Chickens aren't just for farmers anymore. Anyone with a back yard, some handiness with a hammer, and a desire to begin some entry-level animal husbandry can raise chickens.
The rewards are fresh eggs and, some say, a new appreciation for an underrated species.
Nahcotta, Wash., resident Phil Martin, co-owner of Captain's Coffee and a long-time chicken aficionado, says, "Chickens have great personalities, and once you've tried an egg fresh from your backyard hens, you will not go back to store-bought."
Ray Millner, owner of The Planter Box north of Long Beach, extols the health benefits as well. "A free range hen's egg has four times more vitamins and less cholesterol than an egg you'd buy in a big grocery store."
Millner confirms that chickens can make good pets. "The more time you spend with your chickens, the more time they'll want to spend with you," he says, standing next to the cages of Tilly, Laverne and Shirley (Aracana and leghorns, respectively), and roosters Dudley and Stanley.
Sue Millner, wearing her 'Bring Back the Bees' T-shirt, shares, "I noticed that folks relate to our chickens better if they have names, so I got my baby name book out and picked some names I thought would be good for chickens."
But what explains the renewed interest in raising chickens?
The audience for organic food, one of the fastest growing grocery categories, has been joined by a group called "locavores," made up of people who want to either produce or procure their food close to home. That trend in combination with a downturn in the economy has renewed interest in backyard hens.
Not only does purchasing food close to home reduce a family's carbon footprint, it reduces the distance the food has traveled for a double benefit: less carbon in the atmosphere and fresher food.
Locavores frequent farmers' markets, participate in community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), and if they have the space and the expertise, they grow their own food.
After you've tilled the garden, mulched up around the starts and pruned back the fruit trees, it's not too big a stretch to consider raising a batch of chicks. Eggs are a great source of protein and they don't require slaughtering anything.
Start Your Own
There are many locations where consumers can purchase fresh eggs from local vendors.
But if you want to grow your own hens, there are many locations in the area where you can pick out chicks to take home. Or you can mail-order them from a catalogue or online Web site, and chicks will be delivered right to your door.
Once you bring a chick home, you may need to transition it to a colder temperature by 10 degrees a week. Chicks need a 90-degree cage at first, which can be achieved by placing a 250-watt light bulb about two feet away.
"Use a red bulb, like a tanning light," says Millner. "The chicks will stare directly at a white bulb, for some reason, and that can damage their eyes."
There is feed made especially for baby chicks, called appropriately "chick start." A 25-pound bag will cost between $8 to $10 dollars. Chicks need this special food for their first eight weeks.
Adult hens can be switched over to a much cheaper feed that comes either as crumbles or pellets. The younger adults may prefer the crumbles, slightly larger than chick feed but smaller than pellets; but a more mature hen may start to scratch around and want a larger piece of food; then it's best to switch to pellets.
A 50-pound bag of adult chicken food goes for $13 to $15 dollars. There is a range of feeds, so shop around. Some are specie-specific (turkeys, for example, require more protein), but there are also all-purpose feeds if you happen to be raising pheasants, geese, turkeys, guinea hens, and chickens together.
Chickens given a "free range" situation will scratch for food and eat small bugs, grubs, and plants. But all chickens should be rounded up into their coops at night or predators like raccoons, coyotes, and even possum may be tempted to help themselves both to the eggs and your birds.
The hen house
A wood-and-wire, covered chicken house is best (raccoons will climb right into a roofless, fenced-in area). Sometimes, wire may need to be dug several feet into the ground around the perimeter of your chicken yard to prevent predators from digging under a fence.
Be sure you have provided enough roosting places for your birds inside their house. They like to be cozy but each will have a preferred roost.
If you keep your chickens in a hutch, don't let the manure go to waste; it is a rich source of nitrogen for the garden. Longtime Nahcotta farmers Sandy Bradley and Larry Warnberg at one time kept rabbits in high hutches with wire floors so that the waste fell onto the floor of the hen house, adding to their chickens' diet.
Fresher is better
Captain Phil is right. Once you've had a fresh egg that stands up bright orange in the pan, you will not want to go back to milky-colored grocery store eggs with pale waxy yellow yolks.
It seems that the chicken bug is getting around. Sue and Ray Millner confirm that they are seeing an increase in live poultry purchases at their store.
"In the last five years, we noticed a jump in people buying all kinds of poultry and rabbits," says Millner. "Right now we've got chickens-both roosters and hens-and turkeys."
Turkey chicks are $11.95; rooster chicks are $1.99.
For your first try, it might be best to buy a mature bird that you know is a hen. Or, if you want fertile eggs, get a pair - as soon as you've determined that you aren't violating any local ordinances. Surfside on the north end of Washington's Long Beach Peninsula, for example, does not allow chickens of any kind.
If you're unsure about how to start, talk to someone who's done it before. Any place that sells eggs or chicken paraphernalia should be able to help. There are many experts in the area and occasional workshops. (Karen Black, Astoria resident, just gave a well-attended lecture on chickens at the Blue Scorcher.)
There are many local resources to get you into the chicken business almost quicker than you can say Rhode Island Red.