Want Chickens?

After reading through this website are you considering taking the plunge and getting your own backyard flock? There are quite a few benefits of having your own chickens:

1) Produce your own fresh nutritious eggs. Some sources state that free range chicken eggs have more vitamins and beta carotene (hence the ultra bright orange yolks). Plus some people like to know that their eggs are from birds raised under humane conditions and not trapped in a tiny cage to live out a sad life.
2) Insect Control. Chickens scratching around in your yard will eat pretty much any bug they can find.. including ticks and other creepy crawlies that may be plaguing your vegetable garden or lawn
3) Compost. Aged chicken manure is fantastic for plants of all kinds. Some company actually sells this stuff pre-packaged and marketed as “cock a doodle doo” . Google it. You can buy a 6lb box of chicken crap for $14.95 (plus shipping). I wish I could sell chicken crap at that price. I could retire. Let me know if you want any chicken crap.
4) Chickens are fun. Nothing is a conversation starter like having your own backyard flock.

However, it isn’t all fun and games. There are some considerations you need to address before you head down and buy your baby chicks. A chicken can live 16 years, so you are making a relatively big commitment.

Consideration 1: Zoning

First you need to consider if it is even legal to have chickens in your area. There is a growing movement for “urban chickens” as many city folk start raising their own chickens. However, in many areas chickens are considered “livestock” and they are banned or heavily regulated. Here is a smattering of zoning rules from Massachusetts. (Borrowed from The City Chicken website).

Belmont, MA. Allows up to 5 hens in an inspected coop. Contact the animal control division or public health department and they will inspect the coop for adequate size and placement.
Boston, MA. All residential zones in Boston forbid "auxilliary keeping of animals", which includes poultry and other livestock.
Brockton, MA. Hens are allowed, but roosters are not.
Cambridge, MA. Nowhere are chickens mentioned in the city codes. The city itself comments that as long as the chickens are "pets", there is nothing to enforce or not enforce.
Lynn, MA. You have to go to all your neighbors and have them sign a petition stating that they would not have any problems with you having the hens. If you have complaints from neighbors about your chickens, you are subject to a fine of $1000.00 per day.
Northampton, MA. A maximum of three hens allowed; no roosters.
Springfield, MA. Keeping chickens is technically illegal in this city.
Somerset, MA. The entire town is zoned agricultural. No limits on the amount of chickens allowed. You are asked to submit a plan for your management of manure.
Wenham, MA. Poultry allowed, but the town may restrict your operation if it causes a public nuisance (noise) or public health issues (disease).
Westfield, MA. Chickens not allowed. No "livestock." Maximum of five cats and dogs.
Westwood, MA. Up to 10 fowl allowed on lots less than 40,000 sq. feet, Coop must be 15 feet from property lines. Permit application must include site plan. $10 annual permit fee and BOH inspection prior to issuance of the permit. Cockerels must be kept 1,000 feet from property lines.

My favorite is the Westwood ordinance that says you must keep roosters 1,000 feet from property lines. This means under ideal circumstances, you must have a completely circular lot with a 1,000 foot radius, breaking out my 8th grade geometry, that means you need to have about a 70 acre lot in order to have a rooster (that is if your lot was a perfect circle). I wonder how many 70 acre lots there are in Westwood (metro Boston), probably none or few. And if there are any, they would probably be worth tens of millions and wouldn’t be used for raising roosters I am pretty sure.

