Should I start keeping chickens?
November 8, 2018 7:21 PM   Subscribe

I live in the suburbs. I have a large yard where previous owners had a chicken coop but they tore it down when selling the house. We live in a climate where it gets very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. I am interested in having chickens for the eggs, and to help show my young son where his food comes from.

There are some things that make me wonder if this is a good idea. First, I would be very concerned about their welfare and taking care of them properly. Are they going to be comfortable in the heat and the cold? How do I know if they are sick? Next, anything to worry about with eating the eggs? And finally, I am a vegetarian (I do eat eggs and dairy) and I am squeamish about dead animals. Would I have to make my husband slaughter them??!! Or take them to a butcher? Or let them die a natural death? Google tells me chickens live for quite a while longer than they produce eggs.

Given these concerns, should I re-build the coop and get a few chickens, or is this not a good choice for me?
posted by amy.g.dala to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I live someplace where it gets to +40 in the summer and -20ish in the winter. Backyard chickens became legal last year and quite a few people have them.

Your coop may need a heat lamp in the winter. In the summer the coop should provide shade.

Chicken do live significantly longer than they lay eggs. Most people butcher them at some point when egg laying declines but a minority of people do just end up keeping them as pets and they deal with end of life situations in the same way.
posted by Mitheral at 7:38 PM on November 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

I kept chickens for 13 years. I had all of those same concerns, but I have no regrets. They do die, and they die sooner and more frequently than indoor pets, but I still loved having chickens in my life.

Mine all died natural deaths -- sometimes violent, because predators are a thing, but never at the hands of a human.

There's tons of information online now, as well as really helpful forums, that would help you keep your chickens healthy. Chicks bought from a reputable feed store will have been vaccinated, too. Disease isn't a huge issue, especially if you're only dealing with a small backyard flock.

You can mitigate the temperature swings if/when you rebuild the coop. Again, lots of information online about building a coop and run in both cold and hot climates. has always been my go-to site.

(I always think people should get chickens, so take my advice with a grain of salt.)
posted by mudpuppie at 7:44 PM on November 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

I have chickens in Minneapolis where it obviously gets very cold but also we’ve had some incredibly hot summers the last few years. They’re very happy! We have a well designed coop that is very snug in winter, and can easily be fitted with lights for both warmth and to mimic a more even amount of daylight to keep egg production a little more consistent. Our watering system uses an immersion heater in the cold months to keep it from freezing.

Our flock isn’t old enough to worry about what happens when they’re too old to lay and we have a few years before we have to make those arrangements. There are options other than turning them into stock though. Our last flock was very happily integrated into a larger hobby flock where they bossed younger birds around and taught them the rules of the roost.

Everywhere we’ve lived when we have had chickens has had limits on how many we can have but if you don’t, you could start with a few and add new ones every few years so you’d always have laying birds and bossy older ones.
posted by padraigin at 8:36 PM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

We've had chickens for about a year now and I find I love to talk about them. They're nice to have around, although our birds aren't as friendly as some I've heard stories of. The eggs are great, and it's fun to give them treats. Their clucking around in the backyard is a happy sound. Some of them have real personalities and are fun to get to know (and others are … less interesting)

They can be a lot of work, and occasional real stress, though. Unless you get an automatic coop door (look into it!), you need to get up with the sun to let them out, and be sure to secure the coop at night, especially if any predators are around (and lots of things like to eat chicken). Unless you end up with really stubborn birds, it's easier to find someone who can watch chickens while you're away than it is for dogs. They put themselves to bed and just wait for you to lock them up.

The most stressful things we've had happen is dog attacks (our own little lap dogs, that was awful to see), one chicken became sick and couldn't really walk (had to be put down by a bird vet), and various worrying but ultimately benign weird non-eggs being laid - eggs without shells or improbably huge eggs. A couple of our birds went "broody" last spring and sat on their (unfertilized) eggs forever waiting for them to hatch. This isn't good, so we had to try to break them of the habit, and eventually gave up on one and bought some chicks for her to raise. It was really cute to watch her raise them, but this isn't a scalable solution. Now we have twice as many chickens who might get broody next year! Our birds also started hiding their eggs around the yard this summer, and I had a hard time finding them for a while. Now they've stopped laying altogether and I don't know why.

