How to keep urban chickens happy
June 30, 2011
By Michael Timm
Squozi the Bantam Cochin, age 6, the favorite “grandma hen” of Madison chicken pioneers Alicia Rheal and Bryan Whiting. ~photo Jim Klousia
Effective July 28, it’s legal to raise chickens in the city of Milwaukee.
Far from transforming the Brew City into a dusty backwater with cocks crowing in the dawn, advocates envision backyard chickens as another way, as with urban gardens, to reintegrate agriculture into people’s daily lives.
They see chickens as undomesticated pets, with the added value of providing eggs, pest control, and waste-as-fertilizer.
And if it doesn’t work out, the ordinance sunsets in one year unless renewed, providing city leaders a political opt-out if their constituents’ feathers get too ruffled.
But that hasn’t happened in nearby Madison, where chickens were legalized in 2004. Over six years later, many Madisonians see backyard chickens as commonplace, even if they don’t have their own. And advocates say well-tended chickens are no smellier or noisier than dogs.
The Compass talked to some of the folks who’ve been down this road before to get their advice about raising chickens in the city. Alicia Rheal was one of the pioneers who convinced the city of Madison to legalize chickens in 2004. Dennis Harrison-Noonan has sold thousands of urban chicken coop designs via the internet.
“Ultimately it’s about food security,” said Harrison-Noonan. “You can grow broccoli in the backyard. Can you grow something with a little protein too?”
Alicia Rheal’s chicken coop is attached to her backyard greenhouse. She recommends welded wire instead of chicken wire. ~photo Alicia Rheal
Rules of the Roost
1. Build a secure coop. “Security is key,” said Rheal. “The most important thing you can do is build a secure coop. Secure against raccoons, possums, foxes, Cooper’s Hawks, against dogs and cats, squirrels, coyotes. We recommend a welded wire. We like one-inch square welded wire as opposed to chicken wire. Raccoons can bite right through that. It’s fine in a pinch, but it rusts.”
Chickens will also scratch underground in their search for grit, so Rheal lines her coop with brick.
2. Keep your chickens dry and draft-free. “Dry and draft-free is kind of the rule of thumb of housing. A lot of people are really afraid in the winter they’re going to be cold. No! They are fine! You do want them to be dry—in the wintertime as long as they don’t have a draft going over their little heads they should be fine.”
Not air-tight, but draft-free, Rheal emphasized, otherwise there will be moisture build-up that threatens frostbite in winter and promotes fungal or bacterial growth in the summer. “The drier your coop is,” she said, “the less it will smell.” Rheal has built her coop on a raised bed of gravel to help with drainage.
3. Clean your coop regularly. Four or five times a year Rheal cleans out her coop and shovels it into her compost pile, mixing the chicken waste with vegetable food scraps.
4. Do your research and invest your time and money wisely. “It seems really obvious,” Rheal said, “but I advise people to build the coop before you get the chickens.”
She also cautions against letting chickens loose in your yard. “It may look charming, antiquated, but they will demolish a garden in an hour.” To give her chickens some room to exercise, she has built a separate chicken run, fenced in but without a roof, that connects to her coop.
Bryan Whiting holds a baby chick. ~photo Alicia Rheal
How do you get chicks?
Would you have guessed by U.S. Mail? It’s true. Right before they hatch, chicks ingest the egg yolk, Rheal said, so they don’t need food or water for 24 to 36 hours. That’s how they can be shipped, many from Iowa, all over the country. “As long as they’re warm, they’re fine,” Rheal said.
In her experience, 98 percent of shipped chicks survive. The cost is typically about $2.50 to $5 per chick. “Five dollars is really expensive,” Rheal said.
How many eggs will they lay?
It depends on the hen’s breed, age, time of year, and if the chicken is in the mood.
“If a chicken is brooding, it will sit on a rock, ping-pong ball, just a pile of sawdust until something hatches,” Rheal said. While brooding, hens won’t lay.
Otherwise, for nine months a year, healthy hens will lay about one egg per day. With four chickens, you might reasonably expect 120 eggs per month. That’s a lot of protein.
