love to take dirt baths in the pots.

Every planter in our back yard was emptied quickly and the dirt relished and kicked in all directions. Not that I’m complaining — it means less watering for me. But as a warning: chickens eat just about everything they can reach. They jump to eat grapes off vines; cherries; apples; tomatoes; flowers and the lawn as well. They eat grass and thatch the lawn. They eat flowers. Any vegetable plants they can reach through our picket fence. Bugs. Dirt. Mice. Anything that can’t get away from them. They’ve even tried to eat my shoes, socks and clothes. Take care with fertilizers and do not use weed killers. Actually they produce fertilizer so you probably don’t need any extra! At dusk the girls are ready to call it a night and go into their coop without even being asked. Since they tend to only sleep and lay eggs in the coop, it doesn’t need to be cleaned all that often during the summer. My routine now is to put on some waterproof gloves and just scoop the poop out of the coop and put it in a composter. If the pine shavings are getting low I add some more. That takes me about 10 minutes. Once a week (or even two) I remove all the shavings and start fresh. That takes about 1/2 hour. Easy.

Real eggs and decoys!

At about the age of 6 months, the girls started laying eggs. Somehow they know that the laying box is for laying eggs. They climb into the box, go into a trance and after a while lay an egg. When they come out, they announce very loudly that they’ve laid an egg, eat some food and go back to life as normal. The first eggs were very small, and some didn’t even have shells. No worries, it’s just their bodies learning how to do things right. Unfortunately they got into eating the shell-less eggs. An internet tip suggested I buy a couple of wood eggs at Michael’s and paint them to match our eggs (in our case, a cocoa brown). Once in nest, the chickens peck at the decoys, learn that they are not edible, and decide eggs are not food. Problem solved. Free range chicken eggs are so healthy and delicious! Look forward (?!?) to a rant by me on declining food quality some time in the future. All day, free range chickens eat plants, bugs, whatever, and their eggs are high in Omega 3’s and protein, which our bodies need and love. You won’t believe how orange the yolks are! We save the shells, crush them when they’re dry and add them to the chicken feed so they can recover some of the calcium they lose during egg production.

At night we make sure the girls are locked up and safe. Their feeder is filled and their water freshened. And all is well. Goodnight moon!

Next time: Part 3: Weather forecast–Winter!

What it’s really like to have urban chickens – Part 1 – Infant chicks and how time flies

Duck at 1 week.

Of course, I’ll be speaking here from my perspective as an urban (or suburban) farmer. I grew up in the suburbs, spent most of the my life in suburbs, live in the suburbs right now. For some reason I’ve wanted to have chickens, well, forever. There’s something so warm and homey about owning these living icons of a rural lifestyle. They’re sweet, pretty, motherly and make the neatest sounds. They give you eggs.

Maybe I developed my affection for chickens as a child in New Jersey. On weekends we would drive to an Englishtown “egg farm” to get farm fresh eggs. The people that sold us the eggs were like grandparents. They lived in an old white farmhouse on a hill. While my parents were buying eggs, the wife would bring me into their kitchen and feed me date and nut bread that she made from the eggs that “needed to be used up.” I might have been 3 or 4, but I still remember the warmth of that woman and her kitchen. And her bread was to die for.

As I’ve mentioned before, I live in the most suburban of suburbs and covenant controlled to boot. Just on the outskirts is a Murdoch’s Feed and Supply Store. I’d go there in the spring and gaze longingly at the day-old chicks they’d have available for the folks that lived outside of my town limits. Then I’d come home and Google the poultry restrictions for my neighborhood. Once again, no chickens.

Duck at three weeks. Not too bright, lol.

A couple of years ago I was talking with a sales person at Murdoch’s and she mentioned my town had passed an ordinance allowing chickens. My day had finally come!

I researched what chickens fit our needs on a great web resource, For us requirements were cold hardy, friendly egg-producers (as opposed to meat birds). I made my plans to be a chicken mom.

We found out what the spring delivery schedule was for chicks at Murdoch’s and learned that chicks sell pretty quickly!  Chicks don’t need to eat for a couple of days after they hatch, so the best time for them to be shipped is immediately after hatching. But if you want a choice, get to the store early! Our chicks came home to us in March 11, 2011.

Note: You can buy either sexed or straight run chicks. The sexed ones are determined to be, by chick private part experts, hens or roosters they day they hatch. Straight run means no one has looked at the “parts” and so gender is a gamble. Some neighborhoods that allow poultry—like mine—do not permit roosters because they are too noisy. Keep that in mind.

Lap chicken!

