Getting backyard chickens

Admittedly more than 500 words on my weirdest hobby.

Last year, when I told my friends that I had five baby chicks in a Tupperware container in my guest room, their faces smiled and nodded, but their eyes screamed: this bitch has finally lost it.

Thankfully, none of their staged interventions worked, and I got to live out my dream of wasting my youth away by behaving like a 70-year-old depression-era West Virginian.

I’m not here to tell you that raising chickens is easy. Turns out the closest thing Bill Gates’ internet has to a trusted source of chicken information is a collection of public forums from 1998, maintained by people with screen names like ~*hEnLuVr6*~ and WillCockForADoodle. These people put framed photos of their dead chickens in the coop for their living chickens to look at, and I’m expected to ask them what to do if my chicken’s comb shrivels up?

It’s lawless.

Despite this, I’ve managed to keep my urban flock alive for a year, save for a few close encounters with wild animals and engorged crops.

If you, too, are nursing a secret dream of raising a flock of chickens with absolutely no farm experience, here are seven things to *at least consider* before bringing home a box of cute little dinosaur birds.

1. Your friends are right: raising chicks in the guest room of your 900 square foot house is kinda gross.

When you bring home your box of baby chicks, they’ll need to live under a brooder light until their feathers come in, usually around 6–7 weeks old. For me, that meant they were in a giant Tupperware container in my guest room, but I would highly recommend a garage.

They’re loud, messy, and can get a little stinky as they get bigger. Once they hit two or three weeks, they’ll be able to fly right over the sides of the brooder, so you’ll want a screen to lay over it and something to weigh it down.

Especially if they’re inside, you’ll need to clean out the brooder once a week, which means you’ll need an alternate box to put the birds in while you scrub. You also have to clean out their food and water every day—they’re little assholes and kick up all the shavings into everything. Also, poop.

All of this in a small house is…a lot.

2. No, a $200 coop is not going to cut it.

I kept my first five girls (I now have seven) in a cheap, prefab “coop” that I ordered from a big box store for the first few months. The reviews were decent, it was easy enough to put together, and it said it would house eight chickens, no problem.

I’m going to tell you right now: you’re either going to need to buy a very expensive coop, or build your own.

The cheap ones will make your life miserable. First, they’re impossible to clean; second, your chickens will be completely miserable.

Chickens need a decent amount of space to forage and find spots to dust bathe. Keeping them all in those tiny prefab “runs” is just not feasible. And no, you’re not going to let them free range all over your yard every day. More on that later.

When you’re looking for a coop (or designing one), make sure you can fit a shovel in there. You’re going to be shoveling a lot of poop. I’m talking like a wheelbarrow full every week.

You’ll need roosting bars that can fit everyone (about 1 ft per bird), nesting boxes (they all like to share, so plan for 1 for every 3 birds), lots of ventilation, and a secure door. I have the ChickenGuard automatic door that operates on a timer, which is truly my favorite piece of technology ever invented. Chickens automatically go into their coop when it starts getting dark, and as long as it’s set to go down shortly after dark, you can rest assured that your girls are safe.

I threw in some windows and insulation because I am a world-class chicken mother, thank you very much.

I built this coop (which is still standing!) with $350 of lumber, a decent drill, a compact circular saw, salvaged windows and a door, and zero plan. Also: zero experience. I promise you, you can do this.

3. You will be up to your elbows in chicken shit.

There will be poop everywhere. EVERYWHERE.

Chickens shit 24 hours a day. Even—actually, especially—while they sleep.

This is why I said you won’t want them free ranging every day. It’s cute at first; so dreamy when you’re on a work call and look up to see a happy little chicken clucking past your window!

But eventually, explaining to friends that they shouldn’t go outside in sandals gets embarrassing.

Also, I don’t care how well-mannered your dog is: it is a universal rule that dogs love chicken shit. They want to be the chicken shit. They. will. roll. in. the. chicken. shit.

Ultimately, I ended up building a 5 foot tall fence around my coop that gives them plenty of room to range during the day, and keeps them (and their poop) contained.

