Realistic Chickening

Charlyn Ellis’s hens Bertha, Blondie, Aussie, Rosie and Amelia peck at an ear of corn outside their lightweight, A-frame coop.

With the rise of home gardens and urban homesteads, backyard chickens are getting more popular as a source of eggs, fertilizer, meat, or as part of a home-based ecosystem. Here are some questions to consider as you decide whether backyard chickens are right for you.

1. Why do you want chickens?
This seems like a basic question, but your answer will guide which breeds you choose, your coop design, and your overall patience for experimenting when issues arise. 

Whitney Mount-Rubenfeld, a new owner of three hens in Corvallis, wanted chickens for their eggs—but not to eat. “I bake a lot, and I didn’t want to buy them because the conditions [for commercial eggs] are terrible,” she says. “Another big draw was being able to feed them our food waste—creating more of a closed loop system at home.” 

Charlyn Ellis, chicken owner in Corvallis for 15 years, chose to keep hens for their “chicken tractor” abilities. “They are fertilizer!” she says. After the growing season, she places the coop on top of a different garden bed every month, where the chickens churn their waste into the dirt and straw. “It’s the most effective way to use chickens in an urban setting.”

2. What are the local laws around backyard fowl?
Every city has their own rules governing poultry ownership. 

In Corvallis, there is no limit on the number of chickens as long as they stay on your property. Roosters, while not explicitly mentioned, will likely violate the noise ordinance with their dawn wake-up calls. [Ord. 82-77 § 104.02, 1982; Chapter 5.03.050.020.06]

In Philomath, the laws are more specific. Everyone who wants backyard chickens must apply for a permit, talk with 75% of their adjoining neighbors, and build any coops, hutches, or structures 30 feet away from a city street or sidewalk. The city also lists specifics for coop care and maintenance. Roosters aren’t mentioned but will likely violate the noise ordinance. [Ord. 574 § 8, 1989; Chapter 6.10.080]

Badger is known as an “Easter Egger – a mutt that lays blue eggs,” says Whitney Mount-Rubenfeld.

3. Where will you put them?
There is no universal guideline for how much space a chicken needs, bu t at minimum they need a safe place to sleep, space to move around outside, and access to dry dirt for “dust baths.” One user writes on the popular forum BackyardChickens.com, “I find that the tighter I crowd them the more behavioral problems I am likely to have, the less flexibility I have in dealing with problems, and the harder I have to work.”

For beginners who prefer to start with a guideline, the forum suggests 4 square feet per chicken in the coop and 10 square feet per chicken in the run. 

For the gardeners out there: “Keep them out of your garden beds!” says Charlyn. “The idea that you can have chickens roaming the yard and not have damage is false.”

Charlyn keeps her hens fenced off, while Whitney chooses to fence off her garden and let the fowl roam free for half a day.

4. Are you ready to “muck out”
their coop?

As a new chicken owner, Whitney is still figuring out how to handle the chicken waste and food scraps. “It ended up attracting flies,” she says, “and I made the mistake of putting up fly traps because that attracted more flies. Then the bald-faced hornets sat on top of it catching the flies, and then the yellow jackets went in.” Now Whitney only gives her hens a small amount of food waste in the morning before it gets hot, and she plans to fill the run with gravel and sand to help with drainage. 

Charlyn, meanwhile, has solidified her care process over time. She knocks the waste out of the coop every week, and rakes out the dirt-and-straw underneath once a month.

5. Are you ready for a longer commitment?
“Chickens are ridiculously easy,” says Charlyn. That said, they may live up to 15 years, well beyond their egg laying days which typically last 2-5 years. Chickens need basic attention and care like any other pet you have at home. 

After the growing season, Charlyn Ellis rotates the coop between different garden beds so the hens can fertilize and “tractor” each bed.

Looking Ahead
If you answer yes to these questions, you are ready for research and prep! See the resources below for more specifics, or seek out friends who are willing to teach.

Other Tips
Wash your hands after interacting with anything that might have touched chicken feces—the coop, soil, food and water dishes, etc.—to minimize risk of salmonella.

Talk with your neighbors! The open line of communication will make them feel they can bring any issues straight to you, rather than going through the city complaint process.

Always introduce new chickens in twos or more.

Other Resources
An upcoming poultry swap and homesteading faire – Sept. 29, 10am-4pm, Benton County Fairgrounds. www.oregonpoultryswapinc.com/fall. You can also ask an Expert your poultry question via OSU’s Extension Service. extension.oregonstate.edu/ask-expert 

Beyond that, I recommend a forum for all things fowl. www.backyardchickens.com, as well as this easy-to-read one-stop primer for starting your coop: www.thehappychickencoop.com/raising-chickens.

By Alisha Wang Saville

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