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The Flip Side of Suburban Chickens

GuestSweetChickens

Guest Rant by Rebecca Sweet of Gossip in the Garden 

Everywhere
I turn I’m reading magazine headlines promoting the "Joys of Chickens in your
Suburban Backyard", "Suburban chickens – the Way to Go," "What’re you waiting
for? Get a chicken – it couldn’t be easier!" I’m here to let folks know that some people’s
definition of ‘easy’ is different than others!  And here in Northern California, "Suburban" usually means 1/3 acre or less…with lots of neighbors around…

Okay
– don’t get me wrong. I love
chickens. I absolutely love chickens. In
fact, I’ve had at least a dozen chickens in my own suburban backyard over the
past decade. Note the word "had"…  

Here’s
the problem: Chickens poop – a LOT. And they don’t go in one spot either (like a
dog). They go all OVER the place, about
once every 5 minutes or so. And it isn’t
cute little poop either (like a rabbit’s). They’re golf-ball sized bombs just waiting for you to step on them.

"Well,
Einstein, then don’t let them loose in your garden" you might be thinking… But
isn’t this why you want the chickens? To
have them eat the bugs in your garden, wander around looking adorable, "composting" as they go?

Whenever
I knew friends were coming over, I would always have to remember to do a quick
"bomb check", hosing off the patio, and removing the obvious culprits from the
lawn. And should I have a party, my
chickens would undoubtedly wander onto the patio – to the delight of everyone –
and then lay a gigantic golf-ball – to the horror of everyone.

One
year, I bought a Silky, thinking since it was half the size of a normal chicken,
its poop would be, too. Unbelievably, it’s the same size, and they’re
just as loud.

Here’s
the other problem: Chickens are a heck
of a lot smarter than you think they are. They really enjoy the company of humans, and if you have them locked in
their pen (no matter how lovely it might be), they’ll call/scream for you,
getting louder and louder until they work themselves into a psychotic
frenzy. And guess what – your suburban
neighbors are NOT huge fans of this noise!!! So in a desperate attempt to keep the neighbors from complaining, you
run out there (stepping on poop bombs the entire way) to let the girls out of
their cage.

Let’s
talk about those photos showing the idyllic chicken scratching around a garden
bed. Nothing’s more fun than watching
chickens scratch around in the garden, right? Well then, get ready to have a party when you come outside to find
they’ve completely destroyed your bed of campanula, leaving campanula shrapnel
all over the place. And watch those baby
tears! Chickens adore baby tears (they must taste like potato chips). You get the idea – chickens absolutely ravage
small suburban garden beds, eating the tops off of many types of plants,
scratching them into oblivion, spraying mulch everywhere.

After finding homes for my girls (don't worry – they're happily residing in the Santa Cruz mountains on plenty of acreage) I’ve
finally resigned myself to putting off my chicken-lust for good, However, we do
own some retirement property, and it IS in the country…hmmmm…maybe in a few
years…

Posted by on September 10, 2009 at 4:41 am, in the category Uncategorized.
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36 responses to “The Flip Side of Suburban Chickens”

  1. Michele Owens says:

    Rebecca, I find my city hens incredibly easy and rewarding. But I gave up on the idea of letting them range because they constantly made their way onto my screened porch through the cat door, making a complete mess of the floor.

    They also found the weaknesses in our perimeter fence and had to be retrieved from under the porch of the house across the street.

    Given what a powerful homing instinct they have, we do let them out of their yard an hour or so before dark. They eat a bit of grass then and peck a little, but don’t go far.

  2. Kerry says:

    Rebecca – Love your chicken story. In high school, I had to care for 200 chickens – and these birds were vicious. Stupid and vicious – a dangerous combination. Now, the closest I want to come to a chicken is scrambled eggs.

  3. Great dose of realism, Rebecca. So much that is related to farming seems to be romantic to city dwellers until they actually try it.

  4. Carri says:

    Oh geez- you sound like my husband! Haha! I want chickens- I had them as a kid growing up on a nice farm and they were a lot of fun to have around. And since we already seem to tick our neighbors off doing nothing- we might as well have a reason right? Needless to say my husband has a thing against poop. I’m pretty sure all it would take was him stepping in a pile once, and we’d be having chicken enchiladas for dinner.

