I've had a lot of different questions about our birds; why we got them, how we built the coop, what they eat, do they regularly attack small children, etc. so I've decided to blog about it. Fasten your seat belts, because it's a really long blog. I am by no means a chicken expert, but I've read quite a bit about them in the last several months.
I was raised in the country. Not on a farm, but in a new subdivision about three miles outside of a town with a population between 3 and 4 thousand. Our town is based on agriculture, with most of the stores offering farm supplies of some kind or another. We are very proud of our ONE stoplight.
So, while we didn't farm or ranch, I grew up in an agricultural setting. In addition, my grandparents lived on a farm. They had a huge garden and Grandma raised chickens for the eggs and the meat. I have vivid childhood memories of watching my grandmother whack a chicken's head off with an axe. They really do run around a little bit if you don't hold on to them. I also looooved to collect the eggs. Everyone else thought that it was a chore but I thought it was just the coolest thing to go out to the coop, look in the nesting boxes and BAM! There was food; all packaged in a neat little shell.
So fast forward twenty-something years. My husband and I moved around a little bit, finally settling down back in my hometown. He was raised in Boise, which is a big city for us, so he wasn't much of a farm boy. But he's really adapted to country life. He's also quite a Mister Fix It.
Last summer we moved from our house in town to a house about six miles out of town. Morgan and I have always wanted to live in the country and have lots of animals. Morgan would love to have horses; to me, horses seem really expensive and lots of work. Oh, and I accidentally killed one a few years ago. I've always wanted chickens, though, because of the memories I have of our visits to Grandma and Grandpa's farm. When we moved here, there was a flock of seven ducks that wandered the place and a few chickens. They had belonged to a hired hand who had left them when he ended his employment with the people who own the property that we live on. Since it's a feedlot, there is a ton of animal food lying around - hay, corn, etc. As a result the abandoned birds were really well fed. There are also plenty of barns and haystacks for them to roost in.
We loved the birds and wanted to build a coop and catch them but first we had to get settled, unpacked, do some fixin' up to the house, etc. Oh, and I was SEVEN MONTHS PREGNANT and it was between 95-100 degrees every day. I think I've already told you how I feel about temperatures above 80 degrees. I believe that summer is God's way of punishing me. But I digress....
If you're familiar with farm life, you know that on most farms there is always a bunch of broken old junk lying around: old fence posts, animal pens, wire, various pipes and metal bars, you get the picture. Our friends who own the property gave us the go-ahead to scrounge up whatever we could from all of the junk and we were able to build a chicken coop with minimal out-of-pocket cost. We used an old broken calf pen and put it up on bales of straw to make it taller and also help with insulation at the ground level. I bought a door at DI for $5 that already had the hinges on it. We had to buy a roll of chicken wire and again were able to scrounge some posts to string it on. All of the lumber was salvaged, and we still have a lot left over which we'll use to build a play house. (Yay!) We had to buy hinges and a latch for the gate and latches for the doors to the coop. Our total out-of-pocket-cost was around $75, with about $50 of that being for the chicken wire. Totally, frugally awesome.
As you already know, we kept the birdies in the laundry room until we could get the coop built. Since the abandoned birds had survived for a few years without any help from humans, I knew that our birds wouldn't need much. One thing I remember from all of my research (side note: since I had all winter to think about getting chickens, I did a lot of reading on them, both on-line and in books. That's where most of my chicken knowledge comes from.) is that chickens are really flexible and resilient when it comes to their homes. One person used an old pick up shell for their coop, another used the cab of a semi truck. I wanted them to have a shelter to keep them out of the weather and to keep them safe from coyotes, cats, dogs and the occasional sasquatch. All of the ducks that were here when we moved in died during the fall and winter. We suspect that coyotes got them.
So, to sum up, we built the coop, fenced in a run for them and my oldest son caught the two rogue chickens that had been wandering the place. They are old enough to be laying eggs so we are keeping them in the coop and collecting the eggs. As soon as all of the birds realize that the coop is home, we will let them out during the day to forage and scrounge. Chickens are excellent at keeping the insect population down. In addition, allowing them to free-range a bit gives their eggs a richer flavor. If you have never had fresh eggs that didn't come from a mass-produced egg farm you are missing out!
