First the chickens, then the eggs
Backyard chickens provide lots of eggs for little work
Access to outdoors is essential for healthy, happy chickens.
Photos by kc kratt
Raising a small flock of backyard laying hens is a pastime that’s both practical and surprisingly simple. As grocery store egg cartons are plastered with more adjectives—cage-free, free-range, pastured, humane, all-natural, vegetarian-fed, soy-free, organic, grade-A—an increasing number of conscientious consumers have chosen to eliminate the guesswork of egg buying and simply raise their own chickens. After all, the best way to know about an animal’s care and diet it to provide it yourself.
Even though eggs are a common food, their production is a mystery to many. A clarification poultry people frequently find themselves making is that hens do not need a male to lay eggs (and roosters are banned in some municipalities because they can be loud and aggressive), but the eggs would need to be fertilized by a rooster to hatch into chicks.
Each healthy hen will lay between 250 to 300 eggs per year depending on age and breed. Production slows down in the winter as sunlight gets scarce and ramps back up in the spring (one of the reasons why Easter traditions are so egg-centric). Brown eggs are nutritionally equivalent to white, and taste the same; darker feathered birds lay brown eggs, and white birds lay white eggs. Meat chickens and egg chickens are usually different breeds, although some varieties are dual-purpose. Backyard chickens are allowed in most of Western New York, even the city of Buffalo; just make sure to check local regulations, which may include permits or flock limits.
While bringing a bit of the farm home to roost might seem daunting, raising chickens at home, for the most part, is as easy as minding a cat or a dog. Here are the basic needs for a backyard brood:
Room to roost and roam
Hens live in henhouses outfitted with shelves lined with straw for nesting, resting, laying eggs, and seeking shelter from inclement weather. They do not need a heater. The coop should be large enough to allow each chicken two to three square feet of space, and for humans to collect eggs and clean up. While Pinterest is full of elaborate coop designs decorated in Victorian grandeur or barnyard chic, simple will suffice. Jennifer Hillman, who has been raising layers for nine years at her rural Hamburg home, repurposed a sturdy old wooden clubhouse her kids had outgrown. The family added an enclosed outdoor area with a chicken-sized door into the coop, decorated it with found treasures from Eighteen-Mile Creek and some Christmas lights, and hung posters of chickens inside for her fifteen hens to admire.
Access to the outdoors is also essential for healthy, happy chickens. Because predators such as hawks, raccoons, and cats are a concern in both rural and urban areas, constructing a “run”—an enclosure, commonly made out of chicken wire, that lets sunlight and fresh air in but keeps other animals interested in eating chickens or their feed out—helps birds stay safe and mobile, with about eight to ten square feet of space allocated per chicken. Birds can be let loose to roam around the yard when human or canine guardians are nearby.
For Five Points Bakery co-owner Kevin Gardner, who’s raising five laying hens at his home on Buffalo’s West Side, proximity to other people is a factor in determining whether a property is suitably sized for chickens, too, especially in the city, where neighbors’ written permission is required to raise laying hens.
“The biggest consideration is your neighbors,” Gardner says. “Any time you have an animal, even a dog, you want to make sure you’re managing the animals and not being a nuisance to those around you. You have to store food to not attract pests, etc. Giving neighbors eggs helps! Our neighbors actually love it. Chickens aren’t as loud as roosters, but they can get broody and make a fuss sometimes.”
Fuel for laying
Chickens need fresh food and water every day. Like most backyard chicken keepers, Gardner gives his girls chicken-specific feed (he makes his own, but purchased feed options abound) and supplements their diets with kitchen scraps generated by his family of six. While some foods like potato and avocado skins are toxic to chickens, they thrive on nutrients found in fruit peels and cores, corn cobs, oatmeal leftovers, and most other things destined for the compost pile. Food can also act as amusement in colder months, when cabin fever can make chickens quarrel like cooped-up kids; give them a whole cabbage to peck and roll around, or a pile of cooked spaghetti, and they’ll be occupied for an hour.
In warmer months, busy birds will also roam the yard hunting grubs out of the lawn and bugs out of the garden, which rids the soil of pests and provides nutrients that helps egg production. This protein-rich and varied diet is obvious in the quality of the eggs; the shells tend to be harder, and the yolks, rich with omega-3s, are bright orange-yellow with a buttery flavor.
Company in the coop
Chickens are very social animals that thrive in groups for warmth, social interaction, and protection. So much so that New York State requires chickens to be sold in groups of six or more.
More chickens don’t mean more work, necessarily. As long as space and local rules allow it, erring on the side of a larger flock means more eggs and happier birds for about the same amount of daily effort.
The time to get started with day-old chicks is March or April, when they are available for sale at Tractor Supply, Clyde’s Feed & Animal Center, and other farm supply stores; through mail-order companies online (yes, live chicks can be shipped USPS with special ventilated boxes and careful handling instructions); or from local farms. Opt for a seller who has clearly identified each bird’s gender to avoid ending up with a surprise rooster. Baby chicks need a heat lamp and care indoors until they’re large enough to venture outside, but mature laying hens, though harder to source, can be purchased in later spring and be kept solely outdoors. Either way, its best to have the birds and their living quarters in place in the spring so there’s time before winter for the birds to grow and get used to each other, and for owners to be able to identify and fix any issues with the coop or run (fence posts can’t be dug in January).
Chickens do require human company, too. During family vacations, the flock will need a chicken-sitter to visit the coop every day to provide food and water, and to collect eggs (which provide sought-after compensation for most sitters).
“Chickens are the easiest animals to raise,” says Hillman, “and it’s really fun. Just jump in and do it.”
Mind the egg-ceptions
Many WNY municipalities accept hen-keeping, but not all
Each city and town in Western New York has its own set of rules regulating raising backyard chickens. Some towns don’t allow chickens at all. Others ask for a fee and/or a permit, limit flock size, inspect coops for adequate space, or require consent from neighbors. Other areas, usually rural ones, are more relaxed. It’s wise to be aware of the regulations before building a coop and buying chickens.
Experienced chicken owners
Coop and bird care are easiest to learn by seeing it done first-hand. Brenda Snyder, a former veterinary technician and experienced keeper of two dozen hens invites wannabe flock owners to her Clarence Center homestead for classes on raising backyard chickens from day-old chicks to healthy layers. Visit growitsaveituseit.com to sign up; sessions are offered in the spring.
Practical FAQs and backyard chicken advice
Baby chicks and resources for selecting breeds
The New Rules of the Roost:
Organic Care & Feeding for the Family Flock by Robert & Hannah Litt of the Urban Farm Store