I just love having chickens. They are such wonderful animals for so many reasons and can benefit you and your garden if kept properly. They also can beautify your property, be very entertaining, and contribute to a picturesque setting around your home. 

This beautiful group of young chickens is getting their adult feathers. The blue laced red Wyandottes can be seen here. Note the variability in the blue color (some blue, some very light, and some black). Some Black French Copper Marans and Lavender Ameraucanas are present as well. Photo by mrl2021.

The first and most obvious benefit to chickens is their eggs. Fresh eggs taste better than anything you can find in a store. They are generally more visually appealing as well with a nice orange-yellow yoke instead of the pale-yellow. If you prefer, you can feed your chickens organic feed and therefore produce organic eggs. The cost of organic feed is considerably more expensive, however. Chickens also like to eat kitchen scraps that normally go onto a compost pile. This prevents wildlife from having a food source on the pile, and converts it immediately into manure.  Chicken manure and old bedding enriches your compost pile and when incorporated into the garden the following spring will make for wonderful soil.

The best part of fresh eggs is that there is no need for refrigeration! There is a protective layer on the egg when it is laid. This allows the eggs to be stored at room temperature for a few weeks without harm. When you are ready to use them, wash the eggs in warm water first. This is very important as cold water causes the egg insides to pull in dirt from the shell, which causes bad tastes. Warm water will prevent this and make egg washing easier. The discarded shells should go right into your compost pile as they are a great source of calcium for the soil. If eggs are dirty and you wash them, store them in the refrigerator. Whichever way you store them, somehow note the date collected and use the older ones first. If you lose track of the collection date, put the egg in a glass of water. If it sinks, its good. If it floats, compost it.

Keeping nest boxes clean by adding fresh bedding when needed (pine shavings, hay, straw, etc.) helps keep eggs clean. Any heavily soiled eggs should be discarded. Commercially produced eggs are stored for an extensive period of time. Because of this, and the distances they are transported, the eggs are washed (therefore removing the protective layer) and refrigerated. The eggs also will lose water, and therefore have an expiration date. 

To reduce feed cost, you may want to free-range your chickens during the day. This is where you let them out of the cage to wander your property. This can be a troubling feeling at first, as you are basically opening the door to your pets’ cage. Chickens generally do not wander too far from home and will return there each night. You must get them used to their new surroundings for a few weeks before allowing them to free range to ensure they know where home is. 

Chickens will eat all sorts of bugs, worms, and anything else that we find disgusting. This can be very beneficial for the homestead. The birds are extremely useful at the end of the growing season where they can be left in the garden to clean up any insects, larvae, weed seeds, etc. They also scratch up the soil which interferes with insect pest life cycles. The whole time they are foraging, they will leave behind their manure which adds nutrients to the soil as well.

There are some challenges with chickens, however. If you free range (and you should), you must understand that the chickens do not understand the concept of a property line. There really is no good way to train them for this, and unless you have an extremely tall fence, they will go where they please. You should make sure your neighbors are okay with a stray bird or two in their yard.  Sharing some excess eggs may be just the thing needed to help them tolerate the occasional trespass. Flower beds, vegetable gardens, and lawns can be damaged by the scratching process.  Movable chicken housing will encourage them to explore other areas of your property. Fruits and vegetables will also be eaten by chickens, so care must be taken to protect your plants from your roaming birds. Chickens can easily jump a typical three foot garden fence. I have had some success with running/yelling at the birds that enter garden areas. This “scary experience” helps them avoid the area for a while. 

When out of their housing, your birds will be vulnerable to all sorts of predators. During the day, hawks are by far the biggest threat followed by dogs or coyotes. Either expect losses, and add new chickens to your flock periodically or figure out ways to create movable pens to protect them. Chicken egg laying slows after a few years. Old birds lay very few eggs and are not worth the cost of feed. I have had certain hens that continued to lay very well even at five years old, so it will just depend on the genetic quality of your birds and the diet they are fed. You should decide ahead of time what you will do with older birds. In the commercial world, they are replaced with younger ones. Some people will make a stew out of old birds, but many times we get attached to our small flock and just tolerate lower production in older birds. Having a flock of mixed age birds can help with this. Older birds sometimes end up eating eggs. Many times it can be linked to a nutrition problem, but these birds need to go before they “teach” the younger birds how to eat eggs.

Housing for chickens needs to be predator proof. It is beyond the scope of this article, but needless to say, there should be no way for predators to get in – especially at night. Chickens should have a coop with adequate ventilation, but tightly sealed against predators. A covered run during the day will provide protection as well. I like to only free-range when I am home to keep an eye on the birds, and an eye on the sky. I also do not use any treated lumber in the construction of my coops. As my family and I eat the eggs, it is not worth the risk of consuming the chemicals found in treated lumber.

The birds themselves can come in all sorts of colors and styles. There are bantams, which are about half the size of a regular bird, but so are their eggs. Pick a breed that you prefer, or get a combination of birds for the most eye pleasing flock. Roosters can be loud and crow early in the morning. You may not want to wake up to that, and your neighbors may not like this either.  Roosters will protect your flock of hens from predators – often to the death, so they can be beneficial. They are also beautiful to look at, but may be mean and possibly attack you or small children. A mean rooster is dangerous and should not be kept. There are laws and regulations in regards to keeping chickens so you should check into that before purchasing your birds. Certain breeds like the blue laced red Wyandotte can be interesting to keep. The blue coloration is tricky genetically speaking, and it can be neat when you have that perfect bird with a great looking pattern.      

So I hope this article inspires you to try chickens. A few hundred years ago every house would have had some. It is only in our modern day lifestyle that most people do not. Chicken keeping has been getting more and more popular though, and many towns allow a few hens on a small lot. Mail order requires shipping a larger amount of birds for safe shipping. In the warmer months the number may be reduced, but you will pay a small order fee. Heat packs are sometimes used to make up for the smaller number of birds in the box. The alternative is to find a feed store nearby that sells some birds, and you will be able to pick up a small group.  Regardless of how you acquire your birds, is typical to lose one or two as you raise them, so plan accordingly. Also, if you order hens, the sexing accuracy is about 90% at best, with some breeds being less, so you may end up with a rooster (or two), so be prepared for that as well. In the end, there is nothing better than the taste of a home grown egg! Why not add some chickens to your property?  

The author’s new group of “hens.” See the young rooster? Photo by mrl2021.

Matt Lisy