  5. Imagine 20 wild turkeys patrolling the grounds on a regular basis. Good thing there is plenty ground to cover.

  6. Tatiana says:

    You bring up some excellent points. I’ve never had chickens, have hardly seen any, and yet have a misinformed opinion like many others. However, here in my home town they’re outright banned, and that’s not right either.

    I fully support those who wish to raise chickens and deal with chicken bombs even though I have no desire to raise any, so for me the question of excess government regulation and authority is more the issue than the trials of owning chickens.

    Having said that, I guess it would certainly be the city authorities having to deal with the noise/smell complaints from any negligent owners, so perhaps there’s a moral to this…

    Anyway, thanks for illuminating the vague points of why I didn’t want chickens in my yard in the first place.

  7. One of my neighbors when I was a kid had chickens, and the rooster had it OUT for me. I swear he became enraged every time he saw me. He’d chase me across the yard and occasionally catch me… A chicken coop gives me the chills to this day. That said, I still put chickens in the “Things I Like In Theory” category. Too bad I can’t face them in reality, since my wonderful in-town neighbors would be thrilled if I had chickens.

  8. Kari Lonning says:

    At one point I’d considered guinea fowl for tick control (I live in CT), but the noise they create made me rethink that idea. I hadn’t considered the poop everywhere … Ha!

  9. Kat says:

    The first time I saw a friend’s chickens leaping to get at the leaves of their tiny avocado tree, I knew that chickens in my garden would be a bad idea. But still, I do long to find them a space of their own in the yard.

  10. Here’s another funny story I forgot to mention – I had one chicken that LOVED me, not for my charming personality but because I’d toss it bugs as I gardened. She was my shadow. And (I hate to admit this, being a gardener and all..) I happened to hate the big spiders that make their webs face-height, so I’d pick her up and hold her at arm’s length and she’d suck down that spider. It was a win-win situation, and actually kinda fun!

  11. Like many, I have been longing for chickens in the yard, and have only been stopped by my husband, the local fox, and my reluctance to have yet another animal depend on me.

    This was a great view into the reality of owning chickens. For now, I will continue to buy my eggs from my local farmer.

  12. When I was 8, Henny Penny and Cocky Locky were murdered in their coop by a big bad wolf, (or raccoon or coyote or fisher). I never recovered. I am not sure I have a feathered thumb, so I stick to plants. But, I admire my chicken-farming friends, (and the eggs they happily share).
    I love this post Susan. You can make me laugh. Humor is such a fine quality in a human being.
    -Michaela

  13. Liisa says:

    Man, I’ve had 3 “ladies” for a few years now, and I haven’t had the level of problem you’ve had at all. Never get a silkie — they KNOW how pretty they are. As for the commenter who took care of 200 vicious chickens: of course they were vicious; 200 hens is like a hen New York City, so it’s squawk or be squawked at for them. My hens come out some times. For parties, no way — they beg for food just like a dog. Do hens poop on the ground? Yes, but we just hose off the patio every now and then. Mostly hens poop where they’re eating, so most of it is in the grass, where it dries up quickly.

    Animals will take whatever you give them… and more. Like my dog or my cats, if I give an inch, the hens will take a mile. I put chicken wire fencing around my garden beds, because, yes, hens like your plants WAY more than the insects they’re supposed to be eating. Chicken wire fence = happy me, frustrated hens.

    I’m in no way romantic about raising my ladies, and I live on 1/6 acre, total suburban lot. When the hens squawk, either from laying an egg (you would too) or because one of them is in a laying box that another wants, or whatever, it’s over in 2 minutes. Compare that to my neighbor’s dog who barks all day long. Early on, I bought all of my neighbors’ good will with a dozen eggs for each. No complaints ever.

    I’m sorry your chicken experience was so far from reality, but I’m here to say that everyone else’s reality can be a lot closer to that romanticized “Suburban Chicken Myth” we keep reading about.

  14. OOPs, my apologies Rebecca! I saw “posted by Susan Harris”, and missed the fact that this is a guest post. Open keyboard, insert muck boot. Correction: Love this post Rebecca, (and yours too Susan) !
    -Michaela

  15. Wonderful post, Rebecca! My ex and I always talked about having chickens (and goats and an orchard and a future together) but I have never really had chicken lust. There is something in their eyes that makes me think of lizards with feathers (which I suppose is kind of what they are) and since I can barely tolerate the meows of an insistent cat, constant calls from the girls in the coop would NOT be for me! Thanks for the morning chuckle!

