Backyard Chicken Coops, Hot or Not?

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Who among us in Marin County doesn’t fancy themselves a locavore? Try putting your money where your taste buds are by raising some backyard chickens. Nothing says rustic like your own mini farm out on the back 40 sqft. And, chickens make cute pets while laying fresh eggs everyday! Before embarking on your own personal E-I-E-I-O, here are a few things to think about.

First off, check local ordinances for your town and your neighborhood. Call your City Hall or the county if you live in an unincorporated area, to ask about ordinances for keeping farm animals. Then check your HOAs (homeowner association rules) for your specific neighborhood to see if laying hens are allowed.

The Joy of Chicken Ownership

Before you begin your adventure with backyard chickens, you’ll need to plan for a few basics needs, such as housing, predator protection and supplies.

Start by learning about the history and characteristics of the breeds you’re considering. Some birds thrive outdoors and require little feed if they can scavenge on their own. Some can lay like champs in close quarters while others need plenty of free-range space to spread their wings. In temperament, chickens can range from major characters while others are calm and gentle. When choosing hens, consider the preference for the color of the hen and the color of the eggs they lay. Once hens start laying you can expect an average of one a day. And these social birds need the company of one other hen to be content but three is the best combination.

Hen Housing

By the time your chicks start resembling miniature chickens instead of those round balls of fluff you carried home, you should set up their permanent outdoor housing. It can be humble or lavish, as long as it’s functional. You can use anything from a converted doghouse to a Williams Sonoma Cedar Chicken Coop and Run with Planter. There are now coops for every lifestyle & aesthetic.  As long as there is food, water and heat, the hens will be happy.  But shouldn’t they be maintained in the lifestyle you’re accustomed to?

Foxes, Coyotes and Dogs…Oh My!

You will also need to protect your adorable fowl from raccoons, hawks, owls and other critters. Keep your chickens safe by locking the flock up at night. During the day, you can allow them to roam within a fenced area or let them roam free only when you are around to keep an eye on them. Certainly hens are happiest when they can roam freely but there are plenty of confinement protection options including stationary pens, mobile pens and portable poultry fences that give them some degree of freedom.

When You’re Brooding Set-Up and Supplies 

Here are the basic things you’ll need on your “chicklist” before you welcome home your new birds:

 Brooder Box. You’ll need a clean place to keep your chicks warm and safe as they grow. Put the chicks in a brooder box which is something as simple as a cardboard box or other protective container that has sides at least 18 inches high so chicks can’t escape. Lay on a protective top like something with wire mesh to protect chicks from house pets. You must keep chicks warm. Ninety to 95 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic temperature range, and you’ll want the heat source working at least a day in advance to make sure the brooder warms up to and can maintain that temperature.

Chick Starter Feed. After the brooder, this is the most important item .A 50-pound bag costs about $15 and will feed three chicks for several weeks.

Lamp and Lamp Cover. The heat bulb substitutes for the mother hen and keeps the chicks warm. You can buy a special infrared bulb, or just use any high-wattage incandescent bulb. Clamp your lamp securely. You should have a metal cover over the lamp to keep anything from touching the bulb directly, and the socket must be ceramic, not plastic.

Bedding. Strips of newspaper, straw, hay, mulch or pine shavings all work as bedding choices.

Chick Water Fount. You’ll need to have a small chick fount

Chick Feeder. Like the founts, you should opt for a baby-sized feeder. They come as screw-on attachments for mason jars or as trough-type feeders.

Once a safe and warm home has been provided for the little chickadees, sit back and watch your little fellas grow and thrive and soon enough lay bountiful amounts of fresh eggs.

If you want to skip the cute and fuzzy chick stage and get right to the egg-laying, you can purchase pullets (think teenage hens, 3-6 months old) that are feathered and ready to live outdoors.  You miss out on the cuteness stage but don’t need to purchase much of the chick gear mentioned above.  A great chicken resource is the Wooly Egg Ranch, at 503 Tennessee Valley Road.  Ken Kirkland and his wife, Judith, sell chickens of all ages as well as turn-key chicken homes for your backyard at their sustainable ranch in Tam Valley.

Having backyard chickens add zest and life to your yard. They connect you to your food source and to America’s farming history. Chickens are little personalities that will make you laugh. Who knows, maybe next you’ll decide to try harvesting honey with bees or keeping rabbits. Happy suburban farming!

Many clucks of thanks to Saor Stetler, resident Mill Valley all-around volunteer and gardener. Saor may be reached at sstetler@earthlink.net if you have more questions about backyard chickens or call Ken at the Wooly Egg Ranch, 415-518-4891.