The Chicken Lady
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.
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.
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!