Category Archives: urban chickens

What it’s really like to have urban chickens – Part 3 – Fully grown chickens, very cold short days ahead and snow!

Planters become dirt spas.

Unfortunately, at least for me, summer doesn’t last forever. Our chickens spent the summer and fall foraging in our back yard for whatever greens and proteins they could find, plus the treats we’d give them during the day. They had their pellets available too, but preferred fresh food. Before long, the greens were no longer available and so I started supplementing even more with dandelion greens, spinach, salad and other greens from the grocery store. I asked King Soopers if they’d let me have the greens they were going to throw out because they were past their prime, and they said by law they could not.

Chickens get to dig in the garden after the harvest.

So I buy marked down salads when I can or give the girls green stuff from our fridge that’s on it’s way out. Since our garden was done for the season, I opened the gate and the girls got to finish up the things they didn’t like when times were good—celery stalks and leaves, collards and broccoli stems. They take dirt baths in our raised beds and rototill compost into the garden beds.

Homemade chicken feed, aka “Chix Mix.”

I found a great recipe for homemade chicken feed  (recipe below) that is too expensive to feed exclusively to the girls, but makes me feel great that I can give them healthy grains in addition to their pellets. And they absolutely LOVE it! So their diet right now is organic chicken pellets, a cup or two of my homemade feed daily, extra treats of greens and food scraps, and some sort of calcium-rich grit such as oyster shells or recycled crushed egg shells.

We decided that before it got too late in the season we needed to plan for REALLY cold weather. We cut a hole in the roof of the chicken coop in order to attach the old heat lamp and a “chimney”. An article I read said that hay was a better insulator than pine shavings, so just before the days got short and nights were cold, I added a layer of straw under the pine shavings.

Now, for those of you who want to know how hard it is to keep a chicken coop clean, I can honestly say that it depends on how many chickens you own. We have five. Two to three times a week I put on some waterproof gloves, roll back the coop (we put wheels on the legs), scoop the poop out and toss it into our compost bin. If needed, I add more bedding. The whole process takes about 10 minutes. Some of my chickens like to watch and make comments as I clean. Easy work. I don’t usually have to clean the chicken run because they don’t spend much time there. They poop on the lawn and either our sprinklers in the summer or snow and rain the rest of the year melt it into the grass.

The first time we went on vacation AC (after chickens), we paid a friend’s daughter come to our house twice a day to let the girls out, check food and water and put them to bed. By our second vacation she wasn’t interested. We didn’t know anyone else who could do that for us, so we ended up hiring a house sitter. It’s more costly, but if you own a house it’s comforting for many reasons, plus our dog was able to stay home too.

We had a couple of snow storms in October 2011, and although the coop was snow tight the chicken run was half filled with the white stuff. At one point I bought a clear tarp and thumb-tacked it over the run’s roof to keep the weather out. But we have some pretty incredible winds here, and after a couple of months it started to tear and break loose. My husband went to Home Depot and bought some clear corrugated plastic panels. He trimmed them to fit over the chicken run, and for the most part it works well. He angled the sheets on one side so snow (and rain) would drain off and away from the run. We turn on the heat lamp on nights where it got below zero degrees and it seems to work just fine for the girls. If the temperatures get below -10, I can always bring them back into our sun room in the play pen.

A recent snow storm told us that the corrugated plastic roof would not always be enough protection. The storm lasted two days and dumped 2 feet of snow in our yard. Winds whipped the snow around the south side of our house—and right into the chicken run. So… maybe we need to cover the south side of the run with something, at least in the winter.

I learned this winter that chickens don’t like snow! When we get a good snow fall, we have to shovel out a path from the chicken run to our back patio where they can at least stretch their legs. If I don’t shovel a path, they yell their heads off and I don’t want to upset my neighbors. I’ve added second heated water bowl to our patio, I also brought their small bowl of my chix mix back there and a bowl full of chicken pellets, since the patio is covered and their food won’t get wet. I bought a couple of bales of pine shavings and made a small burrow for the girls to block out the wind. They tend to hang out there anyway when the weather’s bad, so I decided it would be a good idea to build them a “fort” to block some of the cold wind. I fill the floor with hay and they spend the worst weather days huddled there, tapping on our glass doors to come in and squawking for food. Do you think I’m a bit of a mother hen? ;=>

Now for the not-so-pretty stuff: When the weather is bad the chickens poop all over our patio. I sweep after them every day. If it gets warm enough, I hose off the patio. I’ve had to remove the cushions from of our patio furniture to keep the chickens off. And oh, did I mention that chickens poop a LOT? When the snow melts off the yard they spend their days looking for things to eat in the yard and forget about the patio. But there have been a few days where that’s been impossible and they make a real mess out of our concrete. And sometimes the poop gets smashed down and freezes—there’s no way to get that cleaned off until the weather gives us a break. Luckily we live in Colorado and we get patches of nice weather between snow and cold. If we lived somewhere where the entire winter is a frozen mass of snow, I wouldn’t be able to deal with having chickens in the ‘burbs. They would need a large chicken run and coop or barn.

