The Chicken Lady

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March 13, 2010 at 8:18 pm

I have to admit it. My interest in backyard food production is a bit extreme for a city-dweller. It arose 18 years ago when I landed my first apartment with a balcony in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina and the interest has faithfully followed me ever since. The seeds of this obsession were sown by my parents, ardent gardeners themselves, but my mother is quick to point out that the seedlings may have mutated a bit along the way. Back in Mt. Pleasant I was known as “The Plant Lady” by some of my fellow apartment residents. Having grown up in the country, I was not aware that it was atypical to fill one’s entire balcony with edible vegetation.

Later, when I morphed into being “The Chicken Lady,” I was more aware that what I was doing was a bit different. Since we live just nine miles west of Chicago’s Loop, Daisy and Buttercup, my first little peeps, were unusual additions to the neighborhood. As a result, I was neither surprised nor offended when my neighbors, who were trying to sell their house, hinted in the nicest way that they would appreciate it if I would keep the girls in their coop during showings.

That was five years ago. These days, I’m not feeling so different. In fact, these days I’m feeling positively hip. Urban chickens have become quite the rage. Newspaper articles, books and blogs abound. I don’t know how long this chicken bandwagon will be in town, but I’m glad I’m on board.

I was inspired to keep backyard chickens by gardening experts who praised the humble chicken poop. Chicken manure has a high nitrogen content and a relatively speedy decomposition rate. I wanted some. While roosters poop, they also crow… a quick route to annoying one’s neighbors. So, hens it was. Eggs were an added bonus. I’ll stick this in here now because people always ask – yes, hens can lay eggs without a rooster. The eggs will not be fertile however.

My town, Oak Park, Illinois, maintains a two-fowl-per-household policy. This makes obtaining chickens a bit tricky. Two chicks cannot be mail-ordered from a hatchery. Little chickies need a mass of other little chickies to stay warm, and most hatcheries require a minimum order of 24. Therefore, urban folks need to find a local source. I’m certain a drive into the country would have worked, but I really did not want to use the gas.

In the end, I found The Feed Store in Summit, Illinois. Thirty minutes from my house – perfect. The only downside was that I was not able to select an heirloom breed as I had hoped. Instead, I took the two-day-old layer chicks they had in stock. They were Isa Browns. Isa Browns are a hybrid sex-linked type. They are good layers and it’s easy to tell the boys from the girls. Girls have more brown in their fluff. The Feed Store also sells layer feed, pine shavings for bedding, oyster shells for extra calcium, and scratch, a mixture of corn and other seeds which is just for treats.

chicks

Driving home with a pair of two-day old chicks in a paper bag is a bit surreal. It’s also exciting and really scary. My kids, then seven and nine, were forbidden to touch the bag which I gently set in a shoe box on the sunny side of the car. Chicks need to be kept at 90 degrees F. for the first few weeks of their life. After that, the temperature should be lowered five degrees a week. In late March, my car was not providing that kind of heat and we were concerned. We raced home and placed our girls under the 100 watt bulb I had rigged up over a cardboard box inside the dog’s cage. The purpose of the cage had shifted overnight; it was now meant to keep the dog out. Although our 12 year old lab showed no signs of interest in the newest members of the family, I wasn’t going to take any chances.

The next few weeks went smoothly although I frequently consulted my new best friends at Backyardchickens.com. The wonderful folks who monitor that site hold the hand of many a new chicken keeper. They are knowledgeable and patient and available all hours of the night.

Watching the chicks became an obsession. I sat on the basement floor for hours. My husband would occasionally come down to check on me, a look of bewildered apprehension on his face. “What are you doing?” You’ve heard people say that kids grow up quickly? Believe me, it’s nothing in comparison to how quickly little fuzz balls turn into gangly pullets – overnight. I did not want to miss a moment. So I sat and stared. And sat and checked the thermometer. And sat and checked the thermometer again. Somehow we all survived, and after seven weeks the girls had enough feathers to move outside.