Now let me tell you my story. I couldn’t find any websites that helped with chicken ordinances in New Hampshire (even The City Chicken had nothing). I investigated this with my particular location (Hampstead NH). I read through the zoning laws and they seemed to be somewhat cryptic. For example “Large Animals” cannot be kept on lots less than four acres except under the following conditions: One large animal on a two acre lot, three large animals on a three acre lot and not more than 5 on a lot less than 4 acres. What exactly is a “large animal” and how many can you keep on a 3.01 acre lot? I guess 5? What about a goat or sheep? Are those large animals? Anyway the zoning laws go on and mention that you can’t have a piggery (which is defined as more than two pigs). Also “the raising and selling of fur bearing animals is prohibited.” Don’t most animals have fur? I assume they mean raising animals for the sole purpose of fur (I guess like mink). I am not a lawyer, but these regulations seem to be worded poorly to me and aren’t exactly clear. At any rate, no mention was made at all about chickens. So I ended up calling the town hall and asking. Basically, they pointed me to the regulation that says “The keeping of animals shall not create a health or safety hazard to the immediate abutters or the community at large” also “Fences shall be erected that are adequate to prevent animals from escaping.” That seemed to be the only thing was applicable. This seemed to confirm that I am free to have as many chickens as I want provided I keep them fenced and in sanitary conditions. Also, about building the chicken coop. The zoning laws seemed to state that a maximum of two accessory buildings are allowed maximum. However “Agricultural uses are not subject to this regulation”. Now, since I already have one shed, I didn’t want my two building “quota” absorbed by a chicken coop (maybe I might want to build another shed?). However when I went down to get a permit, they refused to issue me one that said “Chicken Coop.” Instead, they insisted it say “Shed.” As I said, I am not a lawyer, but does this have to be this confusing? At any rate, I highly recommend you talk to your town hall and get everything in writing before you do anything with chickens. Especially if you have jerky neighbors, they will be the first ones to report you.

Consideration 2: Chicken Housing

Where and how are you going to keep these chickens? Okay, this is going to be primarily based on how many chickens you want. You shouldn’t have just one chicken, it will become neurotic as they are “flock animals” and don’t want to be isolated. You need at least two or three (preferably). You don’t need a rooster (as previously mentioned) so scratch that off the list under most circumstances. Basically, try to figure how many eggs you want. I would guesstimate about 250 eggs per year per chicken, with more output in the summer, and less in the winter and during the molt. You should figure at least 4 square feet of indoor housing required and at least 10 square feet of outdoor area per bird is ideal. So, if you are keeping 3 chickens, you need 12 square feet (about the size of a large dog house) for example. Due to the increasing popularity of backyard chickens some company has begun capitalizing on this by selling “Eglu" pre-made plastic chicken coops. I checked these out and they will set you back about 500 bucks,plus extras. If your tool kit can fit in a ziplock bag and you routinely hammer things with a shoe, this might be the way to go. But if you have ANY carpentry skills at all, I highly suggest you skip the Eglu and build your own coop (or modify one out of something else, like a dog house). Couple things you want to remember. Make it easy to get into, both to clean and get the eggs. For small coops (dog house sized) think “removable or hinged roof”. Otherwise you will soon tire of trying to get the dirty bedding out of a tiny, chicken-sized hole. The other thing I would consider is making a “human sized coop” for any number of chickens. Couple reasons for this.. (as mentioned) it is easy to get into, and you will undoubtedly collect a lot of chicken paraphernalia (bags of food, bedding etc.) that need to be stored somewhere, why not store them in the coop? Much more convenient than the basement. Also think about the fencing. You may have fantasies about not putting up a fence and instead letting them run around your yard during the day. Since they automatically go back in the coop at night, you might think you can simply lock them in the house at night. Well, let me tell you, you will probably soon tire of opening and closing the coop every single day and it only takes ONE night for you to forget and a fox, raccoon, or neighborhood dog to eat up your flock. Therefore, I can’t stress the need for a sturdy fence. I would recommend at LEAST 5 foot woven wire (even then sometimes the chickens get out), unless you put a roof on it. Also, you might want to consider making the fence “dig-proof” (see my design).

