Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The "how to" on urban chickens

This is getting a little odd.  Somehow, I didn't expect raising chickens to become a qualifier of my own identity.  You know that things have gotten a little too far that while standing in Grand Park, waiting for Lady Gaga concert, you see someone mouth "that's the girl that has chickens in Old Town."  No joke.  Despite my protestations it has become a qualifier of my life and .  No, I am decidedly not in love nor am I fixing to buy chicken diapers nor do I want little outfits, but this whole chicken thing definitely has its perks.   

A friend from Atlanta emailed me the other day about this beautiful blog saying, "I want to try an egg from your stores next time I'm up there!"  I started cruising 8.ate@eight and was delightfully intrigued.  As it happens Ms. 8ate and I have emailed back and forth: questions about 8-stranger-dinner-parties and chickens started whipping from Chicago to New York and back.  In the midst of it all, I realized that I have done you all a grave disservice.  I have never really explained what all is entailed in getting all the setups, keeping chickens happy and well fed and now laying.  So at her encouragement I am going to do so now.  Any of you urbanites out there who have thought about having chickens, it is my sincerest intention to tell you exactly how much work is entailed, and how delightful it is to have poultry in your very own back yard.

Do you have to get chickens in the spring? It just so happened that I was ready for chickens this spring but coincidentally, I do think that it's the best time to get them.  Here's the deal: you get chicks in the mail (it's true, the US post delivered a peeping box to my front door), and they need to live inside under a heat lamp for 6 weeks.  They end up getting pretty big, (8-10 inches tall) and really messy trying to flap their wings and kicking up the pine shavings all over your apartment.  We had a piece of dog crate to put on top of our cardboard boxes to keep them from flying out.  Point of it is, as chicks, the first week their box has to be around 95 degrees, then decrease by 5 degrees every week.  By the time week 6 rolled around, Chicago was around 65-70 degrees, which is what the weather ideally should be when they first get outside.  I suppose you could get chicks at time when it's not as warm out, but then you'd need to keep them inside for longer.  Another factor: heritage breeds start laying at 6 months old.  Hens hit their peak laying season in summer when they have plenty of sunlight.  I think ours started laying sooner because it was the full on summer and they were getting plenty of sunlight.  I have a friend that got his in June, and they did start laying in January, but not regularly until March...

How did you decide what chickens to get and what kind of coop do you have? I chose my breeds from mypetchicken.com.  They have a great little quiz about where you live and what kinds of chickens will do best for what you want (this is good Tuesday afternoon entertainment for anyone, I think).  I know Rhode Island Reds & Barred Rocks are favorites among backyard chicken folks.  I bought my coop at MyPetChicken also. I have a little brick patio on the main level that is about 15ftx40ft.  95% of the time the chickens are in that coop, but from time to time, I let them out and let them run around my backyard and pick through the garden.  I know people that have them on top of their garages, without any dirt for the chickens to dig through, though chickens love dirt and need something to scrathc through.

How often do you check on them?  I probably check on their feed and water every 2-3 days, though I like to toss in kitchen scraps daily to give them a varied diet.  They eat EVERYTHING, though they shouldn't have celery (they can choke on the stringiness) or garlic and onion because it will effect the flavor of their eggs (my boyfriend still threatens to feed them ubiquitous amounts of basil and garlic just to see what happens).

How often do you clean their coop?  The thing with having your coop on the ground is that you can develop a sort of natural composting process and have to clean your coop less frequently.  Though, even on a terrace, you could do the same thing.  I have straw down on the bottom of my coop and have changed it twice since they moved outside in April.  It doesn't smell, and if you have any issues with bugs (which I've heard you can if you're on a terrace) you can use DE  to discourage insect laying in the bottom of your coop.  It is food grade, so it's safe for chickens to eat and scratch around in.

Can you go on vacation?  I have left them for 3 days without care and they have been absolutely fine.  Now that they're laying every day, I have arranged for a friend to come over and just be sure they have clean water and food, in exchange for any eggs that are laid.  You'd be surprised at how your good friends turn into willing chicken sitters!

How much does the whole setup cost? This really varies.  Obviously, the coop has been my biggest cost.  Other than that, I'm getting organic feed delivered to my door by a local guy.  I have used 3-25 lbs bags of feed that were $10 bucks each, plus  $10 for one bale of hay (yes, I'm storing a bale of hay in the basement of my apartment building), $20 for the feeder and water and $10 for the heat lamp.  And that's about it!

How long will chickens live for? I've heard that hens will healthily lay for 3 years but have heard of chickens living for 30!! No one really knows the life expectancy for chickens because usually they die of unnatural causes (predators animal & human)...

All I can say is, having chickens is really really great!  I am completely city girl, born and raised in Chicago and Chicago suburbs and never have worked a day on the farm (save once) in my life.  Though I've only had 6 eggs so far, it is SO worth it.

Here are some links you may find helpful:

If any of you have questions or are curious about chickens, please let me know!


  1. Great post Jo very informative and if I didn't have a labrador that wants nothing more than to bring me ANY and EVERYthing that flies. I'd be getting a chicken coop. Don't forget the Cleverdons have a goat that could use a good home. Downside milk for only six months feeding her all year! As always it was great seeing you and I am looking forward to seeing you hopefully in September!

    PS I recommended your blog to a GCM vendor who loved the photos I took of your chickens. I posted her info on your FB page

  2. Love it! Here's to you for doing something you so enjoy and as always, breaking the mold. :)

  3. We got ours through MyPetChicken too, and I looked at the same coop you have. It looks GREAT! If I didn't have an architect dad and an engineer husband with a penchant for building, both willing and able to help us get our coop together, I would have absolutely chosen to get one of those coops. They have thought of absolutely everything (the special tools that open and close the doors, the slide out cleaning trays, etc), and they are actually really reasonably priced, for the quality of the materials and design. It looks really nice. This is a great overview of the whole process!