Chickens are not fussy about their homes. A coop needs to be dry, big enough to permit some personal space, and draft free. There are beautiful coops to be found on the web, but they have beautifully steep prices to go along with them. There are also simple coop plans that you can purchase. We found free plans in an old issue of Mother Earth News.

coop

Building the coop was an intergenerational event. My parents came from Cleveland one week and my in-laws visited soon after from South Carolina. The men bonded over egg boxes and roost supports. My kids helped saw and paint. Bless my husband. None of this had been his idea but he worked away at that thing for several weeks. By the time we finished, what was supposed to be a portable chicken tractor required four manly men to lift. Fortunately, we know a few.

The coop, a two-storied, 7×4 foot A-frame, sits in a 14×12 foot run. It works just fine although the top floor is not as well insulated as I would like it to be. In the winter, I close the trap door that connects the two levels and stuff all the cracks with straw. I also double the depth of the bedding. When it gets really cold, the girls move into a the heated greenhouse we built off the garage (another male bonding experience). I am told by experts that chickens can survive Chicago winters, but I worry about them all the same. They do have names after all, and that clearly puts them in the pet category.

We are currently on our second batch of chickens. The second baby chick go-round was easier than the first. This time I was more confident. This time I was smarter. The chicks went into an old aquarium – transparent, draft-free, and waterproof. The girls lived in the family room where we could visit all day. I no longer had to sneak down to the basement to get my fluff ball fix. Brilliant! Of course, they quickly grew out of that small aquarium, so I moved them into an equally waterproof plastic tub and used an extra oven rack as a lid. The oven rack was another stroke of genius on my part. I could rest the metal light fixture right on the rack without fear of fire. It was also strong enough to deter the cat and the new puppy.

Having chickens is really not much work. Unlike a dog, they do not have to be house-trained. Unlike a cat, they do not cough up fur balls. And unlike both, they do not shed in the house or on your clothes. They eat leftovers, pump out high-quality compost, serve as ambulatory yard ornaments, provide breakfast, and perhaps best of all, they live outside. We have a picket fence that surrounds our backyard so most days they get an hour or two of free ranging. I would like to give them more free time, but chickens love to dig up seedlings and they poop indiscriminately. Since they have to share the yard with two teenagers and one crazed vegetable gardener, two hours is all they get. The rest of their time is spent scratching up bugs and slugs in their run.

I have been tickled to see the recent interest in urban chickens. Lately I have fielded several questions regarding my girls. Based on the popularity of backyardchickens.com, I knew I was not alone, but it has been wonderful to find locals engaged in my hobby. This spring, two friends purchased chicks. I smile when I picture the little chickies warming themselves under their 100-watt bulbs. Maybe I should arrange some play dates!

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8 Comments

  1. favean says:

    Great article! I’m calling City Hall on Tuesday to see what our ordinances are. This really just made up my mind on something I’ve been looking into. Thanks

    • speedy says:

      Dear favean, might I come over your home to see just ordinances /laws you may not be complying to?
      My suggestion. live and let live. Ordinances are created from people like you who live in fear and have a bug up their??? \leave it alone or soon someone may come knocking on your door.

  2. Your yard looks like mine! The more beds, the merrier, I say.

    We just added chickens to our homestead a few weeks ago. Our city (Columbus OH) doesn’t mandate a limit to the number of birds but does have some other silly rules. We will ask forgiveness instead of permission if it comes to that…

  3. Derek says:

    It’s great to see so many people interested in getting chickens and your blog will certainly help people understand what’s needed raise them. I wanted to mention that there are hatcheries that will ship small orders. Here at My Pet Chicken, we can safely ship as few as 3 baby chicks. (You can read about how we can ship so few here, http://www.mypetchicken.com/catalog/helper/dayoldchicks.aspx ) It’s not 2, but it is much better than finding 12 other people to share an order of 25. Plus, we have a lot of rare & heritage breeds that most local feed stores don’t carry.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks Derek. I did learn this winter of three sources for deliveries of three or more. My Pet Chicken, Nature’s Hatchery http://www.natureshatchery.com, and Meyer Hatchery http://www.meyerhatchery.com will all fill smaller orders. Folks may find they pay extra for the smaller order as precautions must be taken to ensure adequate warmth. Given that I have come across those three, there are probably others as well. Now if only I can get my city to raise the limit to three!

  4. dominic c. says:

    hi! i live a couple miles south of you in berwyn. i know from my gardening endeavors that we have many raccoons, opossums, squirrels, and feral cats roaming the neighborhood. do you find any of these to be a problem?

    do you have any more pictures of your coop? i’m curious to see how it’s all setup in your yard.

    thanks so much!

    dominic c.

