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Talk me out of getting chickens.
September 5, 2011 1:32 PM   Subscribe

I want to get chickens. Talk me out of it.

A family friend is getting about 6 hens in a few months. He has asked if I wanted a few hens. I like the idea of getting chickens for all of my egg needs, but I have no sense of how much care they need.

I am aware they will need a coop, and to be fed/watered. Ideally, I would like the chickens to roam the yard, but I'm not sure this is realistic. I live in the suburbs and my yard and abutting land has an active hawk population, along with cats, skunks, raccoons, and the occasional fisher cat. Is this just a disaster waiting to happen. Also, the coop would be in a part of the yard that has no electricity, so I'm not sure how the birds would keep warm in the winter.

Any past or present chicken-care-takers want to weigh in?
posted by burlsube to Home & Garden (37 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Where do you live? What are the laws in the city/county where you live about keeping livestock?

(I am a bad candidate to talk you out of it, because I get all my eggs from a chicken-enthusiast friend and they are awesome. I also have two or three friends who have a pair of chickens and it seems to be a relatively simple chore to manage them.)
posted by restless_nomad at 1:35 PM on September 5, 2011


Coming from an animal lover with n guinea pigs and other beasts in her apartment, chickens have a truly awful smell. It may not bother you--in a yard it wouldn't bother me--but if your neighbors are close, it wouldn't be nuts for them to complain.
posted by skbw at 1:38 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you like your lawn? Do you have nice pretty flowers or other plants that you like to look at? Do you like walking around back there without stepping in giant puddles of shit?

They will absolutely trash your yard. If fresh eggs and maybe the occasional fresh drumsticks are worth that to you, then continue.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:39 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


They're very easy to take care of. They do their own thing. You'll just need to make sure they have food, water, and protection from predators. Of your list, raccoons are the biggest danger (though I have no experience with fisher cats). Your coop will need to be raccoon proof. Last year, a raccoon squeezed through a very small gap between my coop and its gate and killed one of my chickens. Hawks aren't a problem once the chickens reach adolescence, but you'll need to protect any chicks.

How cold does it get in the winter where you are? You don't need electricity unless you're in a place where the water would freeze solid for days at a time.

My chickens roam in my yard, then I lock them in their coop at night (they go in on their own at nightfall). They're terribly happy and spoiled rotten. The one drawback with letting them free-range, though, is that I can no longer walk barefoot in my yard. If I were to do it over again, I'd build them a bigger coop/run and let them out only occasionally.

Chickens are great fun. They're nice to listen to. They give you eggs. They come running when they see you because they know you might give them treats. Once you spend some time with chickens, you'll always want to have them around.

Except for the shit. It gets kind of old.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:40 PM on September 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


I had some friends a while back who kept chickens. In Chicago. In their small back yard. Without any fancy chicken-caring devices. Without any prior knowledge or experience of chicken ownership. They both worked full-time (one even had two jobs), too, and the chickens were still happy and well-cared for. I personally know nothing about keeping chickens. But judging by their experience, it can't possibly take too much effort. And fresh eggs are pretty spectacular.
posted by phunniemee at 1:42 PM on September 5, 2011


Salmonella.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 1:48 PM on September 5, 2011


Chickens can be aggressive towards flock members they don't like. They can be prone to various diseases. I get eggs from a farmer near LA, and he thinks backyard owners are crazy--like spending money on vet bills rather than just eating the injured bird. If you want livestock, don't confuse that with keeping pets.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:49 PM on September 5, 2011


You might be surprised how expensive chickens can be. If you don't have an existing structure you can repurpose for use as a chicken coop, you will need to build or buy one, to the tune of $500-$2,000 depending on how elaborate you want to get, and whether or not you have the skills to build it yourself from scratch.

Then there's the cost of feed, which isn't trivial. I have three hens, and I go through a 50lb sack of feed a month. At about $16 per sack, that adds up fast. Even if your hens are free-range, you will need to feed them a base amount of food.

You won't be able to fully free-range them, of course. Your neighbors might object to having their yards and gardens dug up and merrily shat upon, as chickens are wont to do. Also, there are cats, dogs, cars, kids, and all other manner of dangers.

