While I am well aware that there are plenty of super thorough websites all about raising chickens, the problem with the Internet is that I often want Regular People Opinion. Not self-proclaimed Chicken Enthusiasts who have poultry inspired bumper stickers, or people who live off the grid and do All Things Natural and wear hemp clothes…but like, basic, everyday, woefully imperfect Suburbanites who want chickens and a veggie garden, but also drive a gas guzzling Suburban. Ahem.
The background here is that we live in the suburbs of California. Our yard is fairly small and well…pretty. We painstakingly installed sod and planted carefully selected flowering bushes and trees when we first moved in. We have four chickens named Hattie, Flo, Elsie, and…Snow White. Also, we have four kids and two dogs. This is who we are. Busy folks who like to incorporate some country livin’ into our decidedly not country life.
We spend as much time outside as possible, and I really like my patio and love to make it pretty.
I bought four baby chicks on a whim one afternoon after doing little (okay, no) research. Clearly not the smartest route, but I’m being honest. Sometimes I’m impulsive. Okay, a lot. This isn’t a comprehensive to-do list, but more of an overall Stuff I Wish I Knew When I Started. If you are looking for more detailed information, this book is a great resource and I highly recommend it.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the almost year we’ve had them:
1. Chickens will ruin your pretty container garden. When we first got our chickens, I thought it would be fun and quaint to let them free range in our yard. And it was quaint. They would wander around, softly clucking and pecking while the kids played and I read a book. It was pretty idyllic ifIdosaysomyself. The problem was that they would eventually turn to scratching and trying to nest in my potted plants creating a mess of potting soil, all but killing my plant, and eating off the pretty blooms. You can imagine I was quite displeased with this. Yes, this picture shows my baby rummaging in the container with a spatula, but that’s what the container looked like after chicken carnage so I gave up and let him have at it.
2. Chickens poop. A lot. No. Really. Like, a lot. Obviously, I expect a live animal to do its business. And I even expected to find chicken poop on my patio. But what I didn’t anticipate was the sheer volume of poop that could possibly come from four lousy birds. It was EVERYWHERE. You could hardly walk without stepping on it, and you certainly couldn’t sit on the patio furniture anymore. And let me be clear: I hosed off my entire patio and everything on it DAILY. Daily. I’m not describing weeks of accumulation. This was just poop to the n-th degree. It was really quite unsanitary.
3. Chickens have big poops. I’ve seen bird poop. But this? This was like a teacup chihuahua’s poop. So not only was there a lot of it, it was obscene in size and splatter zone. Yes, that is gross. I’m trying to prepare you.
4. Chickens also like to ruin your regular garden. They really like to scratch. And one of my chickens especially loves to dig up little holes and lay in them like it’s her own personal royal bed. The problem is that they would often scratch the bark and dirt from my manicured garden area onto the lawn. Not only was this messy, but it was also killing the grass we spent back breaking hours installing.
5. Chickens need space. Not a lot. But some. Once we finally came to terms with the fact that free range wasn’t conducive to our specific yard preferences and family lifestyle, we fenced off a corner of the yard where they could wander around. Their coop has a small “run” built in, but after having let them free range, it seemed awfully tiny. Sure, it’s probably technically okay, but giving them extra space seems like the nice chicken thing to do. Especially if you had just given them the entire yard to wander the day before. On weekends, we’ll still let them roam the yard for bit just for old time’s sake. Also because it’s cute.
6. Chicken clean up is fairly easy. And can be easier if you plan accordingly. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the amount of maintenance involved in cleaning up their space (now that they are contained). That being said, I strongly advise you to make sure the coop you make/buy for them has one of these features: 1) if you’re making/buying a small little coop like the one we have, MAKE SURE THE FLOOR IS A SLIDE OUT TRAY like this coop does. Mine doesn’t, and it’s a hassle trying to rake out the old pine shavings from that little door in the side. I thought the version I was ordering had a pull out tray, but it doesn’t and this grieves me deeply; or 2) build/buy a coop you can actually walk in. Option 2 would make clean up the easiest since you could just rake it all up, but that obviously depends on the look/feel you’re going for and how much space you have.
(My chickens LOVE to hang out in this old Pepsi machine turned planter. We often found an egg in there and Snow White had an especial fondness for watching me cook dinner from that kitchen window. Which was always awkward when I was frying up her cousin.)
7. Chickens can fly. Sort of. Back in our free range days, my husband was hanging out in the backyard when he suddenly heard the neighbors yell “WHERE DID THIS CHICKEN COME FROM?!” Turns out, Hattie had jump/flown over the 6′ fence and wandered into the neighbors’ open back door and strolled right into their kitchen while they were having lunch. Subsequently, Andy yelled “That’s ours! I’ll be right over!” where he then had to chase Hattie around their kitchen and walk back through the neighborhood with live poultry under his arm.
8. Chickens are quiet. The very fact that my next door neighbors (in close quarters suburban tract neighborhood) had no idea where a chicken came from, means that they didn’t even know we had them. Actually, my other neighbor (the one right up against where the coop is kept) didn’t know we had chickens until the kids told them. They cackle when they are laying (hello, labor), but other than that, their clucking is pretty subtle.
9. Speaking of flying, you’ll need to trim their wings. And it’s totally terrifying, only it’s not. Andy and I were practically shaking when we first put a pair of scissors up to those beautiful feathers. It just seemed WRONG. But, it really is like trimming nails. The chickens didn’t even flinch and after that first snip, it was no big deal.
10. Chickens go on egg laying strike. During the shorter days/colder months, chickens quit laying eggs. This is especially annoying since you still have to feed them, but I suppose it could be worse. Some people will put out a heating lamp and basically trick the chickens into thinking it’s still warmer months, but we decided this was more work (and potentially energy bill zapping) than we cared for. The strike lasted a couple of months, and now they are back to laying. I’m okay with that, but I was surprised and thought something was seriously wrong. Nope, totally normal. Back to the store for eggs.
11. Chickens eat a lot. And drink a lot. Must be all that egg laying, but man, I am forever refilling their food and water. I haven’t done the math (mostly because I’m lazy) but I’m pretty sure I spend more money on food than if I just bought eggs at the store. Although that isn’t the reason we have chickens. But in case that was your motivation, I’m not sure you’re gonna see cost savings.
12. Chickens are smart enough to not drink poopy water. But not smart enough to not poop in it in the first place. I was CONSTANTLY having to give them fresh water even when we used this watering doohickey. I highly suggest looking into building something like this. We found chicken nipples (yes, there is such a thing) for super cheap on Amazon. Keeps their water fresh and poop free, and I only have to refill the bucket every couple of weeks. Best $10 I ever spent.
13. Chickens are good cuddlers. We didn’t get chickens with the idea of having them as pets (after all, we have two dogs, a cat, and Abraham the goldfish was still alive at the time), but my son often sits and just cuddles and pets the chickens for the longest time. I’ll often find him out back sitting quietly with one or another. Usually Hattie. Plus, the baby calls them Chi Chi’s, which is pretty much worth the price of feed right there.
14. Fresh eggs are hard to peel. You know how sometimes you boil eggs and the shell comes off easily in almost one big cracked piece? And then other times you pretty much throw the egg across the room because it keeps coming off in microscopic pieces and/or huge slices of egg white stays stuck to it and you end up with basically just the ball of yolk for all your trouble? Well, older eggs are easier to peel. The fresher the egg, the harder it is to peel. People who have 10 or more chickens, keep a separate stash of older “aged” eggs for boiling/peeling. But, with only four chickens, we don’t have enough eggs to do that. So whenever I’m doing something that needs boiled eggs, I buy a carton at the store.
15. Chickens are funnily loyal. For some reason, they’ve adopted me as the Mother Hen. While they are docile and kind to my kids, they literally follow me around the yard the second I step out there. It’s pretty funny. Also, they get along with my dogs and can often be found sleeping next to them like those cute animal pictures people share on Facebook.
16. The novelty of finding freshly laid eggs never wears off. My kids have yet to be bored of bounding into the yard and discover how many eggs to add to the pile. There’s something sweetly simple about this task that keeps me smiling.
Overall, I enjoy having chickens in my small space. Once you give them their own confined space and figure out the kinks, they are a fun, quirky way to teach your kids that food doesn’t grow on grocery store shelves. It’s likely we’ll always have chickens in the yard, especially now that I know the tricks. And who knows? Maybe someday I won’t even have to buy eggs at the store. Besides, if you can’t tell….the kids kinda like them.
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