Some questions that I keep getting asked about my chickens

The back story

I'm a city kid. Never had chickens. Just got curious about it and started reading books.

Last spring I ordered four baby chicks and a baby chick starter kit from http://mypetchicken.com.

The birds hatched on April 8th, and the postal service delivered them to my house the next day.

I kept the chicks in my basement under a heat lamp for the first eight weeks of their lives. When they're babies, they don't have enough feathers to stay warm.

Once they had all their feathers, I moved them to my backyard coop, built by Timothy Riffle (http://hiveandcoop.com).

Are these for eggs or for meat?

Eggs! I eat chicken, but not these four.

What about winter?

This is what everyone wants to know. I was worried about them going into winter. But they all did fine.

There are lots of different breeds of chickens just like there are lots of different breeds of dogs. My breed, the barred plymouth rock, is well adapted to cold weather. In other words, my girls grow lots of very warm feathers and know how to stay warm.

Their coop is not heated, but it gives them a place to go out of the wind and the snow.

I have a heated water dish and they always have clean drinkable water.

I've done a lot of reading and talked to a lot of people on mailing lists and message boards about keeping birds in cold climates. The vast majority of people do not heat their coops.

As long as the chickens have a coop that protects them from the wind, and keeps them dry, and doesn't let moisture build up inside, cold-hardy chickens can handle very cold temperatures.

Do they stink?

Nope.

Their poops break down really quickly. Not like my dog's poops.

As long as their poops can mix with lots of carbon (like pine shavings, or dry leaves, or rich soil) there won't be a stink. Instead, friendly bacteria consume the nitrogen from their waste and combine it with carbon and make humus.

However, if I packed like a hundred birds in the same space, and didn't change their litter very often, then the poops would pile up, the bacteria wouldn't be able to work fast enough.

Instead of decaying quickly into rich garden fertilizer, the poops would convert to ammonia. And that's when it would stink.

Are they noisy?

They're really quiet!

Roosters (male chickens) can be noisy. Cleveland Heights does not allow roosters. Just hens (female chickens).

Most of the time, hens don't want to attract attention to themselves from predators.

They make soft clucking sounds to each other. I don't know what they are saying.

You can hear the quiet sounds they make to each other on these youtube videos of my chickens here.

What are their names?

We didn't name them at first.

I wasn't sure they would all make it to adulthood, and I didn't want my kids to get upset if some died.

Now they have names, but we can still barely tell them apart.

One bird sneezes when she eats, so, she's "sneezy".

One bird is always really curious when people come to the backyard, and she's very friendly, but she also loves to peck at stuff like buttons or painted toenails. We call her "bitey".

The other two are named itchy and scratchy, after the cat and mouse cartoon in the Simpsons.

How many eggs do you get?

I have four hens. They all hatched in April of 2012. I got my first egg in October.

Now I get about three eggs every day. Some days I get two eggs, and other days I get four eggs.

Egg-laying varies based on daylight. When there is very little daylight, hens lay fewer eggs.

In December, my girls almost completely stopped laying eggs. In February, they started laying regularly again.

Do you need a rooster?

You only need a rooster if you want baby chicks.

Hens are just like human females in that they ovulate (lay an egg) regularly. Hens just ovulate way more often -- about every 30 hours or so, instead of once every 28 days.

Based on what I have read, roosters play the role of the protector of the flock. They watch for predators and seek out food sources.

One of my hens clearly plays that role now. I don't know if all the gals democratically elected her or if she bullied her way to the top.

What work do you have to do?

Every morning I do these things:

During the day (optional):

When the sun goes down:

Once a month or so I clean out the coop:

Do they need a house to live in?

Yes! They need a coop for several reasons:

People have been keeping chickens for literally thousands of years, and they are many different styles of coops. Some coops are absolutely gorgeous. Others are made from recycled materials like wooden shipping pallets or scrap lumber.

Search around on youtube or pinterest for inspiration. There's tons of beautiful and creative coops out there.

What kind of predators are there in Cleveland Heights?

All of these are threats to chickens (some more so when the hens are young):

So far, my girls are all doing fine. But I meet people all the time that tell me how some predators killed their hens.

How much did all the equipment cost?

The birds are the cheapest part. Each bird cost about $3. If I bought large volumes of birds, that price would go down.

