The increased interest in consuming locally and sustainably produced food has spawned a thriving locavore movement. (“Loca” meaning local, “vore” meaning eat.) Locavores include commercial growers interested in keeping the environment as clean as possible, farmers selling food close to where it’s grown (an oft-cited number is no farther than 100 miles from the point of purchase.) Being a locavore can be as simple as using your own food grown in your really kick-ass veggie garden or being committed to only buying locally produced food.
My dog recently discovered the locavore culture. It was not one wayward chicken he found while we were in the country. It was many. We live in Portland, where urban farming has spawned more than a few neighboring houses with coops in their backyards. On every dog outing, he hears or sees at least 25 chickens. He went a little feral, quivering, barking and doing weird things with his mouth when he first discovered them. Needless to say, the ladies inside the coop were not pleased. I can only assume the pooch was excited by how well-crafted the chicken coop was or how beautiful each chicken looked. And by “well-crafted” I mean “how close” and by “how beautiful” I mean “how tasty.”
So maybe chicken-tending is best left to those parents with children who won’t go all feral and drooly around backyard fowl. For human kiddos, raising chickens is a great way to get outside and learn a little something about animal care and welfare, about conservation and the environment, and about at-home food production. Having your own source of eggs can help reduce household food costs, increase a sense of connection to the earth and improve nutrition by shortening so called farm-to-table time. Kids can learn all of these lessons in a very hands-on way with a few chickens in the backyard. Oh, and it gives them chores that elicit less whining than cleaning their room. (Maybe.) Kids love to check for eggs, which means you can also get them to bring said eggs inside, right?
Before starting your own coop, here are a few reading assignments for the kids:
Try Nikki McClure’s To Market, To Market.
The book teaches kids (and maybe their parents too) that food comes from somewhere other than just the grocery store. It’ll help children get excited about the journey their food takes and about creating and maintaining their own food source.
The Chicken Coop Kid, by Danny and Sheri Silk, introduces the idea of taking pride in responsibilities through young protagonist Brittney as she learns to love her sometimes smelly chicken-related chores.
The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel Pinkwater. This is really geared toward the fiction-loving crowd. Instead of teaching children about sustainability or farm chores, The Hoboken Chicken Emergency tells the story of a trouble-making 266-pound chicken let loose on the citizens of New Jersey. Less factual, but definitely fun.
While the children are reading you should read too.
A Chicken in Every Yard is a pretty thorough guide to breeds, feed, coops and care.
You can also take a peek at www.citygirlfarming.com to familiarize yourself with the basics of coop building.
The idea is to get as complete a knowledge set as possible before getting involved in raising your own chicks. It’s also important to check with your local government officials whether it’s actually legal for you to introduce chickens to your backyard. Believe it or not, some municipalities still ban the raising of poultry on private property.
Progressive cities like Seattle and Denver now offer coop tours where you can steal design ideas from seasoned chicken owners’ coops. So if you need a little inspiration, find out if your city offers one. While you’re looking up coop tours get to know your city’s laws regarding chickens.
After you’ve brushed up on chicken facts, grab your little farmers, put on some coop-building music and get to work.
There are a lot of ways to go about procuring a chicken coop, including purchasing ready-made kits, or you can build one yourself. I’ve seen coops made out of old playhouses or sheds or even built from scratch. As long as you know the basics, you can be pretty creative with materials. It doesn’t have to be Neiman Marcus worthy, but your chickens may be sad without the following amenities.
The Hen House
An enclosed area with a roof and walls. While the hen house usually doesn’t have to be cleaned more than every two weeks or so, more frequent cleanings is a good way to show children that cleanliness matters. Cleaning the coop is necessary to keep hens happy and healthy. Children will be able to see with their own eyes that happy hens lay more eggs.
The Chicken Run
A secure place for chickens to be when not in the chicken coop, usually fenced with chicken wire. You could forgo this step, but raccoons and, like I said, my dog, might give you and your hen friends some trouble. It’s also insanely maddening to herd chickens back into a hen house at the end of the day if they have evening plans that don’t quite match up with yours.
The flip side to this is if you wait until just after dark, most hens will have put themselves to bed, and you can simply walk out to the coop and secure the latch. Be sure not to wait too long, since the nighttime is when predators — rats, owls, hawks, raccoons — do their hunting.
The Perch or Roost
A bar or piece of plywood that is installed 2 feet or so off the ground where chickens can relax. Being off the ground helps them feel safe and dry.
The Nest Box
The egg factory so to speak. The nest box is a private space big enough for the chicken to be inside and not feel crowded. Think oversized shoebox. This is where the chickens will lay their eggs. These can be a part of the hen house or separate. Your preference.
Feeding & Watering
For ease of feeding, purchase a container that holds food for the chickens. This can be standing or hanging in the hen house. It could also be in the chicken run. A container that holds water for the chickens is also preferred.
Chicken will eat lots of leftovers, so collect up leftovers to feed the girls. (Most urban coops should consist strictly of females, unless you plan on breeding. Hens produce unfertilized eggs, which the family can enjoy.) You can even save the shells from eggs you’ve eaten, crush them up and feed them to the hens. Believe it or not, they eat the shells. This will help prevent what is called “cannibalization,” or the eating of eggs the hens have just laid.
Read up on what leftovers are “good” for chicks, but here’s a simple tip: avoid citrus rinds and sugary treats. Purchase a high-quality feed from a tack store, and be sure to pick up “scratch,” which is like candy for your hens. They will love you for it.
If your littlest farmers want baby chicks instead of grown chickens, you’ll need a brooder or a heated enclosure to protect growing chicks from the elements. This can be in a garage, a spare room or a basement. I have a friend who set one up in a guest bathroom shower. I like this one because it also includes feed, a heat lamp and pine shavings.
At 4-5 weeks of age chicks are old enough to be moved to the outside coop.
There are lots of free building plans available. This one from www.barngeek.com is nice with easy-to-follow directions.
If you’re a little less DIY and a little more DIFM (Do it For Me — yes, I made that up myself. Just you wait, it’ll catch on) feel free to use a premade kit instead. This one is one of my favorites because it’s portable — and not throw-your-back-out-portable, but a legitimately movable 59 pounds.
It also looks nice, and while chicken satisfaction should be number one on your list, it’s not a crime to want something modern
or Hobbit related in the yard.
Whatever your style, kids can help with everything from choosing the design of the coop to building and painting it.
Establishing Your Flock
The next step is finding your flock. My Pet Chicken has a breed selector tool to help you determine which breed is right for your urban farming family. It can tell you whether you need a Sussex to brave the cold weather or a Brahma who isn’t bothered by the heat. Bring the kids in on this decision-making process. (I’m putting a plug in for Araucana because they lay the most gorgeous blue eggs. Seriously, I want every room in my apartment to be this color.)
Lastly, teach little hands how to be gentle with both the chickens and their eggs. That way you will have happy chickens … and happy children.
Then you can give those happy kids some baskets and get ready for a seriously delicious, very local breakfast.