Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, kitchen, garden, and out fishing. Many of his DIY projects are featured in his yard.
The Pets That Make Your Breakfast
Raising a small flock of chickens in our urban chicken coop is a fun and rewarding hobby, and the fresh eggs taste great! We have several different breeds of chickens in our flock, and they produce a kaleidoscope of organic eggs in a variety of colors and sizes. Breakfast tastes even better when you collect the eggs yourself from your own urban chicken coop.
Many urban families enjoy raising a small flock of chickens in the backyard. Fresh and organically grown eggs are the obvious benefit, and we also enjoy the lively colors, sound and movement that our flock of free-ranging chickens adds to landscape. Foraging chickens search the yard for bugs and edible bits, helping to reduce the number of troublesome ticks and other insect pests. And composting the waste from the hen house and coop produces nutrient-packed humus that enriches the soil in our veggie garden and planting beds.
Building an urban chicken coop and keeping a flock of chickens in the backyard is a family project -- and a lot of work. Chickens need food and fresh water every day, even when the weather is cold and wet or we want to travel for vacations. Everyone pitches in with feeding and caring for the birds, helping the kids to learn about the joys and the responsibilities associated with caring for animals.
Raising a Flock of Backyard Chickens
Our Little Flock of Hens
Raising a small flock of chickens in the backyard is a lot of fun, though it also takes quite a bit of work. before you pick out a bunch of those cute little chicks, talk with someone who already has a backyard flock. Most urban farmers are happy to talk about their chickens and share some tips. In our case, a neighbor has a chicken coop (along with horses, rabbits and a duck). Whenever we visit, I spend a lot of time watching the hens roam through the gardens and paddocks, and I ask a lot of questions about their housing requirements and their care. Since our rural property has lots of room and is filled with my collection of backyard projects, I thought it would be fun to add our own urban chicken coop filled with an assortment of hens.
We started with six little chicks that we purchased from a local feed store: a Rhode Island Red, a Buff Orpington, a Columbian Wyandotte, a Barred Rock and a pair of Araucanas. All were supposedly sexed as females.
On Easter morning, our kids woke to find a box of little chicks. Each was quickly named as the kids cuddled the little fluff balls of yellow, white and brown. The chicks were surprisingly calm, nestling into the palms of our hands for warmth and security.
We moved the chicks into a large metal rabbit cage that we set up in the basement with a chick feeder tray and a water bottle. A special heat lamp for poultry provided warmth until their feathers grew in, and a layer of pine shavings added warmth and made clean up easier.
A happy chick is a quiet chick. Well fed and warm, the baby chicks spent most of their time snuggling in a little pile. If the feed bin ran low, a chorus of cheeps called out for a refill.
Our Urban Chicken Coop
The little chicks grew quickly, and it was interesting to watch the transformation from cute little chicks into ungainly teenagers with spiked pinfeathers. The noise level -- and the chicken aroma -- increased along with the size of the chicks.
After their feathers grew in, the young hens were old enough to more outside into their new home. I designed and built a small chicken coop with an enclosed run, and positioned the coop in a shaded area behind our garden shed. The location provides shelter from the hot sun and protection from chilling drafts. The enclosed run gives the chickens lots of room to scratch around in the dirt, and the sturdy construction keeps out the local predators. For extra protection from coyotes, foxes, raccoon and dogs, the entire run is enclosed with heavy gauge wire including underneath the coop.
The hen house is small and specifically designed for easy access and cleaning. Raised off the ground and filled with a layer of shavings, the coop is insulated to provide additional protection from the cold in winter. Large doors on the front and back of the hen house make it easy to reach inside for collecting the eggs, and I never have to step inside to gather the eggs.
Cleaning the hen house takes just a few minutes.The door openings are wide enough for a snow shovel to pass through, pushing the soiled shavings through the house to a wheelbarrow on the other side. Then it is a quick trip to the compost bin.
The growing hens adapted quickly to their new outdoor environment. They learned to navigate the ramp leading from the enclosed run to the hen house, and they spend most of the day outdoors. As evening approaches, they settle down for the night on one of the perches secured to the inside of the house. I also placed several perches in the outdoor run for the chickens to roost outside. Several of the hens like the outside perches where they can see the world around them, and they often roost outdoors (even in winter).
Chickens have a defined pecking order within the flock. The most dominate chicken roosts on the highest perch.
The chickens are also let out of the coop often and allowed to roam through the gardens, though we try to supervise the free ranging birds to protect them from predators. Even with safeguards, we have lost a few hens to attacks from foxes and hawks.
A Simple Nesting Box
The hens started to lay eggs in the early fall. I tried several different styles of nest boxes, but the chickens preferred an open tray filled with pine shavings. They all use the same nesting tray, pushing out any occupants when it is their time to lay an egg.
On average, each hen lays an egg on every other day. Egg production is highest in the spring and early summer, and then drops off as fall approaches and the days get shorter. Chickens produce eggs for about two years, though they can live for up to ten years. We add several new hens to the flock each year to keep egg production going -- and to enjoy raising a new batch of chicks every spring.
We gather more than enough eggs for our needs, and we share the extras with friends and family. Everyone seems to enjoy the colorful assortment of fresh eggs, and our homegrown eggs really do taste better than the store bought versions. The yolks are bigger and brighter, and you can tell the difference.
A Basket Full of Organic Home Grown Eggs
More Chickens Means a Larger Coop
Our backyard flock of chickens has grown to 17 birds. As the number of hens in the flock increased, I expanded the size of the coop to give the chickens plenty of room and added a second hen house. The outdoor runs are connected, allowing the birds to move freely between the original coop and the newer addition. If needed, I can also close off the access between the sections to create two separate coops, each with their own hen house.
