Maybe you’re tired of paying $6 for free-range eggs (that might not be so free-range), or perhaps you want an unusual backyard inhabitant. Regardless, we seem to be in the age of the urban chicken, though to date it seems to be more talk than action; most backyards in New Westminster seem to be distressingly poultry free.
New Westminster, unlike Vancouver, has had a by-law on the books regulating the keeping of chickens since the late 1960s (bylaw 4271, drafted in 1967 and passed in 1968).
The by-laws are a little restrictive – your lot has to be 6000 square feet in size, the poultry house must be 50 feet from the nearest inhabited building, and the chicken coop must be more than 2 or more feet from the property line.
Obviously this doesn’t fit well with most urban lots, and is not nearly as relaxed as the new by-laws passed recently in Vancouver.
I’d hummed and hawed about talking to the city about possibly relaxing their by-laws, but then I’d heard that the city officials weren’t enforcing the letter of the (by-)law unless a neighbour complained, so I stopped worrying about getting the rules changed, and instead, focused on getting chickens.
Step one – select a breed of chicken. Like most domesticated animals, there are many breeds of chickens, with pros and cons for each, so you need to pick the breed that exemplifies the qualities you desire. I wanted a large, dual purpose chicken (eggs and meat) that was a good egg producer and would be somewhat personable. The Australorp fit the bill, and seemed very chicken-ish in looks.
Step two – try to find a breeder. I discovered that small specialty breeders are actually quite hard to find; many don’t seem to know much about the internet. I started checking Craigslist – in my mind, a cost-effective way for the small breeder to advertise – but there were few listings, fewer for the breed I wanted, and I didn’t get a warm-fuzzy-feeling from any of them.
I moved to searching online, to see if I could get chicks sent by parcel post; believe it or not, mail-order chicks are very popular (at least south of the border), and apparently the chicks will do just fine in a box for a day or two.
I was slightly relieved to not find any companies that were close enough to mail the chicks; I was hesitant about sending infant chickens by mail, and had a vision of a box of dead, fluffy yellow chickens showing up on my door step. If the kids caught sight of that, the therapy would continue for years.
Then I came across The Fraser Valley Poultry Fancier Association (http://www.fvpfa.org/), and discovered that they had a winter show where breeders and chicken keepers would show their prize livestock. I convinced family and friends that were interested in chickens to make an outing of it. The show was very interesting, but the real find turned out to be the show’s program, which had a long and varied list of breeders in and around Greater Vancouver.
I ended up contacting several breeders. Most didn’t want to part with their young chickens, and some were a delightful combination of rude and strange. We finally found a breeder who was willing to part with three chickens “on the point of lay”, but there was a catch – it would be 6-8 months.
Here’s a quick lesson on chicken terminology (and biology) before proceeding: female adult chickens are hens, male adult chickens are roosters, juvenile female chickens are called pullets, and their male equivalents are called cockerels. A chicken typically is considered to be “on the point of lay” at about 6 months. A hen does not need a rooster to lay an egg, but a rooster has to be involved if you want the egg to hatch.
Step three – figure out where to keep your chickens. The most common choice seems to be the chicken ark – a portable coop that has an area enclosed by wire mesh, and a wooden hut for sleeping and laying. I found plans for one on the internet (http://catawbacoops.com/) and spent a weekend (and a few evenings) gathering materials and building it.
The last thing you need to do before getting your chickens is to gather the supplies you’ll need. There isn’t much – food, grit, a feeder, and a water container. The food part is obvious, and Otter Co-Op (Aldergrove) sells an organic “laying feed” (designed to meet the nutritional requirements of a laying bird) – $15 for a 45lb bag, and that bag has feed our chickens for 3 months. You can also make your own – there is lots of information on the internet, but it can be complicated sourcing things. Grit is small, rough stones the birds keep in their gullets to help grind up their food (they are essentially a chicken’s teeth). A feeder is just a food holder – it’s less wasteful (and less likely to attract rodents) than scattering it on the ground, and a water container should be self explanatory.
Chickens also make quick work of some kitchen scraps – peelings from carrots, apples, pineapple, bananas and other fruit, especially berries (we feed them the leftovers, the brown bits that the kids won’t eat, etc). It’s fun to roll the berries around, and have the chickens chase them.
