I had dreamed about keeping chickens for over a decade by the time I finally was able to take the plunge. I’d talked about it, read about it, saw a documentary about it. The minute I knew I’d finally have a green space, chickens leaped onto my radar. When I told her I was going to start a flock, my chicken-keeping friend Denice warned me that I would lose a lot of time because of it. “Not because taking care of chickens is difficult,” she explained. “But because you will spend hours just mesmerized by them.” She was right. Listening to them cluck in their musical way and watch them scratching and pecking, especially in the middle of NYC, makes me feel absolutely zen. Further, I chose 8 heritage-breed hens who are beautiful to behold and who lay beautiful eggs: my Cuckoo Marans lay chocolate brown eggs, my Araucanas lay light blue eggs, and my Red-Laced Blue Wyandotte lays pink eggs. What I never would have imagined is how many families tell me that how badly they’d like to keep chickens when they see mine—and that’s not just the kids, that’s the parents! We have an innate longing to be connected to animals, to nature and to our food.
Keeping chickens for eggs is quite simple, and is quite a bit easier than many other pets. To have a steady supply of delicious eggs—and yes, they do taste better than the kind you get in the store—you need only a few things to get started:
- Investigate local laws and ordinances. New York City, for example, allows unlimited chickens (within the limits of everyone’s health and hygiene and animal protection) but no roosters (whose crowing can be a nuisance).
- Build or procure a henhouse, which is a space calculated to the number of chickens you intend to keep, and must be protected from the elements (hot sun, cold winds, rain and snow).
- Obtain organic, non-GMO feed and good, non-toxic bedding.
- Obtain chicks or chickens.
How much space do I need to keep chickens?
Less than you may think.
How many eggs will I get per year? Don’t I need a rooster for hens to lay eggs?
Hens lay automatically somewhere between 4-7 times per week during brighter days, less in the shorter daylight hours of winter. Depending on the breed, each hen will lay up to 300 eggs per year. And no, you don’t need to keep roosters for your hens to lay eggs—roosters are only necessary if you want to hatch chicks.
What do I do with chickens in the winter?
Some chicken breeds are cold-hardier than others. I chose chickens that do well in cold climates. I don’t bring my hens inside in the winter—they love to scratch and explore outdoors all winter long (though they are not huge fans of snow). They stay warm wearing their gorgeous down coats and at night, they are happy to roost all cuddled next to each other in their henhouse. I don’t keep a heater in there either, but even in colder climates than NYC, most folks who keep chickens do no more than run a simple lightbulb to the henhouse to keep the chickens a bit warmer. We do run a simple temperature-triggered warmer to keep their water from freezing.
Do chickens smell bad? Will I have to shovel chicken poop all the time?
I’m a fan of easy. We offer the chickens scraps left over from our table, and they kindly eat it and provide me with nutrient dense chicken manure. Every week we sprinkle a layer of pine shavings over the chicken run and the mixture composts over the course of the year. There is no smell except the fresh shavings. In the winter, this composted bedding keeps them warm. In the spring, we shovel it all out—that’s once a year!–and allow it to compost in a wheelbarrow for a month or two (exposed composting in NYC can be tricky and attract rats if you’re not VERY careful) before spreading it throughout the garden. So, no, we are not shoveling manure regularly nor does our coop smell.
Do I have to wash eggs?
As long as the nesting boxes are clean and the eggs are clean, I neither wash the eggs nor refrigerate them. Instead, I rely on the bloom of the egg to protect them from bacteria and try to eat them within 3 weeks of gathering them. Saves me room in the fridge and protects us from bacteria…naturally.
What happens if a chicken gets sick?
Vets tend not to be very well-versed in chicken health these days, but frankly, chickens tend to be very healthy when they live as they’re meant to live. This means fresh greens and bugs and worms, time in sun (even in the winter—this is critical), fresh clean water, and a cozy place that protects them from the elements. I have some tricks up my sleeve when I hear a chicken cough or sneeze (yes, they can catch colds in the winter just like the rest of us). Especially in very cold or very hot months, I make sure to add a bit of fermented apple cider vinegar and blackstrap molasses to their water. If a hen does cough and sneeze, I make a weak elecampane root tea to add to their water and their symptoms generally clear right up. If I notice the chicken poop is runny, I might add some food grade diatomaceous earth or a bit of yogurt to their feed. We also sprinkle a bit of clove powder in their nesting box bedding as a way to deter mites and such.
Do chickens attract rodents or predators?
Chickens are essentially prey. So predators are attracted to henhouses. This can include, opposums, raccoons, weasels, coyotes, bears, hawks, even the occasional cat or dog. Some of these predators are incredibly clever and can actually open the latch of the chicken coop door. Others may try to dig their way in. Our tricks were to dig a ditch under our chicken run and line it with hardware cloth. This has paid off well. We also kept our latch up high and made it a complex one in the hopes we’d avoid raccoons. In NYC, we have more rodents than predators, but even we have lost a hen to a hawk. As for rats and mice who may be attracted to chicken feed, scraps or droppings, we mix some cayenne powder into the feed. Cayenne doesn’t bother poultry but does bother mammals, so they tend to be less interested.
Can I raise chickens for meat as well?
Certain breeds of chicken are better egg-layers, others are better for meat, and some are good for both. You should investigate which breeds will serve your needs best. Healthy hens can live for over a decade, long after their egg-laying prime. Some people can’t imagine ever slaughtering their hens no matter how old they become. Others feel it is respectful to humanely slaughter and eat the chickens as compared to what happens in most egg-laying settings. Our egg-laying hens are as pets to us and we do not eat them. That said, older hens were traditionally used for soups and stews and were considered the most flavorful though they were tough. Since we’ve seen grocery stores both in the United States (legally) and in Canada (illegally) change sell-by dates of chicken, and by the time they’ve gotten there they’ve been fed arsenic and antibiotics and dunked in chlorine, perhaps it makes good sense to raise for meat if you can!
How do I know whether my eggs are fresh or not? Raw or boiled?
The freshness of the eggs makes a tremendous difference in the quality of food, especially if you’re eating boiled or poached eggs or making your own mayonaisse. Fresh eggs sink in water, while staler eggs (over a week old) will float. When cracked, a fresh egg has three layers: a runny albumin around the edge, a firm and jelly-like albumin, and the yolk firmly in the center on top. The staler eggs have a much more liquid albumin. Spin eggs on the countertop to determine if they’re cooked: boiled eggs spin much faster than raw.
Why keep chickens?
- Eggs that are fresh, free-range, and organic. When you know what your chickens eat, you know what’s in your eggs. Small numbers of chickens kept in clean conditions lay eggs with much lower risk of contamination.
- A supply of fertilizer rich in trace minerals and microbes for soil
- Exceptionally delicious eggs that can’t be compared with the factory farmed stuff
- Chemical-free pest and weed control. Hens love to eat things like slugs and ticks.
- Fun, friendly and decorative pets with personality: Children enjoy watching chickens, gathering eggs, and knowing where their food comes from.