Also consider "the egg song" (self link). Every time a chicken lays an egg (approximately one egg per chicken per day) she finishes off with a lengthy cackle. The other hens often join in. I would estimate that the noise is about as loud as a car alarm. How will your neighbors feel about having a series of chicken-themed car alarms going off in your yard several times a day? (Note that you can ply them with fresh eggs.)

There are a lot of reasons not to get chickens. If you're lukewarm on the idea, I'd suggest you kick your friend some money to get some of their eggs. Chickens are awesome pets, but they can cause a surprising amount of trouble.

Here are my numbers, if you need to put a final nail in the coffin:

2009
Eggs: 381
Cost: $888.19 (Note: majority of cost was building supplies)
Cost Per Egg: $2.33

2010
Eggs: 682
Cost: $215.85
Cost Per Egg: $.31

2011
Eggs: 313
Cost: $183.99
Cost Per Egg: $.58

Totals
Total eggs: 1379
Total Cost: $1253.55

Total Cost Per Egg: $.90
posted by ErikaB at 1:51 PM on September 5, 2011 [20 favorites]


I won't talk you out of it. It's not hard, and the fresh eggs are great. Some experiences to consider:

I find that two chickens are very easy. Just two = not enough poop to notice any smell. I put a nice deep bed of wood shavings in the coop, and use a little garden hand-fork thing to de-poop the coop every few days, thowing the poop in the compost heap, and rarely change their entire bedding.

Unless you live where it's insanely cold you don't need to keep them warm. (Check out your breeds first; some breeds have large combs that are prone to frostbite - there is a ton of info on the web.) You can run a big orange extension cord to the coop and plug in one of those bird bath heaters to keep the water unfrozen, or you can plan to dump out the ice block and give them fresh warm water every day. If you want them to lay eggs all winter, depending on where you live, you will need a light bulb to give them enough hours of light every day (they stop laying when the days get short).

Some breeds eat more than others do. I don't track my expenses (I Sit In Awe, ErikaB!) but I'm pretty sure I don't spend anything like that on my girls, and I let them have as much feed as they want.

If you want them to roam your yard, say goodbye to your flower gardens. They scratch like maniacs and mulch goes flying everywhere. I combat this by criss-crossing birch branches all over the flower gardens and planting in between them in the spring and it mostly works.

You can't be forgetful and leave their coop open all night or a fox will carry them away. Don't ask me how I know, I'm still embarrassed.

They sometimes get sick and you have to decide to medicate or euthanize... that's not fun.
posted by evilmomlady at 2:08 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


We have chickens. We're out in the country now, but we had them in the suburbs for two years.

The only thing I didn't like, aside from the poop: RATS. Rats love chicken feed. And we refused to use poison since you end up also poisoning dogs and wildlife, so the only way we could knock the population down was to shoot them.

The eggs are great, though.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:09 PM on September 5, 2011


Chickens poo everywhere, all the time. In the coop, on the ground, in their nests, on their eggs, which are often filthy when you gather them. They can and will peck the smallest or weakest member of the flock to death, in order to ensure the survival of the flock, no matter how much food is available to them. They will decimate the plants in your yard. Roosters will wake you up with the dawn, loudly. You will need to figure out what to do with all the dirty bedding they generate and how to manage the smell.

Loads of people are not bothered by any of the above. If you're not, then go for it. I speak from dark experience, though. Chickens are not complicated creatures, but they are not effortless.
posted by corey flood at 2:10 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Depending on where you live, this might actually be illegal, or at least a violation of your homeowners' association agreement. Many American communities have restrictions on the keeping of livestock, which includes chickens most of the time, either in the actual zoning statute or as restrictive covenants in deeds.

Noise is one reason, but unsightly outbuildings and noxious smells are another. Chicken shit stinks.

Also.
posted by valkyryn at 2:12 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


> Roosters will wake you up with the dawn, loudly.

I think that the OP was only offered hens. Those are noisy, but don't crow like roosters.