They also like pasta, crackers, and other grain products (but can get gummed up if they eat too much). We also add flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and finely crushed egg shell to their feed from time to time. Because there are free-range in the back yard, they also eat grass, seeds, worms and other bugs, and all the leaves off my wife’s prized beet crop.
The day we got the chickens, we immediately liberated them into the back yard. Unfortunately, when it came for them to roost at nightfall, they had no idea that their ark was their accommodations. We spent some time in the dark, chasing chickens, and pulling them out of rhododendron trees. It took two nights of us placing them in their ark at night before they figured it out, and they learned to put themselves to bed. I would recommend keeping them penned up under their ark for a couple of days to save yourself the joy of the chicken round-up.
Chickens being chickens
If you are going to let your chickens free-range, you have to consider the risks from other animals. A full grown chicken can take on a cat, but don’t stand a chance against a dog. Raccoons are very real threat as well, and are the reason we secure the chickens every night. Our dog has a high prey-drive, so it took a few weeks to teach her that the chickens (like the cat) were off limits. She’s pretty good now.
Ruby thinking about a chicken buffet
And now to the reason (presumably) you want chickens – the eggs. The Australorp was a famed egg producer prior to the industrial-farming movement. The average Australorp will produce 250-300 eggs, and one Australorp set a world record, laying 364 eggs in 365 days. The production of eggs is linked to the amount of light the chicken gets over the day (modern egg producers cheat with artificial light), and the colour of the egg is determined by the colour of the chickens ear lobes
A chicken will lay heavily for about 2 years, and then the production of eggs will start to decline. A domestic chicken can live for 17 years, however. You need to decide what you will do with your chickens when they hit menopause (or as I like to think of it, egg-o-pause). If they are pets, then eggs are a side benefit. But if food is the idea, then you’ll have a hard decision to make a few years down the road.
A piece of advice – don’t run around promising your neighbours the excess from your anticipated glut of eggs – it takes a while to for them to get up to speed. So far, of our three chickens, one is laying, and in the last 3 months, we’ve gotten 2 dozen eggs. We should get 2-3 eggs a day in the spring and summer, but you never know.
When I get asked the inevitable, four-times-a-week, question of when they will lay, or why they aren’t laying more, I grumpily answer, “I’m not sure – perhaps you should go ask them.” The point of all this is, it’s unlikely that you will be awash in eggs when you first get your chickens, even if your chickens are at the so-called “point-of-lay.”
Should you decide to get chickens, you’ll be inevitably be asked these questions:
- Will they get avian flu? It’s unlikely in a small, isolated flock, not nearly as likely as in industrial setting with thousands of birds crammed into cages.
- Will they attract rats? If you leave the food out, you get pests, just like if you left the remains of a picnic outside.
- Don’t they smell? Not really. You do need to clean out their ark once a week. We lay newspaper, and put it straight in the compost.
- Are they noisy? Chickens are pretty quiet, certainly quieter than a barking dog, or fighting cat. Just don’t get a rooster (it’s against the by-laws).
- What do you do with them in the winter? Chickens can handle subzero temperatures– they puff up their feathers, and huddle together. We are looking at getting a small light bulb in a can to provide some supplementary heat if it gets really cold.
There are a few down-sides that we’ve noticed,
- They will eat unprotected fruit; we have 3 blueberry plants, and half-a-dozen strawberry plants. By the time we got the chickens, the fruit season was mostly over, but I would sometimes find a chicken standing on top of a strawberry plant, eating the berries (apples seem to be safe, but I wonder what happens when our grape vine produces). A solution would be to keep them enclosed in a pen on the grass
- They make a lot of poop. Some of the morning “deposits” are as large as our dogs. Fortunately, it’s excellent for the compost – it doesn’t have the same dangerous pathogens as cat and dog poop. It’s still not fun to step in, however, and they seem to like to poop on the sidewalks. Again, an enclosure on the grass would fix the issue. The poop is great for the lawn.
- When going on vacation, you need someone to chicken-sit; this means someone to let them out in the morning, put out food, and then secure them at night and put away the food. Simpler than a dog, but still a complication.
- You have to be careful with food; one of the kids was feeding large handfuls of wheat berries to the chickens, which constipated one of the chickens. It was an experience, giving the chicken an enema.
If you are thinking about chickens, here’s what I’ve experienced so far: you won’t be struggling under a glut of eggs, they are easier to easy to look after than expected (but difficult to acquire), and they’re fun to watch parade around the lawn, pecking at anything that catches their fancy.