Chickens: The Low-“Down” on the Backyard Flock

Whether searching for the perfect wholesome and nutritious egg, dabbling in urban homesteading, or simply enjoying the cheery company of a little group of happy hens, Seattlites are flocking to backyard chickens! Seattle is one of an increasing number of urban areas that allow residents to keep chickens (up to eight birds here, no roosters), and PugetPets is one of the few pet-sitting companies that offer skilled and responsible care for them. Are you thinking about starting your own backyard flock? In this post, we’ll take a look at some things you will need to consider before spreading your urban chicken-farmer wings.

Down to Business – Sourcing Your Chickens

You can buy your young birds either as downy baby chicks or as awkward young adolescent birds referred to as “started pullets.” Chicks will be ready to lay in about three months and pullets will begin laying in a matter of weeks. Birds are typically acquired in two ways, either by mail order or by purchasing locally. Before you order birds by mail, be aware that being sent through the mail is an extremely stressful event for these young animals. Many animal rights activists object to the practice and not without reason. Your chicks will arrive stressed, cold, hungry and thirsty and will require urgent and individual care immediately. Some may not have survived the journey. Pullets sent by mail have their beaks clipped, a painful procedure that can cause lifelong discomfort. If you can, buy locally. You may have to drive out to the farm to get your birds, but you’ll be getting happier birds, as well as supporting local farmers! You can also check local shelters for young birds who may need homes or for older ones, if you want chickens mainly as pets and/or fertilizer providers. Check with the egg-sellers at your neighborhood farmer’s market. They are usually very happy to answer any questions you might have about getting started with chickens, and they are are knowledgeable about local resources.

You will also have to think about the number and kind of chickens you want. Considerations include hardiness to weather, egg size and color, size of the birds and size of your enclosure. Chickens are highly social animals. Three is considered a good minimum number. If you have only a small space, consider getting a small breed. If you can make four small chickens happy in the space that two full-sized ones could occupy, this is a win-win solution for all.

Chickens find it easier to adapt to a new home if they wake up there. For this reason, transporting your new arrivals at dusk when they are feeling roosty (sleepy and sedentary) helps ease the stress of transition for them. If you are transporting baby chicks, they must be kept very warm, between 90 and 100 degrees Farenheit. Seattle’s Greenwood Hardware has a great article with basic information about how to care for newly arrived baby chicks.

Down and Dirty? – Happy, Healthy Husbandry

Chickens can provide hours of entertainment, rich compost and nutritious eggs and are a great addition to a family that is prepared to care for them. Keeping birds healthy and happy is an urban farmer’s responsibility. Most health problems, including diseases, mites, rat attraction and salmonella risk (chickens are natural carriers of this pathogen) can be avoided through proper attention to the care of your birds. Seattle Tilth has a useful FAQ about keeping backyard hens. A question they get asked is “are chickens dirty?” It’s true that if you’re overly concerned about an animal being “dirty,” you should probably rethink any plan to acquire livestock. However, as Seattle Tilth points out, “As with any animal (and people), chickens can be ‘dirty’ if they are not properly cared for. A chicken that is properly cared for is just as clean as a dog or house bird.” King County Public Health provides additional useful information about health and backyard hen-keeping here.

To keep your chickens healthy, they will need a warm and ventillated, extremely dry, elevated coop, preferably with a latching door to keep predators out. The coop is where they will roost at night and where they will lay their eggs. If you have a latching door, you will have to open it in the morning and close and latch it every night after the hens have gone inside to roost. Inside, a layer of cedar shavings and one of fresh straw will form their bedding. You will have to change this regularly and clean out their coop to ensure the birds’ health and your own. Coops and enclosures can vary greatly. Plastic coops are available and are easily cleaned, or you can get a beautiful handmade structure from a local business such as Seattle’s Saltbox Designs. Alternatively, you can build your own DIY coop from materials such as an old dog house, raised off the ground and fitted with a ramp and waterer. The main thing is that the coop must be warm and weatherproof.

Chickens also need room to roam around and engage in their natural behaviors of scratching and foraging. Having a suitable enclosure, either a large one or a smaller one that can be moved around the yard, and/or an enclosed run will keep the birds protected, healthy and entertained, as well as maximizing their nutrition. Chickens are true omnivores and will eat pretty much anything they can. Make sure they have access to greens such as weeds, garden thinnings, grass clippings and lettuces, as well as to worms, slugs, insects and healthy table scraps. Supplement their foraging with an organic feed mix. Your eggs aren’t organic if your feed isn’t.

Down the Road – Completing the Cycle

With puffy yellow, “Easter-card” babies and delicious fresh eggs, not to mention the hilarious antics of adult hens, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the allure of the backyard chicken! But before you get giddy over the girls, there are some realities you need to be aware of. Okay, you’re sure you’re ready to muck around in chicken poop. Good start! But at some point you will have to face the fact of “henopause.” A hen’s prime egg-laying period lasts for about three years, after which her “production” slows and finally stops. She may live, however, for up to ten years.

If you are keeping hens for eggs, you have to consider what to do with your older ladies. You have basically two options: keep them as pets and for the incredible fertilizer they provide or send them away for their “one bad day” and use them as “stewing hens.” Many people are perfectly happy to eat chicken from the grocery store, but find themselves faced with an emotional/ethical dilemma at the thought of sending their own little Rosebud to the Crockpot. This is perfectly natural, but you will need to know where you stand before you take on the responsibility of having your own flock. If you opt to keep your girls past their prime, this will reduce the number of egg layers in your flock. With space limited and that legal limit of eight hens, you will want to carefully stagger the ages of your birds as much as possible from the start. You will also have to be okay with having some high-egg years followed by some low-egg years, while your older girls live out the rest of their lives as companion animals and family members.

Down on the Farm – Can I Still Take That Ski Trip?

While your dog may be able to go on vacation with you, and some cats are okay home alone for a couple of days, chickens require daily care and oversight. Finding an urban farmsitter is a must! Fortunately, you already know you can rely on PugetPets to provide quality, loving care for your dogs and cats. But did you know that PugetPets also cares for urban livestock, including goats, rabbits, and of course, chickens? So if you already have hens or are thinking seriously about keeping backyard chickens, farmsitting is one “problem solved.” Our knowledgeable staff are available to care for your entire “farmily!”