The New Family Pet

By Patricia Danflous and Michele Robert Poche

Why did the chicken cross the road?   You don’t have to think twice to answer that age-old riddle, do you? More than likely that’s the first riddle you remember learning.

There are hundreds of chicken jokes and riddles laying around and cracking people up.  But there’s no laughing about it when it comes to raising chickens in your backyard.  Choosing a chicken as a family pet is chic, trendy, productive and egg-citing!  Imagine the benefits and fun in cooking with eggs less than a few hours old. Wouldn’t one of those creatively constructed chicken coops add some distinction to your yard?

Hatching chicks, raising chickens and gathering eggs is a good, interactive introduction to urban farming that also provides an educational experience for the family. Lessons in responsibility come with raising chickens, too. You will be collecting eggs daily and cleaning the waste on a regular basis.

So, what comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Let’s start with incubating fertilized eggs to hatch. If you don’t have any chickens or a rooster yet, visit a hatchery or search for fertilized eggs online. You will need an incubator, preferably one with a turning feature or a brooding hen who will keep the eggs warm. The incubation process takes 21 days before the baby chicks peck their way through the shell. Within three or four hours after hatching, the newborn chicks will be fuzzy, dry and ready to move on to a brooder, a heated enclosure, for about six weeks. A cardboard box, heat lamp and shavings may be all you need for an effective brooder.

While the baby chicks are growing, concentrate on getting their next home ready. Design and build your own coop or buy one already assembled. As the backyard chicken craze continues to expand, there are an increasing number of coop designs.  It’s important to do your homework first. Use these tips to get started.

  1. Research the laws in your area.  Many communities have rules against or guidelines for keeping chickens.  It’s important to be fully informed before you take on any expenses or, for that matter, chickens.  (Pro Tip: The presence of roosters is often prohibited.)
  2. Decide on your number of feathered friends because each chicken requires a minimum of four square feet of living space if they roam during the day and at least 10 square feet if they are always confined. Water and feeder accessories should sit about 8 inches above the ground.
  3. Design your coop.  A perfect opportunity to create something uniquely yours, the project doesn’t have to be complicated.  Using one of the countless, free blueprints available online and a few household scraps, you can build your coop for often less than $100.
  4. Keep your chickens healthy.  Insulate and ventilate the henhouse to keep everything inside warm and fresh.  And be sure your structure is human-friendly with access doors and/or drawers so you can get in there to clean it thoroughly.
  5. Keep your chickens happy.  Include ample perching areas for roosting and nesting boxes for egg production.  Provide a dust bathing area where they can dig holes and dust themselves with dirt to control external parasites.  For tamer pets, visit with them often.
  6. Keep your chickens safe.  Elevate the facility and choose quality latches to keep predators out.  (Pro Tip: Before use, your coop can be tested for security by leaving raw meat locked within it a few nights to determine if intruders can break in.)

There is much more to learn about incubating and raising chickens as well as making sure that you have considered health concerns for your family. Detailed information is available from the USDA, local hatcheries, and websites such as mypetchicken.com.

If you’re raising chickens in cold climates, you know that keeping water in open areas from freezing can be a problem.  The solution?  Put a few ping pong balls in the water.  The slightest breeze will blow them around and create waves in the water to keep ice from forming. 

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