If you're also thinking about getting roosters be aware that (aside from the additional behavioral issues) they crow ALL DAY LONG. It's not just with the sunrise.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 2:14 PM on September 5, 2011


Chickens are a lot of fun, the fresh eggs are marvelous, and you can sit for hours watching Hen TV.

But.

Please don't take on this project without thinking it through. Go sign up over at backyardchickens.com and read, read, read. Buy or borrow Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens and read it. Then go talk to your local authorities about ordinances covering/excluding backyard chickens and figure out whether it's permitted. You don't want to spend a bunch of money only to have the code officer frowning over your girls.

Figure out:
* Shelter: What's going to be required to build a secure coop/run that are large enough for, say, three hens. How are you going to build nest boxes? Where are you going to get bedding? How are you going to clean out and dispose of bedding? (I spealk as someone who has removed 13 large wheelbarrowfuls of wet bedding uphill to a compost pile: this is a pain in the butt).

* Feed: Expensive. Source? How to convey it home? How and where to store it so it's critter-proof? You'll also have to buy a feeder and set it up so the chickens can't knock it over. Water--you'll also need a waterer. Your girls' water will freeze in the winter unless you can hook up a pan underneath to keep it above 32 degrees. Can you safely run a cord from your house?

* Care: Honestly, chickens are pretty self-sufficient, but they do contract diseases and get parasites. Are you willing to learn how to deal with these and buy what you need to treat them? Again--if you live in a place where you get freezing temperatures, you *will* be on your knees in your back yard, greasing your hens' wattles and combs with Vaseline so they don't freeze.

* Cost: As ErikaB notes, um, expensive. Not to be taken on as a whim. Tangentially, and I've recommended it before, read Betty MacDonald's "The Egg and I" (not all about chickens, and has some depictions of American Indians that are--politely--of their time, now offensive), which will give you a taste for raising your own birds/homesteading but without all of the hassle of actually doing it. By all means, SKIP "Still Life With Chickens."

I have 23 chickens free-ranging and nine heritage turkeys in a pen. I used to have 10 turkeys. We will not speak of my dog, and the one scaly turkey leg he left behind as evidence. When you have so few birds, any death (or illness) amounts to a major loss of money and time invested.

In short: Do not take this on until you have done your homework and figured out a plan for the logistics. Once you've done that, by all means get hens and enjoy them and their lovely, lovely eggs.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:23 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do you have neighbours whom a backyard of chickens might disturb? May be best to solicit their opinions first.
posted by fso at 2:31 PM on September 5, 2011


Keep in mind that they don't lay eggs forever. They could live for several years after they stop laying. Are you ok with letting them live out their old age in your coop? Are you ok with slaughtering them or having them slaughtered?
posted by Meg_Murry at 2:32 PM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


mudpuppie's answer mirrors my experience. Your #1 responsibility is getting them in the coop by dark, every single day. Can you do that? Your neighborhood raccoons will be waiting for the first time you forget. Everybody loves a free chicken dinner.

Erika B's cost out is not inaccurate in her case, but I can't imagine spending that much. Find a used coop on cl, or build your own from reclaimed wood. Chickens can also happily live on table scraps and munching on the bugs in your yard, not just store bought feed. But point taken, it's not free.
posted by quarterframer at 2:33 PM on September 5, 2011


Coyotes. You don't have coyotes? No, you just haven't met your coyotes yet.
posted by anaelith at 2:53 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Chickens are a blast! Yes, you do need a coop, or a chicken tractor-- and you should definitely do a good amount of reading first about the whole process. The Raising Chickens book someone above mentioned is super. You may be able to find someone to build you a good chicken coop. Predators WILL find any way possibly in, and we lost several at first, but now ours is super-tight and we've had our hens for almost a year After you get a sturdy coop/tractor they are fine and pretty easy to care for. They need water, a bit of feed and we feed ours table scraps to supplement their diet. They eat almost anything we would put in the compost.

That being said, don't get roosters. Also, chickens are kinda funny looking, dirty, and daft. That may not be your thing, but you might have a fun time raising them and the eggs are wonderful.

