Keeping chickens in your back yard is the ultimate in the today’s farm-to-table craze.
The practice of eschewing processed foods in favor of fresh, unadulterated fruits, veggies, meats and fish is growing, and you can’t get fresher than an egg laid moments ago only steps from your back door.
If you want to introduce more healthy foods into your diet and you have a latent love of agriculture (i.e., you wear overalls around the house, you finish bagged carrots before they get slimy and you’ve never killed a houseplant), raising backyard chickens may be for you.
Rules and Regs
The first hurdle you have to clear when you want to keep chickens is your local zoning board. Many prohibit the keeping of backyard chickens (gasp!), and others regulate the practice so rigidly that few are able to meet the requirements.
Takoma Park, Maryland, a majorly progressive city on the outskirts of D.C. (it allows 16-year-olds to vote in local elections), is home to so many backyard chicken owners that it has its own Facebook page. But Takoma Park has never been considered the norm.
It’s against the law to keep chickens inside the D.C. city limits (except in the fridge). Alexandria and the neighboring counties of Montgomery, Prince George’s and Fairfax, put limits on how close you can keep your chickens to a dwelling. The distance has been shrinking over the years, due to persistent pressure from vocal groups pushing for relaxing the laws so more people can keep poultry.
So before you decide whether you want to keep chickens, check and make sure you even can.
Rent or Own?
If you think you’d like your own flock but you’re not sure you’re cut out for that farming life (cue the theme from popular ’60s sitcom Green Acres), you can rent a chicken coop, and even the chickens! However, know that renting a coop and hens and having your supplier throw in food, bedding and other necessities can run you upwards of $100 a week. With a dozen eggs at your local Safeway coming in at about $3, the rent-a-farm experience is not about saving money.
If you have the time, the interest and the tools, the cheapest way to raise chickens is to build a coop and buy your own baby chicks and supplies. Baby chicks are sold online (they’re shipped to your house in a box!), but you can also get them from local farmers. Feed can be bought at farm supply stores way outside of the ’burbs in Maryland and Virginia.
Plans for a variety of coops — some that look as nice as your house! — also can be found online. That being said, if you have any scrap wood lying around, that’ll do fine.
Chickens need a safe place to roost, food and water — everything else is a luxury. The coop keeps them dry and free of drafts, but a coop’s original purpose (which is still valid today) is to protect your investment from predators. Over the Hedge was not far-fetched science fiction, and that’s why you need to keep a barrier between your chickens and foxes, coyotes and raccoons. Of course dogs also will eat chickens, but dogs are not generally allowed to free-range, so they don’t get the chance. Some chicken owners report their own dogs eating their chickens — which used to be an offense punishable by death in the old days — so if you have a dog, take extra precautions. Some cats will stalk chickens, but the reality is that the size of most full-grown chickens is too daunting for most cats.
This is why your run also should be completely enclosed. Merely housing your chickens in a fenced-off area is not enough. Animals can be good climbers, and hawks don’t need to climb to steal your chickens. Some chicken owners advocate against fencing with chicken wire — they recommend hardware cloth instead, and they advise that you install the fence at least 12 inches below the ground to discourage burrowing animals from tunneling in.
With Easter just around the corner, it’s easy to find baby chicks for sale. Sadly, many misguided people still attempt to buy chicks for children as if they were toys, though an increasing number of sellers actively discourage this practice now. Baby chicks are fluffy and adorable, but they are also living, breathing creatures that will outgrow their cardboard box in just a couple of weeks and start giving off an odor that shouts barnyard! Like any other baby, chicks are a responsibility.
Local ordinances may force you and your family to stick to marshmallow chicks this year, but if not, now’s the time to start planning for your very own flock of backyard chickens.