Oh, and what do you do with all that poop? There’s going to be SO much of it (plus shavings from the coop) that if you don’t already, you’ll definitely want to start a compost pile. It makes excellent fertilizer for your gardens. Don’t garden? Well, you do now.

4. Chickens are destructive little terrorists that hate pretty landscaping and are undeterred by pretty much everything.

Back in the days of free ranging, I tried everything to keep my chickens out of my garden. Bird netting, bits of fencing, natural deterrents, landscape fabric. All of it. None of it worked.

“But why keep them out of the garden?” you might ask. Aren’t they good for it?

Yes, chickens will fertilize your soil and eat up all the bugs you don’t want in there. They’ll also dig your shit UP.

They kick the soil back to try to find the good grubs and dig holes all over the place for dust baths. They’ll eat up all your seedlings and spread weed seeds as they go. Mine tore up my brand new flower beds, kicking the mulch six feet in every direction, in a matter of thirty minutes. In short: they are garden terrorists. Build a fenced run.

5. Chickens are dramatic AF.

After my first chicken laid her first egg, she ran away for four days in an act of teenage rebellion. She was caught on my house security cameras just casually strolling down the sidewalk, heading off for a new life.

I knew immediately that she was dead (because tell me how a chicken survives with no food, water, or shelter in a neighborhood full of stray cats and coyotes?), but four days later, I heard her screaming on the other side of the fence, announcing her return.

See? Dramatic.

This is when I learned how to clip chickens’ feathers. It’s quick and painless, but you’ll want to do it at night (with a headlamp) while they’re docile in their coop. It’s basically just a feather trim on one side so they are unbalanced when they try to fly. And yes, chickens can fly. It’s wild.

More drama: Chickens have a pretty intense pecking order that requires an absurd amount of care when introducing new chickens. They’ll literally kill each other if you don’t do this correctly. To this day, my “new” chickens get their asses kicked every time they step a talon out of line.

Oh, and the noises. They scream. Holler for hours after they lay a particularly large egg. Are just constantly shouting for no reason—especially when you have something they want.

You’ll know when they’re of laying age because they’ll start cowering down every time they see you (their rooster, as it turns out), waving their ass in the air if you reach down to pet them. It’s indecent. It’s a little startling. It’s dramatic. Case in point.

6. Chickens are basically dinosaurs. It’ll either take an astroid or one slightly off worm to kill them.

I’m convinced at least one of my chickens is facing certain death on nearly a weekly basis. Their comb will look weird, or they’ll stop laying eggs, or I’ll hear them sneeze, and mother_clucker04 from the chicken forum will tell me they’re doomed. The list of potential chicken maladies is endless (and disgusting).

For my purposes, chicken vets aren’t really a thing. Especially for small urban flocks, most vets won’t see chickens, or if they do, they won’t do house visits. There’s no way to get prescriptions through a televet. Even things as simple as a dewormer require a prescription—or you can improvise with pigeon dewormer, some serious math, and prayer.

Here’s what I’ve learned: chickens are exceptionally hardy animals. They’re dinosaurs! They need a safe, clean, dry place to sleep, fresh food and water (that isn’t frozen), and some shade and cool water on really hot days, but otherwise, these bitches are survivors.

It’s true that there’s all kinds of shit that can do your chicken in. A diseased worm that they eat, a compacted egg, an inexplicable respiratory disease. That’s farm life, baby. Do your best to give them the tools to survive, and let them do the rest.

(I wrote this as I prepared tonight’s dosage of “chicken Vicks,” which I will apply under each of their wings while they sleep to keep their little airways clear. Do as I say, not as I do.)

7. After a year, after all of this bullshit, you’ll realize that you find them…kind of cute?

After several months of wondering why in the world your friends didn’t talk you out of this, you’ll get your first egg. Then your second. Then your thousanth. Your chickens will start hollering and crowding around the door when they see you walk outside.

If you’ve never seen a flock of chickens running toward their human…it’s ridiculous.

But also, kind of cute.

I guess this makes me a chicken lady.

%d bloggers like this: