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Rural Or Not, Here They Come!

Published: October 10, 2009

Return of the Backyard Chicken

We weren’t surprised at all when our Web producer snuck out of the office early last Wednesday afternoon to chase down a story. We were, however, shocked when he admitted that he left to go pick up chicks.

As in baby chickens. Yet, downtown Indianapolis is hardly the place to raise farm animals. So why are chickens crossing country roads to settle in the city? Because it’s not as hard as you might think to wake up to fresh eggs from your feathered friends.

Raising chickens was a common backyard activity in the early 20th century—when families practiced sustainability during tough economic times. But it wasn’t long before corporate poultry producers and mass farming methods grew substantially, making packaged chicken products and eggs by the dozen convenient and affordable. The benefits of owning your own chickens seemed less reasonable and the numbers of backyard chicken-raisers fell dramatically.

It’s no coincidence, then, that as the economy faces another squeeze, these breakfast-providing birds are making a comeback, rural or not.

So where do you buy chickens, and how much do they cost? Are they worth the hassle? We asked these questions and more to our Web producer, Josh Deckard, who recently became the proud parent of his own small flock.

Where do you buy chickens?
Local hatcheries and breeders, classified ads, craigslist.org, backyardchickens.com, or you can also have chicks delivered by mail from out-of-town hatcheries. You can buy fertilized eggs and hatch them yourself; buy unsexed chicks (I bought mine when they were a day old); or you can find whole flocks of grown chickens for sale.

How much do they cost?
It depends on the breed and how old they are. Sometimes people will give them away online. Free to $10 is normal, but it’s important to find out why someone is giving them away.

How do you determine the chicken’s breed and sex?
The breeder should know the breed. The sex can be determined after one day by a trained professional, but it’s very hard for a small-flock owner to determine. If you buy unsexed chicks, wait until they start showing physical characteristics of their respective sexes. According to the Mississippi State Extension Service, the combs and wattles get larger on males and their heads appear more angular than the females’ heads. Color patterns on feathers can also help determine the variety of chicken.

What are some common varieties of backyard chickens?
There are so many breeds—all of which have distinct characteristics and personalities. You can determine the best breed for you with the help of a breeder, based on your overall expectations. I went with an exotic breed.

How many should a beginner buy?
If buying unsexed chicks, consider buying twice as many as you want in your mature flock. For instance, I wanted three to four hens, so I bought six, at $2 each. Most cities do not allow cockerels (roosters), so they need to be given away/sold to someone outside the city.

How much space does each chicken need?
From what I have seen, there are many shapes and sizes of coops out there. Breeders recommend 2 square feet of indoor space per chicken and 10 square feet of outdoor run space per chicken.

Six bantam ameraucuna chicks are introduced to their new home, a cardboard box, on October 1, 2009. The tenants have since grown and been transferred to a bigger, plastic tub. Photo by Josh Deckard.

Six bantam Ameraucana chicks are introduced to their new home, a cardboard box, on October 1, 2009. Photo by Josh Deckard.

How do you build, or where do you buy a chicken coop?
You can buy them online. I’ve seen them from $100 to $200, which also includes the flock. I ended up building my own.

What do you do when the weather gets cold?
Chicks need to be kept warm, but once grown, they are tolerant to most winter conditions. The breeder I bought mine from, Sally Mayall, advised me to keep them out of the wind.

Do you need to clip their wings?
According to Sally, you can. It depends on the breed and your coop situation.

How often do you feed them?
Food should always be available for young chicks. Unlike most people, they stop eating when they are full.

What predators do you need to protect them from?
Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and also mites and lice. Again, it depends on where you plan to keep your chickens and the structure of your coop.

How many eggs can you expect from each chicken?
One egg every one to two days.

Do they make a lot of noise?
Roosters crow all day, not just in the morning, so many cities don’t allow you to keep them. Even if they did, your neighbors probably wouldn’t be very happy. Chicks sound like baby birds in a nest and grown hens simply cluck.

Besides eggs, what are the benefits of raising chickens?
Natural fertilizer and the health benefits of eating natural eggs. Some chickens are friendly and have distinct personalities, so they make great pets. “Chicken people,” I’ve found, can be quite fanatical. Sally and her kids are such people. “I just love chickens!” she said to me, “I think everyone should have one.” She also told stories about her kids connection with the birds and how her daughter frequently brings the birds inside to watch TV with them. (I didn’t ask if they were potty trained!)

It’s definitely not about saving money, the economics just don’t add up. Eggs are $2 per dozen, sometime less, at the store. For me, it’s about a closer bond with nature. Being one generation removed from a family farm in southern Indiana, it’s also about reconnecting with this tradition and history.

Read more about Josh’s experience here.

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  • Sue George

    I, too, have just begun what I hope is a long happy life with a flock of pullets. I chose Aracaunas after learning that they are more easily tamed. They also happen to be very pretty birds. I get about 3-5 green (yes, green) eggs per day from my 5 “little girls”.

    Yes, they do have personalities all their own. I have found a parting of ways with some of the best books on chickens, however. The kindest of books portray chickens as not having the capacity to love as a dog or cat does. My chickens are very loving and if I don’t pick them up to be held, they fly onto my lap for some attention and one even will fall asleep while I pet her.

    I strongly recommend this to anyone interested in getting closer to their roots.

  • Sammie Justesen

    A great article! I love raising chickens and I’m glad to see this is gaining popularity. Believe it or not, chickens have personalities a fascinating social life (or maybe I don’t get out often enough).