Getting Started with a Home Chicken Coop
Wishing you had access to fresh local eggs? It doesn’t get much more local than your own yard! Chickens have been making their way back into the suburban habitat for a few years now, nestled right next to edible gardens and compost piles—a tiny, sustainable farm life at home.
To learn more about keeping chickens at home, we talked with Los Altos resident Rosalind Creasy—a nationally acclaimed garden and food writer—who has raised egg-laying chickens for more than 30 years. She has noticed the upward trend in chicken coops, seeing four coops added to her cul-de-sac alone. Stressing the value a front yard has to offer, she proudly displays her two coops side-by-side, each with three nesting chickens. Here are some tips to keep in mind before taking in your own flock.
Check Local Regulations (and with Your Neighbors)
The laws on chickens vary from county to county. Start with some research on your specific area, looking for zoning and noise ordinances as well as pet ownership laws. In San Mateo County, the number of chickens allowed varies from six to 10 domestic poultry, depending on land size. In Santa Clara County, urban district homeowners are allowed to keep up to 12 small animals. Check your county for specifics.
Creasy also suggested letting your neighbors know, as hens are not quiet when laying their eggs. “They go on for about 10 minutes, bragging as if to say, ‘This is the best egg I’ve ever laid. Look at me.’” When she asked around about her coop, she heard no complaints and many neighbors embraced the concept. “People who had children all loved the idea. The chickens keep them entertained for hours,” said Creasy.
(On a noisier note: People raising chickens solely for the eggs do not need a rooster, and many want to avoid the cock-a-doodle wake up calls and shout-out calls that often come with them. Check your city laws as many city zoning jurisdictions allow hens but ban roosters.)
Setting Up the Coop
Inside the coop, you will need an automatic water dispenser (as chickens are often thirsty), straw (for bedding and to keep the smell down), a nesting box with a few ceramic eggs (to give chickens a clue on where to lay) and room to roam outside the laying area. If one hen lays in a box, the other hens will lay in that box. The nesting box is necessary because you don’t want the hens stepping on the eggs. If they break them, then they eat them and once they get a taste for eggs it is hard to untrain this behavior.
Creasy herself has two coops (pictured at right), rotating her flock between them: a six-foot square and a large 12- by eight foot one. For three hens, a six- by six-foot coop is a good size to begin your project. Creasy suggested either buying a coop or having someone make it as it takes a lot of reinforcement to make sure the predators stay out and the chickens stay home. “A top for the enclosure is necessary, and the chicken wire has to go down in the ground six inches down, and out a foot from the wall of the coop.”
She does not allow her chickens to have a full free range in her open, fenceless front yard garden. “If you allow them to range without an enclosed coop, keep in mind you are going to lose some. A whole bunch of critters want to eat them, or they just don’t come home at night.” Many people let their chickens run supervised in a yard or fenced area during the day, but always lock them safely in their coops at night.
Check Your Chicken Personalities
Over the last 30 years, Creasy has kept 18 different breeds. One of her favorite breeds is the Buff Orpington, because they are calm and sweet. “Kids can go in the coop and the chickens settle right down. It is easy to pick them up and not upset them. Plus, they are good layers.” Breeds she suggests avoiding are those with the feathers on their feet (for sanitary reasons) and any breed not described as a good layer. The winner in her eyes for “most beautiful” chicken is the Silver Laced Wyandotte, which also is a good layer. She adds a warning to avoid aggressive breeds such as the Araucana, since the more sensitive breeds may get bullied.
She also suggests not getting hung up on the color of the eggshell. “People are currently into the uniqueness of the beautiful blue and olive eggs, but the outside color has nothing to do with the flavor. You’ll notice the difference in the taste first and foremost.”
It’s All in the Timing
Keep in mind the lifespan of chickens before buying your flock. Although chickens live about 10 to 12 years, they will stop producing eggs regularly at about five or six years. For long-term planning, think about whether you will be keeping your chickens around as pets even after they stop laying eggs.
Egg laying is also not a year-round job for chickens. At around 18 months old, the chickens will molt, and will need all the energy they have to make a new set of feathers. They will need a lot of protein at this time, and the process can take up to six months, so keep that in mind for your planning.
Feeding Your Feathered Friends
Creasy refers to her chickens as “little piggies” for both the amount they eat and the variety of what they can consume. They need a lot of calories to make eggs each day, as well as variety in their diet. Supplement their diet with food scraps from your kitchen. Barring a few foods to avoid such as avocados or onions, chickens can eat most of what you eat. Check online for a full list of foods to avoid.
“They are omnivores, so they also need small grubs and bugs whenever possible,” says Creasy. After her last crab feed, she tossed the shells into the coop and they were picked apart pretty quickly. This, and other calcium sources like oyster shells or eggshells are good to include in their feed, both for grit and for stronger eggshells.
Some local resources to get you started: