how to raise and care for backyard chickens
Last week I found a mouse in my purse. I like to claim that I’m a little bit country and a little bit rock n roll but honestly, I’m mostly just rock n roll. I like the country in the abstract. I like think i could spend my days tending to goats, baking pies, relishing in the silence and sounds of nature and taking a break to read on the front porch with lemonade I made from lemons that I picked from a tree that I grew from a seed. I’ve tried to grow things from seeds before. Months later there’s still no sign of germination. I sew and craft but that hardly makes me the picture perfect vision of country life. But, I’m trying.
I try not to forget to water the tomato plants in my backyard. I try to eat organically and close to the earth. I even baked a cake from scratch and made homemade marshmallows. But, I’ve never milked a cow or lived anywhere besides the suburbs or a city. So it hardly makes sense that I would find myself in four-wheel drive with a real estate agent and the owner of a 168-acre property that houses a summer camp. But there I was in the back seat touring the grounds, pulling up to the mess hall, the cabins, the old barn and eventually the pond. First off, I’m in no financial position to buy a shack in the middle of nowhere let alone a 168-acre property but I’ve dreamed for years of owning a small hotel with cabins where guests come for family meals and learning retreats. Every once in a while, I search online for properties and sometimes I find one that looks perfect and go on a tour. Which is exactly what I was doing the day I found a mouse in my purse.
Just as the SUV stopped at the pond I looked down at my purse and there it was, a tiny gray furry ball. When confronted with actual nature, my rock n roll instincts take over. In an instant I was out of the car waving my arms wildly and exclaiming, “ummm… I think there’s a mouse in my purse.” The real estate agent, property owner and my husband seth all calmly got out of the car. The real estate agent was cupping the mouse in her hand, admiring it like was a piece of jewelry or art or anything other than a rodent. She then brought her hands to the ground and let the mouse go.
“it’s just a little field mouse,” she said.
That was the point that I realized I wasn’t quite ready to make my farm hotel dream come true. I know how to run a business, market the living daylights out of it on a shoestring budget and create a lovely space for people to learn skills to live and work from scratch. What I don’t know however is the first thing about living on a farm.
Pets were not a part of my childhood due to my germ-obsessed mother. “Animals are dirty dirty creatures just waiting to spread disease,” she’d say. After a dozen years of consistent begging, my mother finally gave in and I got a goldfish, who died two weeks later. After an elaborate backyard funeral with an even more elaborate grave site complete with a hand-painted plaster of paris headstone, I stopped asking for a pet.
In college I got a cat. It was a stray a waitress at the bar where I worked found in a dumpster on her way home. I named her Buffalo and crocheted her a collar and leash. I took Buffalo on her on her first outing, setting out for a walk with her all dressed up in her fancily crafted collar and leash down to my local bar for a cocktail. Apparently unlike dogs, cats do not like to be walked. I ended up sort of walking/dragging her for a block and then picked her up and carried her the rest of the way. I spent the next ten years learning what cats do and do not like. Then my brother gave me a small dog, nina who did like going for walks. I lost Buffalo after a break-up that left me moving in with my aunt Delilah who’s allergic to cats. The ex took the cat. It seemed one pet per person was quite enough and I’ve stuck to that rule until now.
when I got home from viewing the property and the mouse incident I started thinking about Buffalo and how poorly things went when I took her bar hopping. I thought about actually living on a farm one day and how I should probably brush up on my knowledge of caring for animals. I needed to start somewhere and last week I broke my cardinal rule of one pet person in the house (seth has a cat) and decided to get serious about chickens.
Naturally I wanted to build my own crafty chicken coop but a friend happened to stop by just as we were leaving for the hardware store and said he’d seen some at Costco. A few hours later seth and I were putting together our pre-fab Costco chicken coop and digging a trench around it to sink a chicken wire fence to keep our three new hens safe. Luckily we live in a fairly rural area with a farm store close by. The clerk walked us through how to care for and raise our new chickens.
Of course we ignored instruction number one. Keep them in the coop for four days so they get used to their new home. We let them out into their ‘yard’ protected by our 2.5 feet of chicken wire. At first all was well and good. They clucked, nibbled the chicken scratch and dug around in the hay. Then we decided to let Nina out. nina walked up to the ‘fence’ and within seconds one chicken half hopped half flapped out into the yard. The other two chickens looked at what the first hen had done thinking, “oh yeah, we totally forgot we could sort of fly.” And then all three of them were loose.
Seth and I spent the next three hours trying to wrangle the chickens back into the coop using all sorts of techniques… trying to corner them, trapping them in a sheet or lovingly calling them back home. None of these worked. we gave up. I imagined raccoons would take our hens and started picking out a good place to bury them and designing headstones. Then, at dusk, all three ladies shyly returned to the coop. it’s now been nearly two weeks and somehow our hens are still alive. Now, they have names. Now, they along with out cat and dog, they are part of our family.
As I’m sitting here writing this at night, I hear a rustle in the fallen leaves in our yard. I look up and find a raccoon with its’ silver eyes a few feet from the chickens and me. The raccoon stares at me straight on. I grab my laptop and run into the house seeking seth’s protection and asking him if a raccoon can kill a person. He laughs, heads out back and sternly yells in the direction I saw the raccoon, “get out of here.” The raccoon disappears.
I think about using this tactic the next time I find an animal in a place where it shouldn’t be, like my purse. I’ll simply ask it to leave and hopefully like the raccoon, it will. In the meantime I’m doing plenty of research on chickens and learning as I go.
Here are some tips for novice backyard chicken owners:
1. chickens can sort of fly, so make your fence tall
2. keep their water container off the ground or they’ll kick up hay and dirt into it
3. build a contraption for their food container that raises it six to eight inches off the ground and is also covered. This will eliminate them dirtying it up (see #2) as well as making it just a little bit harder for interloping animals to get at it.
4. chicken scratch and human food are treats, not a food source
5. dig a trench for your fence so raccoons and other unwanted potential feasters of hens can’t burrow under the fence and into the coop
6. make it easy on yourself. start with poulettes (young chickens) instead of chicks.
7. get some Diatomaceous earth and sprinkle it on the ground in and around your coop. this deters all sorts of creatures.
8. check your city ordinances to see if you’re allowed to have chickens and if so, how many. Most city’s determine this based on the square footage of your property.
*these are just my week one tips, stay tuned for more tips as well as a tutorial on how to build a box to raise and protect your chicken food!
Do you have any tip or tricks for raising backyard chickens?