So many people have backyards chickens now, it's really no biggie.
posted by Rocket26 at 3:03 PM on September 5, 2011


Huh, a friend's blog talked me out of seriously considering chickens for another year just this morning. Just google the term "prolapsed oviduct".

The same friend recommends this book if you decide you're up for it. This quote from the book (included in the same oviduct story) seems apropos:

"Before any problems occur and while you are unemotional, determine in advance exactly how much time and money you are willing to spend nursing sick chickens."
posted by nanojath at 3:04 PM on September 5, 2011


My partner and I have, at present, something like twenty laying hens, six laying ducks, 40 turkeys, and 133 broilers and one rooster. I have opinions. COMMENCE BRAIN DUMP!

The minimum smart number of hens to keep is three. The reason is that they're social animals and need at least one other chicken around. The third is to give you a cushion for when one of them dies.

Buy a Plasson Waterer, hook it to a hose, and you don't need to worry about water until the line freezes. Don't bother with other refillers, they're crap. You may need something to lower your water pressure. I run mine at 3-5 psi for a number of reasons that don't apply to your situation.

If you don't want to plumb (i.e. connect a hose to) a refiller, use the good kind of chicken waterer. I own at least ten of these. Note that they are much cheaper than the galvanized ones from the feed store. And also that they don't suck. I own at least ten of these and have never had one fail seriously.

Buy this feeder which doesn't suck if you buy the grill for it as well. Hang it and spilled feed doesn't spill in any appreciable quantities. I've heard that if you hang a feeder out of reach overnight the wants won't get at it. I don't know if this is true.

Raccoons are evil fuckers, but our pretty ramshackle coop has kept them out. The movable structures, not so much. Build something heavy or attach it to the ground. Or use electric. I don't worry about birds of prey at home. We're kind of wooded and there's enough cover around that the birds can exercise their instinct to get under cover when the eagles and osprey are overhead. The rooster helps. And we live in a place where I see a bald eagle more days than not.

For the birds in the wide-open raptor-friendly pasture, we keep them in movable pens (tractors). Bummer, but these are young meat birds that don't develop the self-preservation instincts of an older layer. One of the interns at that farm told me that she came out one day to see a slightly miffed bald eagle sitting on top of a pen full of highly agitated chickens.

We have had issues at home with (fucking) raccoons during the daytime, when they're not (according to the directions on the package) supposed to be active. And the neighbors' lab jumped the fence once with lethal results. Our dogs are fine with the chickens, but they're not bird dogs. They do help keep the raccoons down and probably the coyotes and blacktail deer as well.

Some of my friends and neighbors have had their flocks mangled by weasels and mink. We haven't had issues at home (*knocks on wood*) and the birds on pasture are behind electric mesh.

The workload for the 20-odd layers is as follows: Let them out at some point between six in the morning and three in the afternoon. Pick up eggs. Don't worry about watering them because they're on a refiller. Distribute a bag of feed between two feeders which will hold them for a couple of weeks. Go outside at night and shut the door to the coop. If I felt like it, I could get a photo-sensitive door opener to handle opening and closing the coop. Throughout the year I add straw to the coop whenever it looks like it needs and and, once a year, clean out all the bedding and start fresh. The bedding is already partially composted when I muck it out so I've got a headstart on my compost.

That's pretty much it.

The downside: Have any piles in your yard (leaf, compost, that expensive store-bought dirt for your garden)? Not anymore. They'll scratch through whatever they get their feet on. But it saves on feed costs. Also, they do poop on things. And eat your garden.

And they die. Which sucks. There is a very real possibility of stepping outside to find varioous bits of chicken strewn about. This sucks, especially if it's a pet chicken. And you might get a surprise rooster. Some neighbors up the street ended up with a rooster that they cannot tolerate so they're figuring out how to get rid of an animal that their kids have already named.

We decided before our first chickens that we're not paying a vet for a chicken. If you can find a vet that works with poultry, most will answer questions over the phone. We don't cull (eat) our layers, but the standard wisdom for commercial operations is to cull at two years of age. Anecdotally, another friend swears that they've got a ten-year-old hen that's still laying.

