I compiled some info to use as notes for my presentation, as well as a resource list. I thought maybe other folks who couldn't make it might want to read it too. A lot of this was adapted from the Groovy Green blog, as well as The City Chicken.
Thanks to LA Post Carbon for organizing the gathering. Check out the other events in Self-Reliant Summer at www.lapostcarbon.org.
Raising backyard chickens is a rewarding experience. They are easy and inexpensive to keep. Like home-grown vegetables, home-raised chickens put us in touch with our farm roots, make us more self-sufficient, and provide delicious healthy food for the table. And chickens are fun!
Advantages of backyard chickens:
You’ll get hormone-free/antibiotic-free eggs almost every day - a source of protein that tastes better and is healthier than store bought eggs
You’ll have a higher use for food scraps (rather than straight into the compost bin) which generates potent fertilizer (manure) for the garden
They provide organic pest control of insects for your yard.
They are entertaining companions
Your neighbors may not like it.
You have to feed and house them, protect them from pedators every day, even when it’s raining or you are really busy with other things. When you go out of town you need to find a responsible “chicken sitter”.
Chicken poop does smell. It can carry diseases. You will get dirty cleaning the coop.
Aren’t chickens loud?
Boy chickens - roosters - are loud. They crow at all hours and will usually annoy the neighbors. They can be very aggressive too. Raising roosters in an urban environment is not recommended. Many cities don’t allow it anyway. Girl chickens, called hens, don’t make much noise. They coo and squawk when they get excited but make less noise than a dog. After a while you will get to know their verbalizing and be able to tell if a hen is laying an egg, or is annoyed that her sister stole her juicy beetle, just by the sounds.
Do I need roosters to get eggs?
Chickens lay eggs regardless of whether or not there is a male around to fertilize the egg. Most of the eggs purchased in at the grocery store are unfertilized. Without a rooster, none of your eggs will ever develop into chicks. Most people with urban chickens only have room for a few birds anyway.
Is it legal to keep chickens in the city?
It IS legal to keep chickens in the City of Los Angeles. The stipulation is that they may not be within 20 feet of the owner's residence, and must be at least 35 feet from any other dwelling. That's impossible in many yards however. Other cities have adopted zoning regulations that do not allow hens to be raised inside of the city limits at all. There are three approaches to dealing with this. The first is to lobby for a change in the law. The second is to attempt to acquire a personal variance. The third is to respectfully approach your neighbors with your intentions and if there are no objections quietly set up your chickens. A small flock of 3 or 4 hens will probably go unnoticed even in urban areas. See here for info on laws in many major urban areas of the US.
What about Avian Flu?
Do not be overly frightened by the Avian flu. The virus is thought to spread from wild fowl to domestic birds through interaction and then to humans through direct contact. There is growing evidence however that it actually originates in the factory farm system and spreads through commercial routes. Either way it has not shown up in migratory birds or factory farm birds here in the US yet.
It can be easily avoided by not allowing your birds to come into contact with wild, migratory birds or factory farm birds. For most urban dwellers this is easy to do. Don’t buy your live birds from poultry markets, which usually raise them in factory conditions.
The best precaution is proper handling of your birds. It’s smart not to handle your birds too often, especially if they are sick. Separate sick birds from the other hens. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly after any contact with healthy or sick birds. Most of what is seen in the mass media concerning Avian flu is fear mongering. Be safe but don’t let anyone scare you needlessly.
Now for the nuts and bolts of raising chickens:
There are many ways to house your new feathered friends. The 3 important things to remember in your design:
Design so you can easily provide food and fresh water to your hens and clean their space. To clean their home you need to be able to sweep, rake, or hose down the area easily.
Protection from the elements
It needs to be cool in summer, warm in winter, dry all the time. Hens hate being wet and will get sick if they are wet for too long. They can tolerate a surprising amount of heat in the summer, but NOT direct sun. Same with the cold. People raise backyard chickens in Alaska!
Protection from predators
Depending on where you live, you might have a variety of chicken hunters: raccoons, coyotes, foxes, possums, hawks, owls, dogs. We've never had any problem with our cats but we've also never had chicks, only teeage to adult birds.
The size of the hen house and coop depends on the number of chickens you intend to keep. More room is better than less. Chickens need a minimum of about 2 square feet of covered area to protect them from the elements and at least 8 square feet of outdoor area. Technically they can survive completely indoors. This is how they’re raised in commercial operations. But you’ll have happier chickens if they get a little running room. They love to scratch and strut.
I recommend making your coop large enough to store a bale of straw, the chicken food (pellets or cracked grain), and a rake. The hen house needs a door big enough to accommodate you, and enough openings to provide cross ventilation, so it doesn't smell.