Also, they poop everywhere and chicken poop isn't a great smell. Coop cleaning is not a ton of work but can be gross. Finally, if you let them out in the yard, plan to block off any flower beds. That's where they find the best worms and spots to dig a hole and rest. This is cute but utterly wrecks your plantings.
posted by mmc at 9:03 PM on November 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who has them and I was surprised to hear that they tore up her vegetable garden completely, and were hiding eggs all around the property in quite nasty spots. Her kid quickly tired of the egg hunts, too.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:20 PM on November 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

They still lay an egg here, an egg there, right up til they die of old age. I recommend having chickens at all life stages. That way you've always got producers in rotation.
posted by aniola at 9:42 PM on November 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do you like pets? They will be pets essentially. They have personality and are delightful but require pet- like care. Cats and dogs do not give you anything edible however, making chickens the superior pet according to my older sister who has kept them for decades.

There are very helpful online communities for keeping chickens, and you won't lack advice.

You must adapt your garden to them with fencing or specific plantings, they are digging machines. As a kid, ours were trained in a very large garden through repeated housing to stay to their area, and my sister fences off one area, but seedlings must be fiercely protected from their interest.

The biggest issue is roosters if you end up hatching chicks. You do not want and may not be allowed roosters. But genetics mean you get them. My sister has a good butcher who kills them fast and donates them (she's vegetarian) but it's been tough, bird sanctuaries often don't take roosters there are so many.

Hens can be rehomed pretty well if your experiment doesn't work out. I'd say try - you'll either fall in love or go back to supermarket eggs.

The eggs are really good though.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:52 PM on November 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

The main thing with chickens is that they are livestock. Which means you nee to take care of them every day, usually twice a day, outdoors. Summer, winter, Christmas, your birthday, your kids birthday, during crunch times at work and when you have the flu. If you go on vacation someone else has to do it which adds potentially as much as ~$30/day to every trip you take and advance planning.

Most everyone i know who got chickens during the chicken craze 7 or 8 years ago got rid of them for this reason. It was a lot of "I love my chickens so much but I travel/ had a baby/ signed up for bootcamp/ hate going outside in the cold" and the chickens all went away. If you have never had OUTDOOR animals before, not a cat, that is probably the biggest issue you're going to have.

Also they will poop all over your yard.
posted by fshgrl at 10:33 PM on November 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

I belong to a community garden that had chickens for a long time. Here were the perpetual issues that came up that you should consider:

1. You'll need someone to care for them when you go away - and it's not quite as easy as getting a cat sitter.
2. Rats, raccoons, mice, hawks etc- eating the eggs, the chicken food, the chickens themselves- it's a REAL issue. You'll need to fortify your coop from all angles - above, below, around.
3. Finding a chicken vet can be tricky. We had some chickens die from mysterious reasons and since you are eating the eggs, you really want to know what those reasons were. We sent them to an extension school for necropsy.
4. The chickens picked on each other. Pecking order is real and they were kind of a-holes to each other, which led to wounds, which lead to infections, which led to vet...

Plus sides?
They are really, really, really fun! Eggs are the tops!
posted by Toddles at 11:28 PM on November 8, 2018

You can go one or one and a half days without checking on them, theoretically, if you have a big enough waterer. It’s definitely not a twice a day thing!

We have chickens (9, down from 14 because coyotes are assholes) and we’ll get chicks again in the spring. It’s super rewarding, my kids love them, my husband loves them more, but I do not under any circumstances let them into my vegetable garden. They roam the orchard, where they can dig and poop to their heart’s content.

The big work is cleaning the coop, which we do probably more often than is really necessary. You need someone to take care of them if you go away for more than a day or two. You won’t get eggs in the winter unless you force them with coop lights. We don’t slaughter any chickens, we only have layers not broilers, and if they stop laying oh well, they’ve earned a cushy retirement.

The only heartbreak is the predators. We let ours free range during the day because it makes them so so much happier (and the eggs so so much better) but that involves seeing the occasional murder scene.
posted by lydhre at 2:41 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I call my chickens "the goldfish of the yard" because they take about that same level of care. The only daily thing is opening their coop door in the morning and closing it at night. Our neighbors are happy to step in and do that when we go out of town. They get to keep the eggs for 3 minutes of effort.

I live in Pittsburgh, it gets cold. Please do not use a heat lamp, they are major, major fire hazards. On my local chicken-keeping group, every time a newbie posts about maybe getting a heat lamp, the replies are a dozen pictures of burned-down coops. People have lost their homes. Don't do it. What chickens need in winter is a well designed coop with good ventilation. It's not cold that's the problem, it's humidity, which can build up fast due to their poop. There should be ventilation at the roof, well above the heads of roosting birds. The only other thing I've ever done in winter for them is putting vaseline on the combs and wattles of my two that have substantial combs on the nights when it's getting really, unusually cold. Again this is to protect against moisture.

I recommend a no-waste feeder (I made mine out of $5 worth of supplies from Home Depot) and nipple-waterer ($10 of nipples from Amazon, bucket with lid from Home Depot). You will only need to top those up once a week and the feeder prevents rodents.