I don't know if we will eat the chickens when they become too old to lay eggs. I am a real softie when it comes to animals and I don't think that I could eat one of my pets. However, we don't want any roosters. They can be kind of rough on the hens when they are feeling romantic. It also gives me the heeby jeebies to think about eating a fertilized egg. I learned just last year that chickens will lay eggs even if there are no roosters around. You only need a rooster if you want babies, which we don't, at least not right now. So what that boils down to is if any of the birds end up being roosters, it's off with their heads. We tried to get all females but it's hard to tell when they're tiny.
We got our chickens when they were one or two days old and held them a lot so they are very used to us. Even with the older rogue chickens that we've brought in there have been no attacks. They're actually pretty sweet. When I open the gate to their yard they all run to me. I'm sure that if they could speak they'd all be yelling "FOOD!" but I like to pretend that they're excited to see me because they enjoy my wit and personality. I never fail to crack myself up when I ask them "What up, home chicken?" If you Google "raising chickens" there is a plethora (A plethora, Jefe? Si, a plethora.) of information about them. Apparently they make excellent pets, especially for children. You can even mail-order them from a place called Murray McMurray Hatchery and you will receive day-old chicks in the mail. I think that would be totally awesome, but we went with the old farm and ranch store since it was much more fun for the family to be able to pick them out.
As to what the chickens eat, we bought chick starter (fancy name for baby chicken food) when we bought the chicks. They have graduated to eating some of the ground corn that our friends get for the cattle. They said that since they buy it by the ton to feed hundreds of cattle, feeding my ten birds wouldn't make a dent in their supply so I'm welcome to a bucket of ground corn whenever I like. It looks like coarse corn meal. Also, I used to work at a seed cleaning place where they take the harvested wheat and clean out all of the chaff and abnormal kernels of wheat. Then they sell that, which is called the screenings, as pig or chicken food. It's a good deal for them because otherwise it's just garbage and it's a good deal for us because we can get 100 pounds for about $5. I also learned from my grandma that chickens will eat just about any table scraps, which also enhances their egg flavor and saves you money on chicken feed. You can even feed them chicken meat, just not raw chicken meat. If you feed them raw chicken meat it will encourage them to become cannibals. Seriously. It's the same with eggs. You can feed them eggs, but they have to be cooked or they will develop a taste for them and break open their own eggs to eat. They also won't eat root vegetables, like carrots or potatoes.
One more weird chicken fact: The color of their ear lobes indicates what color of egg they will lay: white ear lobes = white eggs, red ear lobes = brown eggs. A lot of people think that brown eggs are better for you - this isn't true. All eggs are the same inside. There are breeds of chickens, the Ameraucana and Araucana breeds, commonly know as the Easter Egg chicken, that will lay eggs that are blue, green, pink or lavender. Cool, huh?
By now you probably know all that you ever wanted to know about chickens and probably a whole lot more. They help to keep me busy and it's fun to get to know their different personalities.
Here are some pictures of the finished product in all its redneck glory.
Cozy straw and cedar bedding with a heating lamp help keep them warm. As soon as the nights warm up we'll take out the lamp. The ladder is for roosting. Everything I've read says that providing a place for roosting is very important. Apparently my chickens haven't read the books.
View from the door of the inhabitants checking things out.
The front of the coop. There's my $5 DI door! I think we'll change the little door. I wanted the chickens to be able to get in and out on their own, but I'm not sure if the little bantams will be strong enough to push open the door. Also, I'm a little concerned that a swinging door that heavy could cause accidental decapitation.
I'm particularly proud of the gate, as I designed and built it mostly by myself. Yes, I am awesome and no, there is no charge for awesomeness.
A view of the whole shebang. Please disregard the piles of junk still lying in the yard. This picture was taken pre-cleanup. I'm planning on painting the coop sometime this summer. We have a little bit of work left to do, insulating and water-proofing and such but it's mostly done. As soon as the little chickens start laying, we'll need to build a few nesting boxes but I don't expect them to start until August or September. I'm getting my informatin on egg-laying-age from the same books that stressed the importance of roosting, though, so if my chickens didn't read about roosting they may not know when to start laying eggs, either.
I guess I'd better plan to teach my chickens how to read.