So that's my brain dump, sans any significant editing or proofreading. Let me know if you have further questions.
posted by stet at 3:09 PM on September 5, 2011 [8 favorites]


Mint just published a blog post about this --- Urban Chickens: Frugal Fad or Pricey Pastime?
posted by hooray at 3:18 PM on September 5, 2011


just check your city regs (and HOA if you have one) because if you have illegal chickens, you can expect them to be taken away by animal control, etc. Happened just the other day in my condo complex.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:58 PM on September 5, 2011


Thanks for all your answers. I am going to proceed with caution and figure out how much a solidly constructed coop would cost.
posted by burlsube at 6:58 PM on September 5, 2011


memail me and i'll send you a link to a blog entry I wrote on my urban herd. covers some of this.
posted by FauxScot at 6:58 PM on September 5, 2011


I got three and an Eglu, then upgraded to something I made myself and sold the eglu and my then two hens to a friend getting into it, and got five new girls. One was a boy, surprise, so $20 later he's at the ASPCA. None of them sleep inside the spacious, comfortable doghouse coop I made for them, they sleep on the peaked roof, so figuring out what's going to happen once the temp drops in fall and winter is going to be fun.

Also, these new ones? NOISY AS FUCK. The old ones only did the BUCK BUCK BAGAWK thing if they were very agitated, the new ones do it oh, like, 6AM, 7AM, 7:30 AM, after I've been up already with an infant 3x per night. I have to jolt out of bed, fly downstairs, and go feed them some choice scraps (why is regular food not good enough for them?) so they shut up long enough for my neighbors not to hate me so much they throw rocks at my house. Because I'm in a city, and their houses are close to mine and the chickens. Luckily, my pen is large enough for smell not to be an issue (its 8 x 14).

But seriously, I have considered shooting them several times in the last week alone because WHY ARE YOU SO LOUD CHICKENS YOU HAVE FOOD AND WATER GOD SHUT UP. Thankfully most of our neighbors hate the guy with the loud exhaust who shakes their foundations every morning more than me.

But, they're not super hard work. The poop is gross. It gets on the eggs. They die randomly and are stupid as fuck, but they're pretty.
posted by kpht at 7:02 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and bonus, I *just* went out to give them scraps for the morning, and I almost agitated a skunk into spraying me. The skunk was trying to get into the pen, and I didn't notice it until I was nearly kicking it, and it was PISSED. It was a tense standoff in which my life flashed before my eyes, and then the skunk ran off, but I am still shaking.

So there's that.
posted by kpht at 7:25 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


My dad's neighbor has chickens. Bought em for the "free" eggs.

Nope. Chickens are expensive to feed. He even has a huge garden and can throw them clippings from it, but he still doesn't think it's worth it due to feed cost.

He lives on about ten acres, for what it's worth. Throw in a more confined plot and it sounds like a really bad idea.

Also, the hens don't always lay when you expect them to, if at all.
posted by bardic at 7:40 PM on September 5, 2011


Here's something my inlaws learned; it's not so easy to get someone to kill your chicken, if you decide you want to use one for meat. Apparently, butchering places like to get all their animals from trusted sources (i.e. certified healthy) because one butchered chicken with salmonella is a huge liability; between every fresh batch of chickens, they clean to prevent salmonella contamination. Something they don't want to do for Betsy Chickenraiser with her three unwanted roosters or what have you.

And if you're getting chicks, there's a possibility that you'll get an unwanted rooster; really hard to tell when they're little. My inlaws have two at present, and are in fact trying to figure out how to slaughter them. If you are not squeamish with an axe/neckwringing, or your friend can do it, then maybe it won't be a problem for you.

