ACROSS AMERICA — Raising backyard chickens has become increasingly popular in urban and suburban neighborhoods throughout the United States. Whether it’s for eggs, meat, a side gig selling eggs, or a new way to keep pets, Americans can’t seem to get enough of their tiny flocks of feathered friends.
In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has only fed our desire to moonlight as amateur chicken keepers.
Mark Podgwaite, a Vermont chicken breeder who heads the American Poultry Association, told The Associated Press in December that he and other breeders have noticed an uptick in demand for chicks since the pandemic began.
His organization, which represents breeders and poultry show exhibitors, also told The AP it has also seen a jump in new members.
The appeal is clear: During pandemic lockdowns and social isolation, backyard chickens not only supply a steady stream of fresh eggs — they also provide an outdoor hobby and animal companionship.
But raising chickens certainly isn’t a walk in the henhouse.
If you’re considering starting your own flock, here are five things you should first keep in mind:
1. Know your local rules and ordinances on farm animals.
Laws for owning chickens vary greatly from one city to another. While rural areas rarely have restrictions on how many hens are permitted per flock or household, suburban and urban chicken-keeping is often regulated and does not fall under Right to Farm protections.
A good place to start is by contacting your city government or police department. Both will likely get you up to speed on your local laws.
2. Know how much space you need.
Chickens are small birds, so that also means they don’t take up much space.
You should plan to build a nesting coop, or henhouse, that provides 4 square feet per chicken, plus 10 square feet per chicken in an enclosed run, according to Country Living veterinarian Dr. Tricia Earley.
For a flock of six chickens, that translates to a 6-by-4-foot nesting coop plus a 6-by-10-foot run. This is the perfect amount of space to provide a happy home for your girls while also protecting them from predators like hawks, coyotes, raccoons, and foxes.
Check out these DIY chicken coop ideas on Country Living. Another option: Buy your chicken coop right now.
3. Know the costs and time commitment.
Starting your own flock requires a small, upfront investment. Female chicks typically cost between $4 and $7 per animal, according to Country Living. A 50-pound bag of quality chicken feed costs about $25, which a flock of six hens will go through in about a month.
Your biggest cost will be the chicken coop, which runs as little as $100 for a simple mail-order kit to more than $10,000 if you’re going for a more designer look for your ladies.
Also, it’s important to know the amount of time you’ll be spending with your girls each week.
Like any pet or domestic animal, chickens require daily attention. Most hens lay eggs through spring and summer and into the fall, provided they have 12 to 14 hours of daylight, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Expect to collect eggs daily or even twice a day.
In all, you can count on three visits to your henhouse per day, Country Living writes. Once a week, schedule a time to clean out the coop and lay fresh bedding.
4. Want blue eggs? There’s a hen for that.
When choosing which breed of chicken to raise, you should first ask yourself a few questions, according to The Happy Chicken Coop.
First, why are you raising chickens? Some breeds are better for egg production while others are better for meat. The second question to ask is how much time do you want to spend caring for your chickens each week. Finally, you should keep climate top of mind. Some breeds fare better than others in cold-weather conditions.
If you’re a beginner at backyard chickens, your best bet is to choose a breed that not only will be great egg layers but also have relatively calm demeanors.
Keeping these in mind, the best beginner breeds are:
- Rhode Island Red
- Hybrid breeds (i.e., Golden Comets)
- Buff Orpington
- Plymouth Rock
Once you get a feel for raising chickens, you might open your coop to other breeds such as the Easter Egger, which is known for laying greenish or blue eggs.
5. Know the risks.
Even if your chickens are healthy and your coop is sparkling clean, that doesn’t mean harmful bacteria isn’t lurking among your birds and eggs. Chickens can harbor dangerous bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli, so it’s important to wash your hands thoroughly after all contact chickens and eggs.
While it may seem self-explanatory, here are some other things not to do with your chickens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Don’t kiss or snuggle your chickens.
- Don’t let them in the house, especially in areas where food is prepared.
- Don’t eat or drink where chickens live or roam.
- Have a specific pair of shoes you wear when doing chicken chores. Leave them outside when you’re done and don’t wear them in the house.
Safety also applies to eggs, the CDC says.
- Collect eggs often. Eggs left to sit can become dirty or break.
- Dirty eggs can be cleaned carefully with fine sandpaper, a brush or a cloth.
- Don’t wash warm, fresh eggs. Cold water can pull germs into the egg.
- Throw away cracked eggs.
- Refrigerate eggs after collection.
Ready to become a chicken parent? Local farm supply stores, such as Tractor Supply Co., usually have chicks available seasonally. You can also purchase them in person or online from a hatchery.
Pro tip: Only purchase from a hatchery certified by the National Poultry Improvement Plan.