Based on the proliferation of websites selling everything from rooftop chicken coops to chicken tents to, yes, chicken diapers (keep reading), one would think that chickens have replaced dogs as America's favorite pet. While you might not be looking to replace Fido with an egg-laying friend, a sociable hen might make a good companion for him—and ease your grocery budget at the same time. Raising chickens is easy, they are fun to watch, and the eggs are absolutely delicious. Plus, raising chickens is a great way to reduce the impact of your diet on the environment and recycle your leftovers into some high-quality protein for your table—talk about local!
But before you run out and buy a crate of chickens, there are a few things you should think about:
#1: Is keeping chickens legal where I live?
Urban and suburban areas may have zoning rules about raising chickens that restrict the number you can have. They may require you to get a permit and may prohibit roosters, if they don't ban keeping chickens outright. Get the facts from the municipal office before you get started, and I wouldn’t advertise your intentions before you know which way the wind blows. If chickens as livestock aren’t allowed, you still may want to consider keeping pet chickens indoors. Chickens make interesting pets that like to interact with their human (and canine and feline) family, and they can roam the house if you outfit them with special chicken diapers. That will keep your floors and carpets clean, and also allow you to collect the birds', um, leavings. Chicken manure is a wonderful addition to a compost pile.
#2: What will the neighbors think?
If city hall smiles on you, and you aim on keeping pet chickens outdoors (as most chicken owners do), it’s a good idea to talk to any neighbors and let them know exactly what you are thinking (and not thinking) about before you actually do anything they can see or hear. The calmest neighbor may get really nasty if he or she thinks a strident outdoor alarm clock is about to move in next door, that free-roaming digging machines are going to invade their prize dahlia beds, that your new pet will leave soft, squishy surprises on the front walk, or that the entire block is going to be overrun by flies and rats and probably die of bird flu. Setting minds at ease before such worries take root is much easier than quashing them afterwards.
#3: How many hens should I get?
If you use a dozen eggs a week, two hens will do nicely. If you eat more, get more hens, but buy a minimum of two, as hens are social animals. Plan to add another hen or two every few years to keep production up; for the first couple of years of a hen's 5- to 10-year life, she will deliver an egg just about every day, and take only a few weeks off a year. Then production slows to every couple of days, then a couple a week, and eventually, it may stop altogether.
Cost: two "started pullets" (young hens just about to start to lay) will cost you $20 to $30.
#4: What kind of house do my new pets need?
Chickens need protection from extreme cold in the winter, shade from the sun in the summer, and some fresh air (at least few square feet per hen) to roam around in. Their shelter needs to be sturdy enough to keep out predators like dogs, raccoons, rodents, hawks, and owls—humans aren’t the only ones that think chicken tastes good! At the most basic end of the spectrum, an enclosed rabbit-hutch–style cage with a built-in wire mesh run can house two or three hens, and can be kept on a deck or balcony if you have no yard. If you do have a yard, you can build a chicken coop, or adapt an existing building, that would give the girls room to scratch around and get some fresh food to pick over, improving the nutritional quality of the eggs.
Cost: Hutches run $150. Building a coop costs as much, or as little, as you want to spend.
#5: How will I fuel the hen that feeds me?
The average hen will snarf down about a quarter pound of commercial laying mash or pellets a day, plus a little crushed oyster shell, and a sprinkling of grit (small, sharp rock bits). Buy organic food if you can find it. Save on feed costs by letting your hens pick over just about anything left over from preparing or cooking meals before sending it on to the compost pile. Our hens adore fish and meat scraps, pasta, dairy products, baked goods, fruit, veggies, and greens, and eat a good bit of grass, weeds, and bugs from the pasture—perhaps 15 percent of their diet.
Cost: Up to $2 per hen per week for organic feed, less for conventional feed.
#6: Who will take the birds for walks?
Just like any other animal, you need to think about who will spend a few minutes a day feeding and watering the girls, who will collect the eggs, and who will clean out the pen every week or so. If they spend most of their time in a small space, they'll be happier if someone lets them out to spend some supervised time in a yard or open area. And who will do it all if you have to be away? Just like cats, chickens will do okay if you leave them with enough food and water for the time you're away from home. Daily monitoring is best, of course, but in moderate weather, you can leave hens in a secure pen with plenty of food and water for a day or two. In freezing weather, outdoor birds will need daily visits to make sure their water doesn't freeze (or you can get them a heated waterer).
#7: Am I in this for the long haul?
Because hens lay eggs for just a few years, commercial eggaries raise chickens for about 18 months before selling them off to the pet-food factory. On my farm, we keep them about 30 months before they "retire" and are respectfully turned into really tasty stewers; we just can’t afford to feed hens who aren’t laying much. What you are going to do in four or five years when your first cluckers are doing far more eating then laying? You also have to decide if you will call in a vet if one of your girls gets sick—veterinary care for chickens can add up fast.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.