Until about 50 years ago, it was common to keep a few chickens on one’s property, however modest the parcel. Three, four, perhaps a dozen hens provided fresh eggs and meat and were available right outside the back door. With our migration to urban centers and suburban sprawl, one of life’s most prized possessions, personal self-sufficiency, was lost. As a consequence of shrinking yard space, chickens were banished to the margins of farm life. At the same time, chicken ranching was growing into an agribusiness, and our progress-driven culture evolved to a chicken-deprived culture. Today, most people don’t even know that hens lay with or without a rooster on the premises, and that brooding is not something you do when you lose your cell phone. We’ve forgotten, or no longer believe, that chickens can be kept simply and easily in small yards: Don’t chickens need a lot of space and care? Don’t they make a really big mess? Don’t they make a lot of noise?
The answer to all of the above is emphatically no. No other farm animal is as adaptable to small-space living as is the chicken. They don’t get too big, don’t need specialized care, and don’t need to be taken out for a walk. Chickens are easy, chickens are fun and chickens are in. Once you realize how little time is required in your busy, overscheduled, progress-driven day to keep chickens, you’ll make the necessary time. It takes about 10 minutes each day to feed and water the hens and to collect their eggs, and caring for your hens will subtly evolve into a pleasurable routine and brief respite from a hectic day.
Chickens don’t need a lot of space for their home and hangout. A chicken’s home is composed of the coop (a fenced outdoor area), and the henhouse (a small shelter located inside the coop). The size and style of your coop and henhouse depend on your creativity, your available yard space, the setback requirements of city code, and the number of hens you expect to keep. Three standard laying hens need a henhouse the size of a large doghouse. They also need an enclosed outdoor coop or pen at least four times the square footage of the henhouse, in which to stretch their legs.
Although not known for being great athletes, chickens do enjoy their daily exercise. For this reason, a roomy coop is most desirable. My girls have plenty of space to dig, dust themselves, and flap their wings. But even if you have a spacious coop, you should let your chickens out into a fenced-in section of your yard a couple times a week, even if only for a couple of hours before sundown. I usually let the girls out between 5 and 6 p.m.
Chickens and the typical city or suburban garden complement each other if set up and maintained the right way. Chickens love to eat bugs and worms. They live for it. Since I started keeping chickens, the pest population in my garden has noticeably decreased. A quick snap of the beak, and the bugs are gone. The girls like to think they are helping me when they’re directly underfoot. If I’m turning soil, they crowd around waiting for me to turn up fresh, juicy worms. When I prune or trim plants and shrubs, or rake a pile of leaves, the girls like to stand by and taste the tossed clippings. They sneak up behind me, grab a twig from the pile, and run off with it as if hoarding a valuable treasure. There’s no need for store-bought pesticides, since the girls eat the bugs. And because they eat the bugs, I don’t use pesticides; the chemicals might harm them. Chickens pick at and taste everything.
In addition to controlling pests, chickens provide top-notch fertilizer; they’re walking nitrogen-rich poop producers, making them natural partners in a complete home recycling program. Since I’ve had the girls, no leftover fruits, vegetables, or breads go to waste. The chickens get it all, which delights them from the tops of their combs to the tips of their feet.
Another fantastic benefit of keeping a small flock of chickens are the delicious eggs you will get. Fresh eggs are very rich. Once you’ve tasted your hens’ eggs from the backyard, store-bought eggs will forever taste bland and light. Just crack open a fresh yard egg and take a look. You’ll notice first that the shell is resilient and tough to crack. Then, you’ll notice the bulging round mound of yolk — it’s more orange than yellow. Then the egg white gets your attention; as it cooks, it becomes the whitest egg white you’ve ever seen. Your cakes and omelets will have more flavor and a denser, richer texture. Pancakes taste sweeter and pies are silkier. Chicken eggs are as chickens eat: If you feed your chickens a healthy, balanced diet, the eggs they lay for you will always be sweet and tasty. Keeping small flocks of colorful hens for me is like celebrating a live art form, with egg dividends daily. •
Jeffrey currently resides in central San Antonio with his Chocolate Lab Beau Dog and the six girls from Portland. Please send him your questions, comments, photos, and stories: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two great feed stores in town:
Locke Hill Pet Feed & Yard Supply
4927 Golden Quail
Alamo Feed & Pet Supply
2230 Blanco Road