The eggs are delicious and safe and don't even need to be refrigerated (Google the "bloom" as it pertains to fresh eggs). We're also vegetarians but I'm not really squeamish about dead animals. We've had a couple die of illness. My plan for the rest once they stop laying is the butcher and soup, mainly because legally I can only have 6 chickens (I live in the city on a small lot) and if I want eggs I can't keep the post-henopausal ones around and add new, I have to get a whole new flock. These chickens have led the absolute life of Riley, I don't really feel bad about it.

One thing to also think about though is free-ranging them vs. predators vs. your garden. In the city, predators are less of an issue, so we free range them basically when we're home BUT one thing people don't often think about is how much chickens will destroy your landscaping. They will eat your vegetables, and anything they don't eat they will dig up on a quest for bugs. During the growing season, I have bird-netting over all my vegetable beds and when that fails sometimes you will see me exiting the back door and screaming at a bunch of oblivious chickens. In the off-season, they're great for the garden. The roto-till the soil, fertilize it, keep pests down, and do my weeding for me. Once I plant things, though, the chickens are evicted.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:41 AM on November 9, 2018 [10 favorites]

It sounds like this is still at the "idea" stage rather than the "plan" stage. There's tons of good advice here in this thread, but at the end of the day it seems like your questions will be best answered by doing your own research into what acquiring and keeping chickens actually entails. There's tons of information out there. Start googling, hit up your local library, and educate yourself!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:58 AM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

There exists an automatic chicken door opener that lets them in at night and out in the morning. I have dogsat for a nurse who leaves town to work in San Francisco for 5 days at a time. He feeds and waters his chickens before he leaves, and watching his chickens involves literally zero effort beyond egg harvest.
posted by aniola at 7:24 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your neighbors will not be amused.
Chickens make a lot of noise continuously (like they never stop) and smell bad, and the noises and smells travel a long way.
I know this because I lived two (large yarded) houses away from someone who tried keeping chickens for a while.
Nobody was happy in the end.
posted by mdrew at 7:31 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Roosters are loud. Hens are no louder than the average pet dog that gets let out in the yard a few times a day. They cluck and trill, but they only do the BACKAWBACKAWBACKAW thing after they lay an egg.

The smell is not an issue if you do this shit right. Sounds like your neighbor did not. A roof over the run makes a huge difference if you live anywhere that it rains (dry poop is not really smelly, wet poop is gross, poop that stays wet for days is SUPER gross). What you use as bedding and how/when you clean it matters. Having enough room per hen makes a difference. Too many birds in too small a space is going to smell and also lead to health problems for the birds.

But I have 4 chickens in a 30x30 urban back yard and there's no smell unless you literally stick your whole head inside the coop. My neighbors love my chooks so much they bring treats over for them.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:08 AM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've lived a few doors down from hens and did not have any issues with them as a neighbor; no noises, no smells. I suppose it's possible that stuff might vary depending on chicken breed and/or individual sensitivity, though. (Or maybe we're just very chill about chickens here in Pittsburgh, since soren_lorensen is here too.)

I do know that my neighbor did find herself in some situations she hadn't fully imagined and wasn't fully prepared for when they happened to her, like "had to help midwife a chicken's very large and very deformed egg, which involved a lot more lubing-up-and-fisting-a-chicken than she'd ever thought she'd need to do", and "chicken mangled but not killed by predator, needs to be put out of its misery immediately by the family vs. a planned euthanizing by butcher or vet, time to learn to kill a chicken at 3 a.m.!" Might be worth spending a couple of minutes thinking about whether you are prepared to intervene in situations like that.

Our city has an annual chicken-coop tour where you can go around and visit lots of different chicken coops, and I think if I were seriously considering keeping chickens I'd sign up for that to learn more about all the different ways people house them, and hopefully have a chance to ask their keepers some questions. Might be worth investigating whether there's something like that near you!
posted by Stacey at 8:20 AM on November 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Storey's book on chicken keeping is pretty much all you need.

Chickens are very hardy, except for when it comes to being eaten by predators. You should be able to keep them quite comfortable even in your climate. Yard eggs are the best thing ever. Chickens are also super entertaining to watch and do a good job of eating vermin in your yard -- not only bugs, but also baby snakes and mice and the like. The manure is good for composting. I miss my chickens.

I am a crazy bird lady, so YMMV, but they were probably the easiest bird I ever kept. "Goldfish of the yard" is a great description.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:24 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Chickens are not loud if you don't have a rooster. (And DON'T have one of those monsters. They will tear the feathers out of their favorite hen and peck her bloody breeding her.)