Even with the extra space, we let the chickens out to roam through the yards to feast on insects and grass. They scratch through the garden mulch in search of bugs and worms. The hens are especially fond of ripe blueberries, raiding the wild berries in the woods as well as the cultivated bushes in our blueberry patches. As evening approaches, the chickens retreat to the safety of their coop.
Here's another view of our expanded chicken coop
Are Chickens a Good Choice for You?
Raising backyard chickens is a rewarding hobby, but it is also a large commitment of time and money. Many wannabe urban farmers buy a few cute fuzzy chicks and a little chicken coop, and completely underestimate the time, labor and costs of keeping chickens. The cost of feeding and housing a small flock of chickens easily outpaces the savings from "free" eggs.
Before you make that initial purchase, take a good look at your family and your lifestyle: do you have the time to invest in caring for chickens every day? Do you have the space for a roomy chick coop and run? Will your neighbors tolerate the noise, and the aroma? Do your city ordinances allow you to keep chickens?
These are all questions that you must think through thoroughly -- before you purchase those cute little chicks.
Chicken and Egg Facts - Did You Know?
- Most hens begin to lay eggs when they are four to five months old.
- A young hen is called a 'pullet' until it begins to lay eggs.
- A backyard flock of hens do not need a rooster to produce eggs. A rooster is only needed to produce fertilized eggs.
- The average hen lays eggs for about two years. Some older chickens will continue laying eggs, while some hens may never lay an egg.
- Brown is the most common eggshell color. Depending on the breed, eggshells can be dark brown, light brown, white, cream, speckled, green or blue.
- The color of the eggshell is determined by the breed of the chicken. Only the shell color is different; all of the eggs are the same inside.
- Chickens can live up to ten years. You will need to decide what to do with your hens after they stop laying eggs. We have several older pet chickens that no longer produce eggs, but they still cost money to feed.
- Chickens will eat their own eggs. Any hen that becomes an egg-eater should be removed from the flock.
- Poultry breeders often sex young chicks to separate the male chicks from the female chicks. Though not 100% foolproof (or guaranteed), most chicks sold as females will grow up to become hens.
- Chicks purchased as "straight-run" are not sexed to separate males from females. Chicks sold as "straight-run" can grow up to become hens or roosters.
- Chickens are considered as livestock. Check with your local municipality before purchasing poultry.
- Many municipalities that allow homeowners to keep hens may prohibit keeping roosters. If you intend to include a rooster in your flock, check with your local municipality for any restrictions.
- Raising chickens is not for everyone, and many unwanted chickens are abandoned or left at animal shelters. Carefully evaluate your lifestyle before buying those cute little chicks.
Collecting Chicken Eggs
So, Do You Still Want To Raise Backyard Chickens?
And We have Goats Too!
Meet Oliver and Delilah, Our Pet Pygmy Goats.
That's Oliver on the left, posing on top of their goat house with his half-sister. The little pygmy goats are only around four months when this photo was taken, and they were about 14 inches tall at the shoulder and weighed almost 20 pounds. They are very, very cute.
Pygmy goats are affectionate, curious and surprisingly intelligent. They willingly follow us around the property, stopping to snack on leaves from both native and ornamental plants. They are especially fond of blueberry and raspberry plants, both the wild and domestic varieties, devastating two planting beds that used to produce fruit. Graham crackers are another favorite treat, and we use them to lead the goats back into their pen.
Oliver and Delilah stay together constantly and they are seldom more than just a few feet away from each other. If Delilah climbs to the top of the goat house, Oliver follows. When Oliver decides it's time to visit the hay bin, Delilah trots along after him. If one of the kids wanders out of sight while browsing on bushes in the yard, the other calls out and looks around nervously until it spots the other, then trots over to its companion.
If You Have Goats, Then You Need A Goat Pen - Our little goat pen is right next to the chicken coops
Free Ranging Chickens in the Compost Bins
More Backyard Chicken and Goat Pages to Explore
- Our Urban Chicken Coop and Our Backyard Flock of Chickens
Practical tips and ideas in planning for an urban chicken coop, and keeping a small flock of chickens in the backyard
- Chickens and Cold Weather: Caring for Chickens in Winter
How we feed, water and care for our chickens during the cold northeastern winter
- Welcome To Our Goat Pen! Meet Our Pet Pygmy Goats
Meet Oliver and Delilah, our pet pygmy goats, and see how we built our new goat pen.
© 2013 Anthony Altorenna
Tell Us About Your Backyard Flock of Chickens
Namsak on September 09, 2013:
My back garden isn't big enough to keep chickens but it sounds like a good idea.
Scott A McCray on September 09, 2013:
Outstanding lens - just got an update from my brother on the state of his flock. Including a group of Black Copper Marans he's raising for me, the flock count is currently 146! That's a lot of eggs!
Renaissance Woman from Colorado on September 05, 2013:
Still working on getting ready for my own flock. Need to clear out some cacti first. Enjoyed seeing your flock and goats and learning more about them.
Kim Milai on September 04, 2013:
This is terrific. We just got two pet hens hopefully they'll lay eggs. We are afraid to let them out of the coop unattended because there are hawks around. Enjoyed your article.
Anthony Altorenna (author) from Connecticut on September 03, 2013:
@favored: The goats are let out nearly every day, and they roam through the woods (and my gardens) in search of anything to eat. We let the chickens out whenever we are home. The dog helps to keep any potential predators away, but we still worry about their safety when they are out of their pens.