Backyard chicken

Backyard chicken keeping is all the rage these days, particularly with urbanites or suburbanites who want to know their food is local, more humane and natural. Chicks are cute, popular with kids, and cheap and easy to buy either locally or through the mail. Many modern day homesteaders do not realize, however, what goes on behind the scenes at chick hatcheries or the care commitment that chickens will require.

My family recently bought a small farm and we were eager to get chickens. Since we are vegetarian, we view chickens as pets that need “forever homes,” and sought to obtain them in the most humane way possible. I did my research, and here’s what I learned.

Hatcheries: Behind the Scenes

Most people who buy chicks only want hens because they desire fresh eggs. But since it’s difficult to tell the sex of young chicks, they are sold with only a “90%" chance guarantee that they will be female. However, farm animal rescue organizations estimate that 20 percent to 50 percent of “hens” are actually roosters.

Because male chicks are unwanted (roosters are prohibited in many urban/suburban areas), the males of egg-laying breeds (versus “broiler chicks” who are used for their meat) are killed in incredibly cruel ways. One horrific method is maceration, which means being fed alive into a grinding machine. This method, unbelievably, is actually approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Other ways in which male chicks are killed involve breaking their necks, electrocuting them or suffocating them with carbon monoxide. If they are not immediately disposed of via one of these methods, male chicks may also be used as live food for other animals.

Chicks that survive the hatcheries are shipped to stores or directly to consumers very soon after hatching. As anyone with common sense might conclude, shipping day-old animals can be harmful to them, even deadly. Newly-hatched chicks may also have their beaks cut off (to prevent pecking on their flock mates once grown) and are stressed by the shipping process. Chick hatcheries often include extra chicks in mailed packages because some usually die. And let’s not forget the poor chickens that are kept in the hatcheries to produce all of these chicks.

For all of these reasons, we did not buy our chickens from a hatchery or breeder (or local pet/feed store that buys from such a source). Instead, I contacted our local SPCA and asked to be put on a waiting list for hens. We ended up adopting two groups of chicks—11 total. One of them, named Phyllis Diller (the most outgoing and friendly of them all), blossomed into a rooster. And he’s awesome. But we are lucky to live in the country where, although our nearest neighbor might faintly hear Phyll’s crowing, it’s not likely to be a problem. However, in more populated areas, roosters are quite unpopular and sometimes banned altogether. And even enthusiastic new chicken owners sometimes quickly find themselves becoming disenchanted by their budding rooster when he starts waking them up before the crack of dawn. The bottom line is to be sure you read and understand any local laws or ordinances that would regulate how much land you need in order to have chickens (surprisingly, even many rural towns require large-sized lots), how many birds you can have, and whether or not you are allowed to keep a rooster (or even want one). Also be sure to talk to your neighbors ahead of time in order to minimize any potential conflicts.

Protecting and Caring for Your Flock

Before you acquire chickens, you need to evaluate their purpose. You should know that layer hens only produce eggs for two to three years, but may live up to 15 years. If you are solely interested in having them as pets, then this might not be a problem, but if you are keeping them only to take their eggs, then you might reconsider.

As with adopting a dog, cat or other companion animal, you also need to find a veterinarian in case your bird(s) becomes sick or injured. Imagine how tragic it would be if one of your chickens were severely injured or sick, but you had no place to take her or no idea how to help her? It’s best to do your research and plan ahead. You also need a pet sitter who can competently care for chickens when you go away.

And speaking of injuries and care, you must protect your chickens, both day and night, from predators. We spent a great deal of time planning the housing for our small flock. A portion of our barn was enclosed for the coop and we created a large, entirely fenced-in run (including the roof — don’t forget you also need to keep airborne predators out). There are several foxes, raccoons, owls, hawks and possibly coyotes in my area, but, depending on your neighborhood, bears, opossums, weasels, mink, skunks, wandering dogs and feral cats can also be a problem. After witnessing what a hawk will do to goslings, I was quite nervous about letting our chickens out to roam freely during the day. The reality is they can only “free range” under close supervision. To accommodate them, we have placed various perches in their run and routinely offer new “enrichment” items. Be sure also to carefully secure their feed so that it does not attract rodents or other vermin that will in turn attract larger predators and/or annoy your neighbors.

Creating a Chicken “Palace”

I am surprised at how often many chicken keepers report experiencing depredation of their chickens. In many cases, pet dogs are the culprits. Even if you don’t see your chickens as “pets” or plan to eat them eventually, you still have a responsibility to protect them from harm. They are easy targets, and often more than one is killed during an attack. I’ve seen some chicken keepers joke about losing chickens to predators, but to many others, it is a sad, often traumatic, experience. You should never underestimate the possibility of predation or leave your chickens in a vulnerable situation.

For these reasons, our chicken run is fenced on all four sides and over the top with ½-inch galvanized hardware cloth. In addition, the wire mesh is buried under the walls and curves out parallel to the ground in order to prevent animals from digging down and then going under the walls. Also, the coop windows are covered with wire mesh. Solar-powered red lights that flash after dark have been recommended for the corners of the run to fend off predator invasions, and I often inspect the perimeter for signs of attempted entry. Depending on what predators lurk in your neighborhood, some kind of electric fence option might also be a useful additional deterrent.

Humane Slaughter?

Though we don’t plan to kill and eat our chickens once they are spent, many people do. It’s difficult to fathom how ordinary, untrained people think they are capable of “humanely” killing chickens (either for food or for culling) without the birds suffering, but urban and suburban chicken killing/butchering workshops are increasingly being offered. Though the billions of chickens and other birds slaughtered for food each year in the U.S. are not covered by federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, state or local laws may cover their dispatch. If you plan to do this job yourself, be sure to research what laws might apply.

The Clucking Conclusion

If I haven’t convinced you not to have chickens by now, here are the main points for you to consider before you embark on having these fascinating feathered friends in your life:

Adopt your chicken(s) instead of buying, and avoid the impulse to bring home those cute, fluffy chicks at the local feed store. If you are looking for pets, not eggs, consider taking in spent hens that are often rescued from egg farms. Or at least adopt older chicks whose sex can be determined. Farm Sanctuary oversees a national Farm Animal Adoption Network, and Animal Place sanctuary in California also has a rescue ranch.

Protect your chicken(s) 24/7. Information on coop/run construction is widely available online and in publications.

Plan to care for them long after they’ve stopped laying eggs — or at least have a humane plan for their “departure.”

Find a local veterinarian and pet sitter to help your chicken(s) when you cannot.

As with adopting any pet, be sure you have the time and resources to feed, house and medically provide for your chickens.