So you want chickens.
First, you have to ask yourself – is it legal? There are some places in the US where it is not lawful to have chickens living at your house, though at the time we got ours in Seattle, the legal limit for this “sexy urban pet” was three. This great resource from Seattle Tilth about keeping chickens includes a link to the watchdog group on chicken laws.
Second, you have to ask yourself, am I the chicken type? If you are the kind of person who, as a kid, would do ANYTHING NUT clean out the hamster poop from the cage, you may not have the inner strength needed to handle live bawking chickens. There is poop my friend. There is poop indeed.
Chickens are more high-maintenance than cats –the kitties you can leave alone in the house for a weekend or a week and they will be fine with the proper automated water/feed dishes. For chickens, water and feed bowls tend to need cleaning/refilling every three days, and in the winter, their water can freeze which is a severe problem for the chickens. If you have a coop like the Omlet Eglu and have three chickens, there is no room in the coop for a water dish – if you lock the chickens in at night for warmth or to protect from predators, someone has to be up at the crack of dawn to let those chickens out or they can die of dehydration (they don’t seem to mind stacking themselves like sardines at night in the coop).
That said, though you have to be home, it’s not labor-intensive to keep the chickens the way we do. The J reports it’s a little over an hour a week of heavy duty poop removal and coop moving (we move our coop around the yard so the chickens have new areas to dig up and fertilize).
Third, can your yard take it?
We have a postage-stamp sized yard that barely accommodates the chickens well enough that grass can regrow where they lay waste and dig up the ground. Think of chickens as a constantly squawking rototiller – they love bugs and worms, and their nature is to root around and dig up things. Our lawn’s soil needed the aeration and fertilizer having rotating chicken presence would provide and we are ok with our yard looking like an English meadow (the parts that are waiting to be dug up by the chickens, I mean). People who have gardens, will want to keep the chickens away from the fruits of the harvest. People who pride themselves on having a lawn that you could invite golf pros to walk on probably should keep chickens on another estate. (Insert languid duchess wave of hand here…)
The other answer, if you have garden/golf course on your property you don’t want ruined, is to keep the coop in one spot and do the “wood shaving” method (remember that hamster cage above? Same idea). We put the chicken coop under the deck in the winter during Seattle’s freak snow season to keep them out of the snow and slightly warmer (as it was closer to the house. The other reason of course is in winter, the lawn doesn’t grow back at all, so it’s no fun for the chickens anyway to get the coop moved around.
Fourth, will your pets/neighborhood animals/ neighbors be jealous? This matters more if you decide to let the chickens run free in your yard (maybe you have a bigger yard or true acreage – they will automatically go into the coop each night regardless). We have cats and even with the chickens loose, the chickens’ claws and size relative to the cats means the chicken’s don’t get messed with (and Bossy Chicken least of all). However, we’ve heard of other chickens being carried off (hawks, stray dog, coyotes) in the Puget Sound region so think carefully about protecting your chicken from predators.
We’ve had an interesting experience where now our neighbors who have small kids bring them into our yard and show off the chickens each day to their kids. It’s a little unnerving seeing people just walk into your yard, but you can expect to be a curiosity (at least until all your neighbors invest in chickens) for a while. Hopefully your neighbors are not the egg-rustling type.
Our closest neighbors grew up with chickens and/or don’t care about the noise. There’s no rooster, which is a mercy, (they were also illegal in the city limits when we got ours) but they do fuss at times about nothing, and it helps that the neighborhood just doesn’t care about the chicken audio.
Fifth, will chicken steading ruin my image as urban hipster?
The J and I bought our chicken setup and chickens really after urban chickens started becoming popular in Seattle but not at the height of the boom (it’s still ongoing). Other cultural associations – that poor people keep chickens, that only rural people keep chickens – may have more credence in your area. Ironically we bought ours as avian flu was all over the news – at this writing, that stigma/worry has subsided.
Honestly, though keeping chickens is cool, keeping chickens will not ensure that people think YOU are cool. You have to be in it for the all-day comedy show that is Chicken TV, and really not expect the chickens to move upward from dumber than a bunch of rocks.
And finally – remember these guys have dino brains. Literally. If you have a kid, it will get smart. Even our cats learned how to unlock doors over time. The chickens, as The J noted, behave like a really badly designed video game AI module. Even though they have passed through the chicken run door a million times, that doesn’t mean they understand it’s a door when they are outside the coop setup . Sitting next to a chicken, it is the dinosaur, you are the Einstein. Trust us on this one.
So think carefully. Other blog posts on this site will tackle our setup so people can see how it works and whether it would be good for them.