Hens also want a dry, enclosed, dark nesting area to lay eggs. They may even lay their eggs out in the open but they appreciate a box. A simple wooden box in a dark corner that has been filled with fresh straw will do. If you place the nesting boxes up off the floor, you'll be able to collect eggs easily and get to the box for cleaning without unnecessary stooping. Add a couple perches for your hens, too.
Build a fenced enclosure to keep the hens in, but more importantly, to keep other things out. Remember to cover the top if you have hawks and other flying predators. If you have a completely fenced back yard, you can let the hens free range, then pen them up in their house at night (just watch out for the chicken poop when you are walking around!). As it gets dark there’s no need to round them up. They make their way back to their coop all on their own (“The chickens always come home to roost”).
Chicken Tractors (or arks) are mobile, bottomless cages. You move them around your yard every few days, giving the birds access to new grass and worms and other delights. Just make sure no predators can dig under them if you leave the birds there overnight.
Many people don’t realize chickens can fly. If you don’t provide them a home to sleep in at night chickens will often fly up into the safety of nearby trees. You can clip their wings to keep them grounded if you have a low fence into a neighbor’s yard, or a nearby street where they could get hurt. This is accomplished by spreading one wing and cutting off the very ends of the feathers. You don’t cut back far enough to hurt the chicken. It just throws off the balance of flight and causes the chicken to crash if it tries to takeoff.
FOOD and WATER
You will need to provide your flock with a supply of fresh water. Chickens will knock over or kick dirt into any open container. I recommend what’s called a fount which keeps these problems to a minimum. The container will still need to be cleaned every few days. An old dish scrub brush kept next to an outdoor faucet works well for this purpose.
You will also need to supply your chickens with food. Chickens will eat just about anything from your kitchen. They love table scraps and we found they like almost everything except citrus peels and hard things like bones or peach pits. You may be surprised to hear they like meat and fish.
Along with table scraps you should have some feed on hand. We get what’s called scratch or pellets. It costs 18.25 for 50 organic pounds from Azure Standard . The dry food goes in a heavy terra cotta tray that they can’t tip over. You can also just spread it on the ground in their outdoor area. We just pour the table scraps right on the ground in their coop. They enjoy scratching for their food.
CALCIUM and GRIT
For strong egg shells, hens need a source of calcium. You can buy a big bag of oyster shell and throw them a scoop every few days. Hens that get too little calcium will lay thin-shelled eggs that will be prone to breaking. Eggshells are made of calcium carbonate, the same as is found in oyster shells. There's lots of calcium in greens too, so if they get to forage all day they may not need the oyster shell. You’ll know by how their eggs crack.
Hens that don’t get much access to the outdoors also need hard grit. Unlike oyster shell, grit does not dissolve in their digestive system. They use grit in place of "teeth" (did you ever hear that saying “As scarce as hen’s teeth” ?). Quartz-based sand can be spread in their coop if they need it.
FERTILIZER and BUG CONTROL
Chickens will chase and eat all kinds of insects. They love to scratch for grubs and worms. They’re a great help to the pest control of a garden as long as you watch them carefully. They will DESTROY a delicate bed of greens in 30 seconds with their scratching.
Chickens help compost the organic material coming out of our kitchen. The manure the chickens generate is an excellent fertilizer for the garden. Chicken droppings must be aged before they are used. If not, they will burn the plants. This is easily accomplished by using a layer of leaves or straw on the ground of their coop or run. Every so often rake up all the leaves/straw, chicken poop and loose soil and put them in the compost heap. Then spread more straw/leaves.
Chickens will begin laying eggs about 6 months after hatching. During the first year of its life a chicken will be most prolific, laying fewer eggs each following year. Evaluate your commitment to the idea of a backyard flock because your chickens could live 6 to 8 years. All of this though depends on the breed. There are many different types of chickens. They have different temperments and some are bred for laying, some for meat, some for both. They lay eggs of many colors. Do some investigating to determine which you would like to raise. There are even dwarf chickens, called bantams, that are smaller and may be more appropriate for small yards.
Breeds of Chicken
Good breed chart http://www.ithaca.edu/staff/jhenderson/chooks/chooks.html
house on the end of a hutch
Chick-N-Barn houses 10 hens
good forum on coops
Keep Chickens! by Barbara Kilarski
Living with Chickens by Jay Rossier
Keeping Pet Chickens by Johannes Paul
Barnyard in your backyard from Storey Books
Building Chicken Coops from Storey Books
Resources on bird flu/impact on small-scale farmers from the international NGO GRAIN which “promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge”.
Fact Sheet from Beyond Factory Farming