Eat This

Hen FAQ

If you’ve read the post below, it should be clear that I am far from a chicken expert. But I can answer some of the concerns of potential chicken-people.

Q: Do I have to build a chicken run?

A: In my experience, chickens are much happier roaming free. Clearly, they eat a much more natural diet that way, so I’d imagine that ranging is good for their health and the nutrient contents of the eggs, too. Of course, if you live in a city or suburb, it’s nice if the yard is fenced so they don’t wander into the neighbor’s place and poop on their chic outdoor fabrics. However, if I lived in the country, I wouldn’t even worry about it. They’re domestic birds. They want to be near their coop and near the people who toss them treats.

I have friends who’ve had great luck with chicken tractors, which are portable, bottomless cages that you move to a different patch of yard every day, allowing the chickens to sup on grass and grubs while remaining contained. I haven’t done this because it amuses me to have chickens running around–and because we go away on the weekends a lot and I don’t want to leave my chickens trapped in something so low to the ground.

Q: If I get chickens, will I never be able to go out to dinner again? Do I have to be home every night to shut them in?

A: Chickens are amazingly predictable. Right at sundown, they will head towards their coop and bed down for the night. Since my friend Rick, the genius, made me a fly-in coop with an opening three feet off the ground, I don’t worry about predators getting in. In fact, I’ve left my chickens overnight without a qualm. Of course, time will tell whether this is truly smart of me or just foolhardy.

Q: Is it a lot of work to take care of them?

A: In a word, no. They are the easiest pets we have, and I’m including the goldfish. I have a hanging feeder that holds a week’s worth of food high and dry in the coop and a galvanized waterer that refills itself automatically. I just toss out the dirty water in the bottom of the pan every day and let it fill itself up with clean water. I only take the waterer apart for a good hosing out twice a week or so. I rake out the coop every two weeks and compost the straw or wood shavings I use as bedding. I think you could get away with doing this much less frequently, but in the dead of winter, I’m glad to have an excuse to dig.

Q: Do they really lay eggs?

A: Pick a good laying breed according to Henderson’s Chicken Chart, and you will get an egg a day per hen, with that tapering off during the low-light months. Hens have to be the most efficient, most cost-effective source of high-quality protein in the world.

Q: What about winter?

A: If you live in a cold climate, as I do, you’ll have to get one of the breeds described as hardy in Henderson’s chart. When I first had chickens, I worried that they would freeze to death on winter nights and screwed heat-generating bulbs into the roof of their coop. This freaked the chickens out so completely that I soon abandoned the idea. I just make sure that they have lots of straw for insulation and let them huddle together on their perch for warmth. Think March of the Penguins. The most important thing is keeping their water from turning into a block of undrinkable ice, something I accomplish with a low-tech stand for their waterer that holds a single light bulb.

Posted by on September 26, 2008 at 9:02 am, in the category Eat This.
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6 responses to “Hen FAQ”

  1. S. says:

    I’m loving these chicken posts and am horribly disappointed that my county has pretty much banned them except in “agricultural” areas.

  2. commonweeder says:

    I’ve raised chickens for over 20 years out in the country. Some years there are critters and the chickens are in danger, and some years the landscape is pretty quiet. So I do have a fence, but the chickens also free range – when it is safe. Like right now. We can leave them for a weekend, locked in their house, with sufficient food and water. I am stunned to hear that you clean your coop every two weeks. Perhaps it is a question of size. We clean out the hen house once a year, adding new bedding as necessary, especially egg box shavings. There is a theory which we have always subscribed to that their manure helps keep them warm in the winter. It does get below zero here with lots of wind, but the chickens do fine. Chicken tractors are good for letting them have their natural diet safely, but they can also help you clear new garden space. Chickens are such helpful creatures.

  3. Jen says:

    I’ve wanted chickens for awhile now but they are low on the to do list. It gets down to -40 here so I don’t know what we’d do with them in the winter.

    It’s illegal to keep chickens in the city but regardless there are some clucking around.

  4. Michele Owens says:

    Commonweeder, you may well be right about the manure keeping the chickens warm. I’m only so fastidious because I keep chickens in a city and don’t want my neighbors complaining about any smells.

  5. Old Kim says:

    3 years ago when we didn’t lock up our 3/4 dozen chickens at night they all were killed but one. Mama the magic Plymouth Rock hen is still with us. She escapes out of a 5 ft tall chicken run daily and returns at night. Her wings are clipped and our other unclipped hens stay inside the fence. We can’t figure out how she gets in and out so we call her Magic Mama.
    If she sees me digging in the dirt she’s right there eating the worms or bugs unearthed. Chickens are good ant eaters, too.
    They usually poop all over the place but mama has become discreet.
    She scratches up mulch to get bugs and I just rake it back where I wanted it.
    If you can deal with the poop the greatest downfall with chickens is that they are tasty and easy prey. The cute neighborhood dog could kill with instincts and make war with the neighbors.
    A couple of years ago I picked out an awesome dog. He’s a chicken defender and stays in his yard.

  6. AFK says:

    We used to have chickens in our backyard, and no, they don’t just return to the coop every night. Every last one of them preferred to roost in our orange tree.

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