Chickens don't smell if you clean their coop a couple times a year. They will poop in your yard if you don't have a run. I let mine out in the afternoons for a couple hours, and it's not a problem. Worth it to get rid of earwigs and other bugs. They will tear up the garden or occasionally dig in your flowers. Give them a place to take a dust bath, and that pretty much will keep them from doing that. Chickens take dust baths to avoid skin parasites. After 20 years of chickens, I've never had a problem with bugs.

I bed my chickens on cedar shavings, which is sanitary. It keeps skin bugs away, smells good, and my eggs are almost always clean. I hate dirty eggs, and using straw in the nest boxes seems to always make them poopy. Chickens are amusing to watch, don't take much care, and the eggs are totally worth it.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:06 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I grew up with chickens, from the age of around 3 to 15. We kept them around until they died a natural death, 'cause my mom couldn't bear to kill them. (But, sexing chickens is hard, and you should be prepared to figure out how you're going to get rid of roosters if you accidentally get one. You definitely don't want to live with an adult rooster.)

The one thing that can't be over-estimated is the amount of chicken shit that will be generated. Any place you let the chickens explore will be covered in slimy poop. You kid will almost certainly become covered in it and drag it into the house. We used to keep "chicken coop shoes" on the stoop, and it still didn't always keep the chicken shit outside. If you're in a place with coyotes, raccoons, or loose dogs, keeping chickens safe will also be a significant issue.

Fresh eggs are awesome. Interacting with chickens as a kid is fun. But, it's a non-trivial amount of work.
posted by eotvos at 9:18 AM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Make sure your chickens are vaccinated for Marek’s disease. If you hatch chicks, that might mean you have to vaccinate them yourself. (Or maybe you could get a vet to do it, I dunno. Our household DIYed it.) The important thing is they must get vaccinated. I know this because one of the first pet chickens we had when I was a kid died of Marek’s disease. She was partially paralyzed and it was very upsetting, especially when we found out it was preventable.
Vaccinate the chickens, protect them from roving critters, what everyone else said, enjoy if you decide to keep some. I loved our chickens.
posted by sacchan at 5:01 PM on November 9, 2018

Hmmmm. I keep chickens. Its not much work. We have an automatic coop door, so I just visit my chickens once or twice a day to give them a treat or two, or let them out to free range. Once a week I change the cardboard under their perch as that is where most of the poop is. Twice a year I change out the bedding in the rest of the coop. My chickens are not noisy or smelly. Im happy to keep them on after they quit laying. Its one of the main reasons I enjoy having chickens, knowing that my source of animal protien (eggs) is from animals who are happy, healthy, and well treated. I hope I am always able to have chickens, its extremely satisfying, and they are funny as hell to watch. Dont overcrowd your chickens and take the predator proofing very seriously, dont half ass it. Dont keep roosters, and do keep one pair of boots that are only used to walk around in the chicken pen and don't come inside the house. Know of a vet that will take chickens, just in case . Thats it. You're good to go.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 5:07 PM on November 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Our neighbors across the creek (okay, the ditch) have chickens and they are not noisy and they are not smelly, so it can be done right. My wife and I both like the sound of the chickens during the day. It is roughly one hundred times less annoying than Nasty Barkington (my wife's dog) barking, so I figure the neighbors are on the credit side of the karmic spreadsheet.

mdrew cites an instance where it can also be done wrong, and raises a good issue--neighbors. It might be worth discussing it with them so that they aren't taken by surprise.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:28 PM on November 9, 2018

Keep the coop tours away. Our birds picked up a respiratory disease from one of these events. We'd been told that buff orpingtons were the friendliest, whoever said that had not met a light brahma. That one likes laps.
We have three birds. I use a 5 gallon plastic bucket outside the coop plumbed with PVC pipe to the little chicken water nipples. It usually goes a few weeks between re-fillings. A big feeder in the coop lasts more than a week when it is warm out, less when it is cold. You'll need some way to keep drinking water from freezing in the winter.

The PVC pipe homebrew feeders are great.

Don't feed them grass you've pulled up. They love it, but it doesn't love them. It blocks up the crop. They do love dandilions and for an extra special treat in the summer my daughter makes frozen juice treats for them.
You need to keep them wormed. In my state I cannot buy worm medicine for chickens, but I can buy it for horses. So the giant tube will last essentially forever. Pin worms and thread worms are the main ones. And guess what, touch chicken poo and don't wash your hands? Good way to get pinworms yourself. Child has had them 3 times I think. Finally decided hand washing wasn't such an awful chore.
posted by rudd135 at 6:47 PM on November 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

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