Consideration 3: Financial Concerns

What does it cost to get started with and maintain your flock? As previously mentioned, housing costs will be variable. However, don’t forget you will need other sundry equipment such as nests boxes, food and water dispensers (both for summer and heated ones for winter and don’t forget the electric bill for this!), egg cartons, medications and other items. Ongoing food costs won’t be too problematic. You can get a 50 pound sack of chicken food for 11 bucks in my area. The average chicken will eat 1/3 of a pound a day, so you are talking about 7 cents a day per chicken in food. This probably won’t break the bank here, but this starts to get considerable if you have a lot of birds. These can be reduced by feeding them leftovers and they also supplement themselves somewhat by whatever they can forage in their yard (bugs, grass, seeds, etc). If you cruise Craigslist a lot, and also ask your friends to pitch in (in return for fresh eggs) you can get recycled cartons and equipment for cheap or free. Also, I want to immediately address the myth that you can make any money with small-scale chicken farming. I think you would be VERY hard-pressed to make any kind of profit, and if you do it would probably take years of payback. If a profit is your concern, you could probably do about twice as well working at McDonald’s part-time or getting a paper route.

Consideration 4: Labor concerns

To me this is by far the biggest concern you should address. Chickens need DAILY care. When you go on vacation, you need to make arrangements for someone to watch them. You need to make certain food is available everyday, lugging water out to them constantly (6 chickens can go through a gallon a day). In the winter you need to make sure their water doesn’t freeze and also you need to shovel the snow out of their yard. Also, you need to remove enormous amounts of manure from their coop and replace the bedding in the nest boxes constantly. In order to keep the eggs “clean” you should gather them everyday. The longer you leave them in the coop the “dirty” they get (mud from their feet/poop) and the more egg washing you need to do. Depending on how many hens you have and how well you design your “chicken system” this labor can be just a few minutes a day or turn into an enormous chore that you hate.

Consideration 5: Esthetics

These are important considerations not only for you but also YOUR NEIGHBORS. Be a responsible chicken owner to help prevent zoning ordinances that will outlaw your backyard chickens.

Noise: Even without a rooster, chickens make some noise. Some people claim that on occasion a hen may start to “crow” if there is no rooster (filling the void?). I have never experienced this, however, they do “cackle” quit a bit after they lay an egg (some say this is a defense to “draw attention away from the nest, as the chicken runs away cackling). Also if they are surprised the may make a shrieking kind of cackle. During the day they sort of make a very low cackling noise a lot of the time (at least when I am around them). I think this has to do with the fact that in the natural setting the birds walk around in the forest and easily get lost. Having this constant noise seems to keep the group together. Anyway, Since I have the coop a couple hundred feet from the house it isn’t even noticeable. If you want it closer (think summertime with the windows open) you might have to deal with this.

Smell: The coop and the yard will definitely develop somewhat of a “chicken smell” even with meticulous cleaning. Especially after a rain, the moist ground outside definitely gets a little “ripe.” However, a well maintained flock shouldn’t produce a stench.. but there is definitely an odor. Keep this in mind regarding citing your coop. Also, what do you plan on doing with all the chicken poop you clean up? Are you going to bag it and throw it out? If you live in the woods like me, you can toss it into an open compost pile (when it is “fresh” it is too strong to put on most plants.. you need to age it a bit first). In more “enclosed” neighborhoods you might want to consider a more enclosed composting system that you can either build yourself or buy. I use a "Compost Tumbler". You can just throw all the soiled bedding in there.. and in a couple months... compost.

Feathers: You are going to end up with alot of feathers blowing around. The basic amount of feathers blowing around in your yard will obviously positively correlate with the number of chickens you have. This isn't too much of a problem, however during molting season you can get surprising amounts. Once in awhile, I will take a leaf blower and blow them into the woods. However this is something to think about if you have a small yard and like to keep it pristine.

Dust: I have never experienced anything that produces as much dust as a chicken. When I got my first dozen chicks.. I raised them in the basement in a large cardboard box. This was a big, big mistake. Within three weeks EVERYTHING in my basement was covered in a very fine layer of light yellow dust. I am talking everything; all my tools, every water pipe, all the laundry we put out to dry, everything. I am still vacuuming it up. I have no idea where exactly this dust comes from... but since they spend the majority of their life kicking up their bedding looking to flush out bugs, I guess this generates most of it. Within about two weeks of moving them to the henhouse.... you get a finer layer on everything in there... including on all the spider webs (see pics) . You can't keep chickens in your house... unless you like dust.
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