  16. shira says:

    I have enough problems getting anyone else but me around here to pick up after the dog – definitely not adding chickens to the mix!

  17. Michele Owens says:

    Okay, I gotta defend chicken-keeping. I have three hens in an urban yard. They are far less trouble than my cats, goldfish, children, or husband–and are the only household members that give me eggs.

    As in gardening, you have to select the right varieties and learn how to manage them.

  18. Amy says:

    I, too, have three hens and have not had any problems. I resisted getting the girls for a long time even though my husband really wanted them. I was worried about the poo, the stink, the work, etc. Plus we live in a posh suburb where “being green” is not the cool thing to do. I wanted to prove to myself – and others – you didn’t have to be “off beat” to enjoy raising chickens. We built a beautiful coop and just like everything else around the house, if you maintain it on a very regular basis it’s not a big deal at all.

  19. Okay you ‘chicken defenders’….I would LOVE to know any tips you might have on keeping the girls quiet in the morning when they start calling for you…do yours do that? Mine would start at 5:30 sometimes and wouldn’t stop until I came out there to let them out. They have a spacious coop, so that’s not the problem, they just wanted to roam and pillage. They’d go on and on for 30 minutes at a time! The stink was never a problem, just the actual ‘bombs’ all around my garden….my daughter is begging me for more and I may succumb next Spring should you have some ideas for me…..thanks!

  20. firefly says:

    I liked this post and just want to ask all the ‘chicken defenders’ to please quiet down and let Rebecca speak.

    Too often we hear only about the upside of things in gardening, never the downside — like native plants with invasive tendencies, or having to comb worm poop out of the vermicomposter by hand, or how you are pretty much chained to the vegetable garden at harvest time and how do you get your family to eat 17 bushels of zucchini.

    The downside of these situations needs to be aired so people can make informed decisions and find methods that work for them. Insisting that doing this or that is “easy” and anyone who doesn’t think that way is “doing it wrong” is not helpful to newbies — and this is what precipitates fads that catch on like wildfire and then fade over time. People go in with the wrong ideas and then are overwhelmed by problems along the way.

  21. Mary Delle says:

    Great advice about chickens. So many things I didn’t know.

  22. Robin Ripley says:

    Well, I can’t say that you’re wrong about any of this, but I do love my chickens. Of course, we have plenty of room and I have a nice little fence around the vegetable garden that discourages them from eating the lettuce. As for all the other plants and flowers, I just put up with a little bit of damage–and yes, hose off the sidewalk after they go back into their coop. The reward is fresh and healthy eggs and entertaining pets. Worth it? Yes, indeed.

    Robin

  23. Rebecca's mother says:

    Michaela’s comment about a night critter killing her chickens is a problem even in suburbs. Racoons are so smart they often work in teams, one scaring the chickens so they run to the opposite side of the cage where a second is waiting to reach into the cage, grabbing the chicken and pulling it up against the wire where the racoon will proceed to prepare it’s dinner. A smaller size opening on chicken wire can be a deterent for this type of night raid. Experience speaks.

  24. Yes, mother. I have those horrible memories burned in mind – something a small child should never see!! We used hardware cloth with small openings, and lined the bottom as well as the side of the cages with that to keep burrowing critters out as well and had great success with it. The raccoons would still torment them, though, as we’d find muddy ‘paw prints’ on their coop door, scratching in the middle of the night trying to get in. The nightmares those chickens must’ve had!!

  25. ann says:

    Now this is the kind of chicken info I need! Good to know that the purchase of fences for the garden and hosing of decks & patios are in my future if I end up getting chickens. Not to mention cautious walking in the yard, and tolerance of chicken calls. and possible raccoon carnage. Eek.
    I still find the fluffy Buff Orpingtons and such pretty tempting, though.

  26. sarahammocks says:

    I too had fallen under romantic spell of chickens, but have since come to terms with my own limitations (many of the ones listed above) and have turned to raising cactus instead.

  27. ryan says:

    I had a chicken tractor at my last house, felt like it eliminated most of the problems with having chickens in an urban backyard. We had control over where they went, but could still benefit from the bug eating and the fertilizing. And it was pretty fun to move the tractor and see them erupt in a frenzy of scratch and peck.
    Now, urban and suburban roosters, those I could rant about…

  28. Ursula says:

    The suburban free range chicken trend baffles me. Maybe because I live in a densely populated tract in southern California and already wary of the coyotes that jump 8′ fences to grab cats and small dogs and the raccoons that I hear snarling outside at night.

