When I was a child, I grew up smack dab in the middle of Phoenix. We had a small backyard, a couple of dogs, and a couple of cats. No farm animals. I didn't even have any friends who had farm animals. Wait, scratch that. My best friend's father had horses. But I don't really count those. Not sure why, but I don't. Never in a million years did I think that I would ever keep chickens in my backyard as an adult.
At the beginning of 2009, things were starting to change for me as far as food goes. I knew I wanted to grow my own food, but I didn't know where to start. So I started with tomatoes. Just tomatoes. As those tiny plants were growing, I also started reading about how more and more people were keeping chickens in their backyard in order to enjoy their fresh eggs. At first, the thought seemed kind of “out-there” but as I thought about it more, it started to make sense to me. When I mentioned it to my husband, he looked at me weird. My family thought I was weird, too. They most likely still do. Anyway, I wanted to know more. I bought about every book I could find about raising chickens and devoured the information, and, all along the way educated my husband on all of the “pros” of chicken keeping. It didn't take much to sell it and as soon as he was on board, I picked out our first three chicks (you can't get just one – it would be sad). When I came home I told him he had 6 weeks to build me a coop.
Four years later, that coop is still standing tall – even if the door doesn't close all of the way. We have lost some hens to heat, illness, and dogs. We have also increased our flock to six hens. We discovered that while backyard chickens can be very entertaining and a pleasure to own, we LOVE eggs. And three hens just weren't giving us enough. Honestly, I can't imagine not ever having chickens in my backyard. They are so easy to keep and they give me food. My dogs don't give me food. In fact, I will go so far as to say that my two dogs are more of a chore than my backyard chickens.
Okay, enough about me. So, why keep chickens? Why on earth would you want big birds flapping around your backyard and pooping on everything? Are the eggs really THAT good? Yes, they are. We will get to that.
Caring for Backyard Chickens is Easy
Once your backyard flock is established, daily chicken care is minimal. Just like your other pets, chickens need food, a clean shelter, and exercise. Your biggest time investment will come at the beginning, when you are building your coop and preparing for your flock. I spend 10 minutes a day (if that) making sure they have plenty of food and water, throwing out scraps for them to snack on, and checking for eggs. Now my kids check for eggs, so I don't even have to do that! Since I let our hens free range in the backyard, I only have to clean out their coop every 3 to 4 weeks. But, I have to hose my back patio more frequently.
Here's a quick introduction to my chickens!
But what about The Law?
Fortunately most large cities allow residents to keep a few backyard hens. In fact, most city codes aren't terribly restrictive – as long as you aren't a nuisance, you can have chickens. For example, in Phoenix, I can have 20 hens on my property as long as my neighbors who are within 80 feet are cool with it. One thing I can't have is a rooster. I guess their crowing all day would be considered a nuisance. Search your City's code to find out how they feel about backyard poultry.
But what about HOAs? Here is the major bummer. If your HOA says “no chickens” then you can't have chickens. My advice would be to start a petition within your HOA that is full of good research and signatures that support chicken keeping in attempt to change the bylaw.
The Fresh Eggs
This is the #1 reason we have hens. A warm egg fresh from the nest box is one of life's simple pleasures. That may seem gross to you now. Just wait. Fresh eggs are incredibly rich in flavor, appearance, and texture. My husband is a converted egg snob. He never thought he would be one. But he is. And for good reason. The shell (which can be a variety of colors) is kind of hard to crack. The yolk is not only vibrantly orange, but also resilient. I can roll it around in my fingers and it won't break. The white is thick and gelatinous. Never runny. They make the best poached eggs.
You know the saying, “You are what you eat”? Well, the same goes for backyard chickens. Whatever you feed them goes into their eggs. All of those left over veggies and fruits, the grasses and weeds, the quality of their feed, and even bugs contribute to the nutritional content of their yolk. A well fed hen will give you an egg that is nutritionally light years ahead of its conventional counterpart.
So, how many will you get? A hen lays an egg about every 25 hours. We currently have 6 hens and all happen to be laying eggs. This is awesome because until recently only one hen was laying eggs. Today I collected 6 eggs from the nest boxes. Yesterday I collected 5. If this seems like a lot of eggs to you, don't get 6 hens. (I dare you to try.) Two to four hens will provide plenty of eggs for a small household.
They will eat your bugs!
The #2 reason we got chickens was to help with scorpion control. We live in a desert and our property is plagued with the nasty little devils. I am sure scorpions serve some good purpose on this earth, but in my backyard their only purpose is to be eaten by my hens. And they happily oblige. Chickens live for bug hunting. It seems to be their favorite thing to do. All day long I see them foraging in the grass and rocks, looking for a tasty treat. Since we introduced chickens in our backyard, our scorpion problem has abated. We still find them from time to time, but not nearly as often as we used to. As far as pesticides go, we no longer use them. The backyard chickens do a darn good job, and besides, the hens will peck at anything and everything to check it out. So harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are a no-go in our backyard.
Chicken Poop is Excellent Fertilizer!
You heard that right. Chicken poop will make your yard look amazing. If you want to make a great compost you need nitrogen. As luck would have it, chicken poop is full of it! My reasons for making the choice to let our hens free range in the backyard were two fold. One, to eat the scorpions. And two, poop all over the grass and hope they scratch it in with their feet. Of course, by letting them free range, they also happily poop all over our patio. I have washed many a child's shoe because of chicken poop. In order to have a clean patio, I would have to lock them up. Then, the scorpions may return. I will take the poopy shoes over scorpions any day. Bottom line, if you need some good fuel for your compost bin, the droppings in your chicken coop will fit the bill.
A funny story about chicken poop – one day while cleaning up the backyard I noticed what I first thought was a weed popping up in the middle of our rock landscape. As I went to yank it out, upon closer inspection I realized that it was a tomato plant! A chicken, who had at one time enjoyed some leftover tomatoes, pooped out some seeds and grew us a new tomato plant! My husband thought that was just about the coolest thing he had ever seen.
I never thought I would say this, but chickens are totally entertaining! They each have different personalities and quirky behaviors. They are pretty to look at! With so many different breeds, you can find some really cool looking chickens. Some are quiet and some are chatty. Since all of them associate me with food, they come sprinting across the yard (which is funny to see) when they hear the backdoor open. The kids love to pet them and hold them – I once found poor Harriet up on top of the play structure! The kids think they can be hilarious, but don't always like it when they peck their toes hoping for a tasty morsel.
Raising Our Own Food
Since getting hens four years ago, our attitude towards chicken keeping has evolved a bit. At the beginning, I thought it would be cool to have chickens. We would have some neat looking birds, enjoy them as pets, and eat their eggs. As we started to get more interested in eating Real Food, the hens in our backyard came to be more valuable to us. We are raising our own food. We know what our eggs are made of because we know what we feed our hens. Teaching our children to know where their food comes from is a priority for us. When I was little, the food came from the grocery store. I knew that eggs came from hens, of course, but I didn't care where those hens were. I think it is neat that my kids have actually seen an egg being laid and have carried that warm egg into our house. The best is when they kneel down to pet one of the hens and thank them for the egg.
We love having backyard chickens and enjoy the simplicity of raising our own eggs. Because it is simple. Not only are they fun little pets to have, these pets make us breakfast. And that is a pretty cool superpower to have.
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