what i've learned from a year with chickens

A year ago today I picked up five baby chicks from Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply and excitedly brought them home.  Being the reader and researcher that I am, I knew a lot going into this adventure, but there is nothing that compares to real life experience.  After a year of being a chicken mama, I feel that I can confidently say that I understand chickens!  Obviously, there is still more to learn.  But as for the basics, I've got them!  So, here's a little of the good and the bad that I've learned about raising chickens in the city...


Let's start with "The Bad":

  1. Chickens make a HUGE mess of your landscaping and gardens!!!  My aunt warned me about her chickens' habits of kicking mulch out of her flower beds...but I underestimated their destructive natures...by the end of last fall, they had turned most of my Hostas into shredded greens, kicked most of our mulch into the grass, dug holes in the yard, eaten my carrot tops which completely prevented any carrots from forming, helped themselves to the kale every time it finally got big enough for us to use, scratched in my ground covers, and pooped everywhere...literally everywhere.  What we learned was that free-range chickens and beautiful urban gardens cannot peacefully coexist without proper fencing and limitations...this year proper fencing and limitations will be added to our small little city lot and my dreams of a Better Homes and Gardens urban paradise will be renewed.
  2. Organic chicken feed is not cheap.  My friend Bre tried to warn me that keeping chickens and feeding them organic feed was not economical (when compared to just buying eggs).  I doubted her because at times my confidence levels in myself are a bit too high and I assumed I could find a cheaper way...well...I haven't.  There may still be a cheaper way, but I have yet to find one that easily fits into our current lifestyle (ie. dumpster diving may be cheap, but who's got time for that?!?!).  The truth is, feeding an organic diet to a small flock with little foraging space is not cheap, but for us, it's still worth it.  The eggs that we get don't compare in color or flavor to the most expensive local eggs that we can find at our co-op.  We could easily feed them for a lot less on conventional feed, and that would be cheaper than most grocery store eggs, but to us the cost is worth the benefits of the eggs we receive.
  3. They poop sooooooo much!!!  I was a bit unprepared for the amount of waste that comes out of their behinds...I thought it was a lot when they were chicks, but oh my, it has multiplied as they've grown!  As it has mostly been cold in Minnesota since they have become full grown, we have yet to fully experience their poop in the heat of the summer...so...I'll get back to you on how bad it really is.  Because, not only is there a lot of it...but it can get kind of stinky....so...stay tuned....
  4. They are louder than we expected.  We picked out breeds that were supposedly quiet and great for city life...but they still get a bit squawky at times, especially when they want out of their coop or want the food that someone else has.  However, when they are content, they quiet right down.  Our neighbors don't seem to mind, and compared to the neighborhood dogs, the chickens are hardly noticeable! 

Now, "The Bad" is kind of a bummer...but the good news is that "The Good" makes "The Bad" so worth it!!  So...here's "The Good":

  1. The eggs are amazing!!!  We constantly play the game of "guess which eggs are from our chickens" as we crack store-bought and home-grown eggs into the frying pan.  The color of our ladies' yolks is bright orange and they are so big and firm.  The amount of yolk compared to the white is fantastic.  You know how the white in store-bought eggs sometimes gets so stringy where you can't seem to get it to release from the shell??  That doesn't really happen with our eggs.  And when you drop them into the frying pan, the whites stay in tack and don't spread across the pan, making the most perfect fried egg.  Then there's the taste...yum...they are SOOOO flavorful!!!  The color also tells of their nutrients.  Because our chickens eat so many of our table scraps and good organic feed, their eggs are packed full of great things, which in turn nourish our bodies.  There is also nothing quite as lovely as the pretty collection of eggs varying in shades of brown and blue which sit on our kitchen counter.  Love, love.  
  2. They are very easy to take care of!  Besides strategizing ways to keep them from destroying the gardens, not much work goes into their care.  There are days when we do absolutely nothing with them, especially in the heart of the winter when the days are short. Most days, we check on them, gather eggs, give them a few scraps from the kitchen, and let them out into the yard.  Then about once a week we fill up their food and water and clean up their coop and run a little bit.  (Honestly...the cleaning doesn't always happen...and we all survive just fine....)
  3. They can survive a normal Minnesota winter without a heater.  We worried our way through through December and January as the temps and windchill dropped, but we decided not to heat our coop and are so glad that we didn't.  Our chickens did just fine in their insulated coop and with their 6-12 inches of straw bedding.  They are cold-hardy birds and they adapted to the cold temps that Minnesota threw their way.  Their egg production dropped and for January and February they pretty much stopped, but that's natural and normal for cold weather birds.  We did encounter a bit of frost bite on their red combs, but I'm hoping that I'll be able to better prevent that next year, now that I know when to expect it.
  4. They are SO MUCH FUN!!!  I can't even describe how much we enjoy these chickens.  They are hilarious.  They do funny and stupid things.  We could sit on our deck and watch them for hours.  We stand at our kitchen window and watch them perch in their run.  We laugh as they run for cover when geese fly overhead.  We hold them and pet their silky feathers.  We nervously laugh as they sing their obnoxious egg songs each day that they proudly lay their eggs.  We wake up and think of chickens.  We shut down the house for the evening and think about chickens.  We love having chickens.  THEY ARE SO MUCH FUN.   
  5. We are somehow working to make our broken food system better.  We still buy eggs in the heart of winter and still drive to the grocery store just as much as we did before...but we understand so much more about how food is grown and raised because of our chickens, which makes us so much more mindful about how we eat, use, and waste the food that finds its way into our kitchen.  With our compost pile and our chickens we don't really throw away any food.  In fact, we often bring our trash outside because it smells bad (from meat wrappings) long before it's full.  Wasting food is something that rarely happens in our house now, and I love that.  I makes spending money on quality food much easier to do--because the food all serves a purpose.  It no longer sits in our fridge for two weeks and then gets thrown into the garbage.  It's being used to its full potential--each and every bit of it.  

So, with all of that, we've both agreed that we'd do it all again.  We may do a few things differently, but we don't at all regret raising chickens.  It's been well worth the cost and time.  We even have two new chicks arriving in less than two weeks to add to our flock!  Urban chicken keeping is definitely for us.  And for that I'm so very thankful for the episode of The Splendid Table that I heard over 4 years ago that first introduced me to the idea of backyard hens.  Our ladies are a wonderful addition to our exciting and fun-filled lives.