We set up a 3’x2′ plastic storage container in the warmest room of our house, the kitchen. We used pine shavings for their bedding, a little chick feeder and waterer, and a heat lamp over one end of their new digs, all bought at Murdoch’s. They were smart enough to sleep under the lamp if they felt cold, or move away from it if too warm. Chicks tend to poop in their food, water and everywhere in between. If they end up ingesting some of that, they could develop serious gastric problems. I bought chic feed containing antibiotics even though I wanted my chickens to be “organic”. Chicks are tiny defenseless fuzz puffs and I wanted to protect them. A friend of mine opted to forego antibiotics in her chick feed and they got sick. After weeks of worry, lab tests, vet bills and antibiotics, she decided she should have gone preventative in the beginning. My chicks, by the way, did just fine.

In the beginning they would nap most of the time. It was not unusual to see a chick standing in the container start to drop it’s head down and then just fall asleep.  Or a friend would come over to see the chicks, pick one up and suddenly the chick would go limp in her hands, fast asleep. OMG cute. Note: One of the most important things I learned about chicks was pasty butt. Sometimes a chick’s poop would stick to its vent feathers (vent is another word for all purpose port — they pee, poop and deliver eggs out of one efficient oriface). You do not want a sealed vent. If you notice poop stuck to a chick’s back end you need to run some warm water over the area until it’s clean. They will yell like you’re killing them, but you’re really saving their lives. More info can be found here.

Chicks learn quickly where their food comes from!

The chicks learned at an early age that humans meant food was coming and would run to us when they saw us enter the room. The napped a lot, and wanted to roost on our furniture which meant removing a rug, some cushions and putting sheets on the futon mattress. The chicks were very attracted to us and would hop on our laps and nap on us when they could.

For the first two weeks, one large storage container was fine. But the chicks grew so quickly I ended up joining two containers side-by-side. I cut out the walls separating the two containers and put a screen door over the top because they were learning how to jump up to the edges—and out.

Coop & run to go here!

While I was cleaning out their tubs, I’d let them out. I’d take the screen door off their tubs and call them into the sun room. They’d all rush out, knowing there was some special treat waiting for them. I found that chick babyhood lasts about 4 weeks.

Next, the “tweens” and the outdoor living construction begins. Gasp.

So who is this Herban Farmer?

Little me (right) with BFF Kathy

An unwitting naturalist since early childhood in the Garden State—New Jersey. My parents and I lived in a teensy suburban Cape Cod style house painted white with black shutters and surrounded by a white picket fence. We grew tomatoes, peppers and grapes; canned fruit and vegetables; went twilight fishing on weekends with a stopover at Carvel’s on the way home. Early on, I developed skills in sewing, cooking and yard work. I became a loyal fan of Tastykakes, Turkish Taffy, Taylor Ham, Ronzoni and fresh light-but-crusty hard rolls with butter after church on Sundays. I dreamed of having a yard-sized greenhouse, a horse, moving to Florida and going to the beach every day.

As a kid I had a strong urge to be close to nature. In winter you’d find me sprouting radish seeds, bird food and herb seeds pilfered from the kitchen cabinet in homemade terrariums. The rest of the year I’d be in the woods nibbling on birch bark and wild berries, trying to trap wild mice for pets (they always outsmarted my traps), bringing home tadpoles, frog eggs and baby turtles from Duhernal Lake. I would run through the woods trying to be like an Indian and not make any sound with my footfalls (I still startle people because of that training). I immersed myself in nature and still wanted more. I was adopted occasionally by both wild and domestic animals. I caught full-grown fish with my bare hands by “hypnotizing” them with touch. I had an innate sense of herbal remedies and food as medicine.

Today I’m living in the most suburban of suburbans and still deeply connected to nature. I’m married and have a fantastic teenage son. Our family includes an elderly yellow Lab, two African Grey parrots, some gold fish, a horse, chickens and a pond full of koi. I garden, fish, sew, cook, grow things, paint, make jewelry and journals. I still love to run through the woods. I look to nature for answers and sanity. I enjoy writing. I’m slowing down my graphic and web design business so I can have more time to express my creativity. I’m a certified botanic illustrator and some of my illustrations were published in a 1996 book Xeriscape Plant Guide and a couple of related calendars.

I’m learning how to oil paint and have started by painting nature. My first oil is of my horse Joe and hangs in my stall in the tack room. He likes his painting a lot. He licked it the first time he saw it. My next painting will be of our pond lilies and dragon flies. I have in mind something very different and special.

So here is my blog. For once it’s not about web sites, graphic design or search engine optimization. It’s about what I love, have learned and want to share.

“Hold on to your diapies babies” (to quote the Rug Rats), I’m going in.

Sssh! He does’t know he’s being watched.

It’s going to be a fun ride for me and I’m committed. This blog is, generally, about stuff, a direct violation of the first law of blogs, which is all about being consistent and having one specific theme. But if you stick around long enough you’ll begin to see I do have a theme and it’s simply about joy. The joy of gardening, nature, cooking and eating food and being creative… and enjoying the journey called life the way it’s supposed to be!