The starter kit was about $70. The most important thing to get is the heat lamp. But I needed the other stuff like the food and water dishes too.

I spent a lot of money on my coop because I wanted something that people would see and feel good about. I know a lot of people are skeptical about allowing chickens in Cleveland Heights. I'm hoping that having a nice-looking coop will help win them over.

What are the ongoing costs?

That's about it.

Does it pay for itself?

My chickens are not expensive. My wife and I spend more money on our cell phones every month. But strictly speaking, financially, it would be cheaper to buy eggs at the store than keep chickens.

Regular old eggs in the grocery store are dirt cheap. The egg industry focuses on being as efficient as possible.

Meanwhile I treat my birds like pets. I buy them the best food I can find. I don't keep them inside a warehouse with lights on for 24 hours a day in order to boost egg production.

Do you sell the eggs?

I don't sell them, but I give away plenty to friends and neighbors.

The Ohio state law normally requires eggs that are going to be sold to be inspected but it makes a special exception for people that go to the farmer and buy them at the farm: http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/925.10

However, the Cleveland Heights ordinance says we can't sell our eggs. I really wish that my sons could set up a table in the driveway and sell eggs. I think it would teach them a lot about entrepreneurship.

How much space do they need?

They need about two square feet of space to sleep in and as much space as possible during the day.

When they sleep, they like to sleep up off the ground on a perch.

The hens in big egg-laying farms live in cages with less than one square foot of space each. They never get to perch and they never get to forage.

This harsh treatment is part of why I can't compete with their prices.

What are the Cleveland Heights rules?

You need a conditional use permit from the planning commission and then you can have up to four birds. The birds need to be in a coop that is at least 10 feet away from any property line.

You are not allowed to keep roosters (males) just hens (females).

Do they try to escape?

Nope!

Two times, they've wandered into my neighbor's back yard through a loose board in the fence.

They always return to the coop every night.

Are they mean to children?

My oldest son is seven and he picks the hens up and carries them around.

My daughter is about sixteen months old, and a few times, the chickens have thought her fat little fingers and toes looked like earthworms.

Since we raised these hens from when they were a day old, they know they can trust us. When any of us come into the back yard, the chickens run over expecting that we brought some treats.

The chickens love to peck at stuff like buttons and zippers. I guess the girls think they might be insects.

Does your dog play nice with them?

We have a retired racing greyhound and I took time to train her to get used to the chickens.

She and the hens aren't best friends, but she knows that she is not allowed to chase them or bark at them.

She does love to eat their food and lick up their poops. I don't know why.

How are the eggs different than store-bought eggs?

I think that my eggs taste better and look prettier than storebought eggs, but that's not an objective measurement.

Objectively, my eggs are a lot more varied. Sometimes, I'll get a reallly big one. Other times, I'll get one that is torpedo-shaped. They're all generally a light tan color, but sometimes, they will be almost pink. Other times, the shells will have white flecks.

Inside, my egg yolks are several shades darker than storebought eggs. Apparently this is because my hens eat so much fresh green grass.

And the whites are a lot thicker. My eggs don't spread out across the pan as much.

Mother Earth News analyzed nutrition in eggs from backyard hens and hens raised in cages. They found that eggs from hens that can forage are lower in cholesterol and contain more vitamins.

Read on for all the details here: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/2007-10-01/Tests-Reveal-Healthier-Eggs.aspx

What about food safety?

In other words, how do I know that eating these eggs are safe? What about salmonella?

First of all, when I gather up the eggs, if there's anything on the eggs, I brush them clean. And before I cook them, I wash the shell.

Second, everything I read about salmonella and other harmful bacteria suggests that the real problem comes when too many birds are crowded together in filthy conditions. That's when bacteria levels get really high.

What will you do when they stop laying eggs?

Honestly, I don't know. This breed typically lays eggs for at least three years or so. Sometimes, they lay eggs until they fall over dead.

Do you still eat chicken?

Yes. But now it is more important to me that any animal that we eat or use in some other way has a happy life.

I want to raise some birds for meat, but right now, in Cleveland Heights, this is not allowed.

You seem smart. Can I pay you to write some software for me?

Yes. Yes you may. In addition to raising my four chickens and my three small humans, I also run a freelance software business.

Get in touch with me by email (matt@216software.com) if you want to talk about that.