You may notice that your own eggs are different than those at the store. Your chickens are catching rays and eating bugs and vegetation, not confined and stuck on commercial feed, so their eggshells are typically a little firmer and the yolks a little darker.
What breeds should you consider?
Depends on what your reasons for raising chickens are. If you want to maximize egg production, go for so-called “eggers” like Rhode Island Reds. If you want a cute pet, go for distinct plumage.
Rheal recommends obtaining the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalogue. It’s like a seed catalogue, only for different chicken breeds. Connoisseurs and novices alike can revel in the genetic diversity of our feathered friends—from showy Mille Fleur Bantams and classic Blue Andalusians to fluffy White Silkies and plump Cornish X Rocks.
How long will your chickens live?
Not long if you forget to close the door to their coop…but otherwise, assume an average of 2.5 years. Once hens stop laying, they enter a new phase of life many do not survive. If hens survive this “chicken menopause” they may be good for 12 years or more, Rheal said. Otherwise, it’s the freezer.
Are chickens safe?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions people with weakened immune systems against handling chickens and their waste because of the risk of contracting Salmonella. However, the CDC essentially just recommends diligent hand washing to prevent contamination.
In some foreign countries, Avian Flu is a risk, but not yet in the United States.
What do you do with all that chicken poop?
Many people compost it. Poultry waste is rich in nitrogen and makes excellent fertilizer—if blended with other compost materials. On its own, it will burn vegetation. “This stuff is great,” Rheal said. “It’ll get all that compost cooking.”
What do they eat?
They love Japanese beetles and will snatch up other insect critters, but chickens will still need a diet augmented by feed. A 40-pound bag of generic feed from a store like Farm & Fleet will cost $7 or $8 and should last four chickens about a month and half, Rheal said. You can also consider organic feed for $15 or $20 or vegetarian options for $10 to $12.
What about water?
In the summertime, Rheal fills a two- or three-gallon water feeder that automatically fills a watering trough. In the winter, she manually fills a rubber dish that she can stomp on to break ice out.
How much time and money will it take?
Ten to 15 minutes per day to water and feed them and remove the eggs, plus two hours five times per year to thoroughly shovel out the coop. Plan “chicken sitters” to pick up eggs if you’re away on vacation.
Budget at least $500 for initial coop costs.
The “playhouse” coop designed by Dennis Harrison-Noonan and constructed by his son, Tobias, for his Eagle Scout project. ~photo Dennis Harrison-Noonan
Milwaukee’s ordinance listed four justifications for the policy change sponsored by Alderman Nik Kovac:
“A number of cities allow the keeping of chickens.”
“Chickens can produce eggs, a source of sustainable, healthy food.”
“Once a chicken’s living space is arranged, chickens are low-maintenance and often treated as pets.”
“Chickens are voracious insect-eaters; their fertilizer is ideal for vegetable and flower gardens; and they do not smell if well cared for.”
The chickens ordinance passed the Common Council 8-5 on May 24, was signed by the mayor June 3, and published June 13. It takes effect July 28.
How They Voted
Alders for chickens in the city: Bauman, Bohl, Coggs, Hamilton, Kovac, Murphy, Witkowiak, Zielinski.
Alders against chickens in the city: Donovan, Dudzik, Wade, Witkowski.
Alders excused for the May 24 vote: Davis, Puente.
What Milwaukee’s Ordinance Boils Down To
No more than four chickens per yard.
Coops must be adequate and maintained.
16 square feet of yard and coop space per chicken are required.
Coops must be at least 25 feet away from any residential structure on an adjacent lot.
Coops must be in the backyard, not front.
A $35 annual permit is required.
Written consent of property owners and owners of directly or diagonally abutting properties is required.
Chicken owners must report disease or illness to health department.
The Common Council also unanimously passed a companion ordinance that modifies the zoning code to make it easier for residents to build coops in their yards.
A building permit is not required if the coop is 50 square feet or less and 10 feet in height or less.
This was approved June 14, signed June 23, and published June 30. It took effect July 1.
My Pet Chicken – mypetchicken.com
Murray McMurray Hatchery – mcmurrayhatchery.com
Urban Chickens – urbanchickens.org
Mad City Chickens – madcitychickens.com
Isthmus Handyman – isthmushandyman.com
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