  29. Liz says:

    Yep reality stepped in, shame it doesn’t for more people and spare the chickens an unhappy life.

  30. Old Kim says:

    My 4 chickens are happy. They have free reign and a big dog to protect them. Leave your shoes at the door and wash your hands.

  31. Nick says:

    A rake is handy for cleaning the chicken poop in trafficked areas in the yard. I plan to let my noisy flock into the heavily fenced vegetable garden area this winter, although I will lay a lot of chicken wire over the asparagus beds so the plants have a chance next spring.

    Quieter breeds exist, or so I’m told. My original three hens and five new additions have only recently worked out their nesting box/pecking order issues, which they squawked about incessantly (Hint: overestimate how many dark, soft, nesty places your flock will require for leisurely laying.)

  32. Rebecca,

    EXCELLENT Post! It is good that people know the good and the bad before diving into the chicken world. I love my chickens, but think everyone has to look at their own situation…just like buying a new dog and choosing the right breed.

    As for your question about morning time noise from the hens…No, mine have never done that. I live in the heart of the city and I only have 4 hens. Maybe if I had more, I would have that problem. I carefully choose breeds that were good with kids, gentle, yadda, yadda, yadda. I don’t know if the breed has anything to do with it or not because I have seen other people’s chickens (same breeds) with very different personalities.

    But I do think it is possible your chickens were conditioned to think morning = getting out. Perhaps if you never let them out in the AM they would not come to expect it. For example, I let my chickens out in the evening (as another commenter does) and they have their “playtime” and go back into their coop area. They never cry out in the morning — I think because they assume they only get out in the evening. They don’t know any other way.

    I have found my chickens to be no more work than my dog (less in fact because I don’t have to walk them). BUT I agree with all of your complaints about “bombs”. That is also why I don’t let them all over the yard all day.

    Thanks again for a great post Rebecca! See on Twitter.

  33. Jo Ann says:

    Not to bash chicken keeping (I grew up in a very rural area with all matter of live stock) but am wondering why anyone would keep chickens in town? I find that like watching people keep huge dogs in a condominium.

    I noticed no one has brought up that chickens get lice/mites and go through a moulting process feathers every where(a half naked chicken is a sad sight.) Chickens will peck on and at each other. I have seen the pecking order that they will go through sometimes they will peck at each other with out mercy drawing blood if they can. Chickens also can fly so sometimes wings have to be clipped or you may find your chicken where she shouldn’t be such as trying to go to roost in a tree instead of going back into the coop. Egg production does decrease in the winter months and I don’t care what folks may say but they are messy and noisy (but still much better then listening to the neighbors dog bark all day.)

    On the flip side how ever there is nothing like your own fresh eggs and it is a wonderful sight to see a nice orange yolk and not a pale yellow one and double yolks is like winning a prize. Plus you get free fertilizer when you clean the coop “organic” (some people swear that chicken poop makes the best fertilizer).

    I personally don’t find the hassle of feeding and cleaning up after a hand full of chickens and keeping them out of trouble worth the time so I will stick to my nice quiet garden.

    Just my 2 cents of eggperience…have a great day all.

  34. norm says:

    I’ve tried chickens in the garden for several years now with spectacular failures. Either the wrong varieties for the zone, not watering them enough, or planting too deep.

  35. Rebecca says:

    Hey Rebecca! (great name by the way)

    We live in town facing the neighborhood park. Our neighbors across the park embarked on the “suburban chicken adventure”. It didn’t bother us, because the park is a block wide, hence the fowl were out of earshot. However, it was quite a shock to be roused by my husband at 6:30 am one morning and asked to “help” him outside. I thought he was off his rocker because he made me sneak out the back door so the kids wouldn’t hear us. Imagine my look of horror as I rounded the front corner of my house and spied a chicken butt and a chicken leg protruding out of the mulch in our front flower beds. My husband pulled the unfortunate fowl out, sans head, and stuffed him in the trash bag. I called our neighbor later on and asked her if she was missing a feathered friend. “Oh, something got in the coop and killed them all last night,” she informed me. I told her she’d better do a head count (no pun intended), because the villain had decided to bury his hard-earned dinner in our flowers. She was mortified, of course.

  36. Joe says:

    No doubt there’s a lot of poop, but it makes a great compost.

    http://marbleheadhens.blogspot.com

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