    • Helen says:

      We also have those critters although I don’t see as much evidence of them as I did about 5 years ago. I used to see footprints in the snow and the occasional dead frozen opossum would amaze the neighborhood children. I have never had a problem with either. Yet. Let’s all knock on wood. Chickens need a safe coop to go into at night which is when racoons are out. Their home has to be solid and draft free for winter and if you take that seriously in your coop design, you will be keeping beasties out also. Hardware cloth is much stronger than chicken wire and that runs around the open bottom half of my A-frame as well as a foot out from the perimeter of the base just for extra measure. I do have a friend in Oak Park who lost a young chicken in a lighter weight portable coop. Not sure but I think she only used chicken wire which is really flimsy. The raccoon then sat on the fence terrorizing the remaining bird the rest of the summer. Squirrels are a non-issue. My birds are bigger than a cat and my own cat does not go anywhere near them although he was quite interested when they were chicks in the house. Certainly it is safest to have the birds inside a sturdy run when you are away from home. I would not say it is impossible for a feral cat to take down a chicken, especially a pullet or bantam, but they do have a strong kick and beak. Loose dogs can be avoided by having a gate around your yard. There are foxes and coyotes which also can be kept out by a gate although perhaps a coyote can jump over the fence. Not sure about that. Your only other daytime concern is hawks. Hawks do have the ability to attack a chicken. This can be avoided by laying bird netting (really cheap at Home Depot or Lowes) across the top of the run. I have never bothered with this because my run is in such an awkward location for a hawk, corners every which way, that I cannot imagine a hawk taking the risk of trying to get in and out of there. The coop is surrounded by 6 foot privacy fencing on three sides, the coop and the garage on the fourth side. Of course, I may be sorry for my failure to cover the top. I have seen hawks in the neighbor’s yard and the birds can tell they are there. They vocalize a lot. I make sure to never leave the chickens loose in the backyard when I am gone. They have plenty of room in their run and they can always go in the coop if they feel threatened. That being said, predators are always a risk but we all get in our cars everyday and that is a risk too. I would not let it prevent you from enjoying your own backyard chickens. Just plan your set- up carefully and keep an eye out. Go to backyardchickens.com for great photos on coops and yards. Many free plans as well. Also, there is a google group called Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts moderated by Martha Boyd of Angelic Organics that is planning a coop tour this summer (I believe). Planning is under way. Good luck!

  5. Helen says:

    Just wanted to provide some updated info since Local Beet is running this story again. This winter the hens stayed in their coop. They did not move to the greenhouse. I always worried about the impact of the temperature fluctuations in the greenhouse. On a sunny day, it can get pretty warm in there. They were fine in their coop. I did use a 60 watt light bulb during the day because my coop is very dark. My hens do not like to go about in the snow, and so they spent much of their time in their coop. Also, on really cold days, and we had quite a few this winter, I did not even open their door. The light bulb helped to keep water from freezing on milder winter days. I also have a 250 watt red heat lamp bulb purchased at a local hardware store with a special light fixture designed for high wattage. I used it on single digit nights. I am not saying this is the right thing to do. Most people will tell you it is not necessary. I only have two birds and my coop is not well insulated so I worry. 5 birds can provide group warmth. Two birds face more of a challenge when it is near 0. Some people say it is dangerous to use a heat lamp due to the possibility of fire. I double check that the light is secure before I turn it on and sleep fitfully. By the way, any light used at night must be red. White light disturbs their sleep patterns and they get cranky. Every coop, every site, every owner and every breed of chicken is slightly different. Ask around and find a winter method that will work for you. I have a friend whose coop is in her garage with outside access through a window. I think that is a great set-up for winter although I imagine heat is a problem in the summer. I suppose the best method is to really research coop design and plan for great insulation.

    Also, two new local resources I discovered this winter…
    Backyard Chicken Run is the first. John Emrich will make home deliveries of organic chicken supplies.
    Secondly, Jen Murtoff runs Home To Roost, an urban chicken consulting service. Jen is not a vet, but she is very knowledgeable and can help in many ways. j.murtoff@sbcglobal.net. She has experience with many breeds of fowl and that can be tricky to find in Chicago without spending a fortune.

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