The girls still want to come inside. Every chance they get, they sneak in and I find one sitting on a papasan chair making little “boop boop boo” sounds. One day I was sitting at our kitchen island working on my laptop and heard a soft sound next to me, near the floor. I looked down and there was Jenny, standing next to my chair and looking up at my face. I pick up one or another chicken every few days and take them on a tour of the house. They seem to enjoy it. Chickens are a lot smarter than I expected. They make a lot of different sounds and I’m learning what some of them mean. They have personalities! Jenny is extremely sweet but the absolute bottom of the pecking order.

Duck is very smart and very vocal. She’s always the first one who sees our lights go on in the morning and starts yelling to be let out of the run. She’s also the one who comes to our sunroom door and loudly demands food. Flopsy and Mopsy are fairly friendly and quiet and are the ones who will jump up and sit in our laps. Tiggy is standoffish but melts when I “force” her to sit on my lap and endure snuggling and petting. She seems embarrassed about that.

In early fall Denver had it’s first county fair. I had seen chicken diapers in a magazine and mentioned them to a friend who is not only a seamstress but also owns chickens. She rented a booth at the fair to sell aprons and asked if I would like to sell chicken diapers. Sure, why not? I ordered a couple from web sites and was not impressed with their construction or fit, so I came up with my own design and made a few. I also made some chicken-themed aprons to match, and joined my friend at the fair. You can check out some of my designs here. Eventually I’ll get them on Etsy. You just never know when one of your chickens is injured or sick and needs to spend some time indoors. Did I mention they poop a LOT?

It’s now February and I think we have winter figured out. The girls don’t lay as many eggs—three of them are moulting which happens after they stop producing eggs for the winter. They still aren’t crazy about snow. Their egg shells are getting thinner, so I’m recirculating their eggs shells into their food (mentioned above). I dry out the egg shells and pulverize them in a baggy so they don’t really know what they are— I don’t want to give them any ideas. We’re just a couple of weeks from the date they came to live with us. They seem happy, and we still love having the cheerful clucking little girls in our yard. One of the hardest things about keeping chickens, at least the way we do, is that they don’t have the yard to roam when there’s a lot of snow and so spend a lot of time on our patio pooping and demanding food. I keep giving them as many greens as I can to make up for the lack of foraging, in the way of spinach, salad, greens and sprouted wheatgrass. They get great leftovers: Last night it was spinach souffle and leftover fresh trout scraps with the bones removed. My animals eat better than a lot of our neighbors’ kids. If you want to feel loved and appreciated, just get a flock of chickens that run full speed to you when you walk outside. Never mind that they’re expecting food, they look so funny when they run!

We’ve been hearing coyotes on the other side of our fence lately—I hope they only come by at night, when the girls are protected by our construction. Our girls are part of our family and we want to keep it that way as long as we can. Despite the mess, the extra work and the shortage of eggs lately, I still love the little sweeties and am glad we have them.

For my conclusion, what’s it really like to have chickens in the ‘burbs?

Pros:
1. They are really cute! They are quirky, funny, have personalities, look pretty and make fun sounds. Very entertaining—they make us laugh, A LOT.
2. They are the only pets that give you food in return for your efforts.
3. They eat weeds, insects and mice. BC (before chickens) our back yard was overrun with dandelions. Now our neighbors give us dandelions from their yards to feed to our chickens.
4. There is something very grounding and relaxing about spending time with chickens. I get such a warm happy feeling when hugging a chicken.
5. They mow and thatch your lawn and fertilize it at the same time.
6. They produce high quality fertilizer for all your other gardening needs.
7. They will love you if you are nice to them.

White chickens CAN jump, lol.

Cons:
1. They are extra work—but not much.
2. They are an extra expense: food and housing.
3. They poop a lot, so cleanup is involved. And an odor if you don’t clean up often enough. But… See #6 above.
4. They also eat all of your plants, so exposed gardens and flower pots are out of question. I just ordered a book from Amazon about having a nice yard AND chickens. I’ll update with a post of what I learn.

So, urban chickens? It depends on what you’re looking for, what type of pet owner you are and how much time you have for a few extra chores. For me? It’s a win-win situation. I LOVE my chickens!

Organic Homemade Chicken Feed

Prep Time10 mins
Total Time10 mins
Course: Recipes for Pets
Keyword: chicken feed

Ingredients

One part of each of:

  • hulled barley; oat groats (I've used steel cut oats instead when I can't find groats); shelled sunflower seeds (in winter increase to 2 parts); millet; amaranth seeds; kamut (I can only find this at Vitamin Cottage); split peas; lentils (I like the orange ones, only because they're pretty); quinoa; sesame seeds

Two parts of:

  • dried whole corn kernals or scratch Can up to 3-4 parts in the winter.

Three parts of:

  • hard red winter wheat; soft white wheat

One half part each of:

  • kelp granules; crushed oyster shells, grit or crushed egg shells

Instructions

  • Mix together the ingredients. That's it, you're done!

Notes

The intent is to go 100% organic with the ingredients, but you can go as organic as you can afford and still feel good that your chickens are eating REAL food. 

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, http://www.backyardchickens.com. 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, to be 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 roam our sunroom. 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 outdoor living construction begins. Gasp.