Also, chickens don't lay for their whole lives (for about 2 years or so, I was told), so at some point, you'll just have pet chickens unless you slaughter the old ones and get new or add to your flock.
posted by emjaybee at 8:21 PM on September 5, 2011


Nthing rats. Our neighbors got rid of their chickens because of the rat infestation that followed. And, our other neighbors, who didn't even have their own chickens, had a crazy rat problem too.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:21 PM on September 5, 2011


Did you know you can buy equally delicious farm-fresh eggs at many farmstands and upscale grocery stores for $6/dozen or so? That's 50-cents an egg, less than ErikaB's cost. Get chickens if you want the suburban farm experience, but if you want eggs, buy eggs.
posted by aimedwander at 5:51 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


My family had chickens while I was growing up, and still do, albeit on more acreage than you but not exactly a farm so I think I can offer some insight. Here are a few thoughts that I don't think have been mentioned -

- Don't worry about slaughtering the older ones. In our experience predators take care of the population control. Our biggest problems were actually dogs who would come from the nearest houses which were a bit far away. We think some fisher cats got them too.

-I'll reiterate that it is actually kind of an expensive operation, and if all you want is farm fresh eggs then you should buy them at the store. HOWEVER, its really cool to be able to walk out your back door and gather eggs! So if you can afford it, its a neat experience.

-If you let your chickens roam around they will lay their eggs in weird places. This may be less of a problem if you have a small yard. Last summer my dad couldn't figure out why the hens were laying half of what they normally do. Then my grandma was weeding the garden and found 60-70 eggs among the tomato plants. It was so funny.

-If you choose to get some more birds for slaughter, thats a whole nother more expensive operation. There's the actually slaughtering which you can do yourself for free using a knife and your hands, but then you need to process them and you will probably want to go to a facility and either have someone do it or rent a plucker and do it yourself away from home because you don't have a large yard. Its a stinky and messy operation.
posted by pintapicasso at 6:27 AM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Although I talked about smell above, which is true, my Aunt Diane did have a few, in the suburbs, when I was growing up. She did nothing special (beyond the basics) and they did lay. There were always "yard eggs" in the fridge. This was in a warm climate, though, so even the winter was not a problem. But (a) she had kids to run after the eggs and (b) regarded them as a cool pet, not an egg source.
posted by skbw at 7:40 AM on September 6, 2011


skbw has it - unless you're planning to slaughter, think of chickens as Pets With Benefits. More trouble than a fish tank or hamster; less trouble than a dog in the city that needs walking and picking up after. About the same amount of trouble as a cat.
posted by ErikaB at 12:57 PM on September 6, 2011


Hold on a sec--this is absolutely relevant to the OP's question. Those people who mention a "fisher cat," do you mean this fearsome thing? Where do you live if so? Canada? I thought it was just a redneck idiom for cat fierce enough to carry off a chicken. Apparently not!
posted by skbw at 8:44 PM on September 7, 2011


Those people who mention a "fisher cat," do you mean this fearsome thing? Where do you live if so? Canada? I thought it was just a redneck idiom for cat fierce enough to carry off a chicken. Apparently not!

That fearsome thing is exactly what I mean. Also to add to the creepiness, they live in the trees during the day and come out at night to hunt (or so I was told growing up). They will kill cats and small dogs during the night. Their screeches sound like a woman wailing. And I live in vermont .
posted by pintapicasso at 10:38 AM on September 8, 2011


Salmonella.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth


Probably not as dangerous as eating eggs that have come form a regular commercial farm, actually. Keep in mind that the article is talking about large-scale organic egg farming - that set up is still going to have fairly crowded conditions, compared to how a well tended backyard flock. Close quarters make it really easy for diseases to spread. As long as you are following good animal husbandry practices, having a super-small flock would probably lower your chances of catching something nasty from your chickens.

I'm not going to try to talk you out of it - I am a total chicken enabler. I've had chickens since March and I love it. I

f you want to keep any sort of functioning garden however, you're going to have to chicken-proof any area that you don't want torn up. Chickens are murder on the lawn, too. If you want them to free-range all day , you'll probably want to build them a large enclosure as well as a secure hen house.

They don't need to have a super-big hen house as long as they have a lot of room to move around in their enclosure. Otherwise, you will start to see aggressive, bullying behavior. Even if you build them a large enclosure, they will still need to free range in the rest of the yard from time to time to keep them from getting too bored.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:15 AM on September 9, 2011


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