Chicken expert Gail Damerow answers newbie questions
Cluck, cluck, cluck. Bwaak!
These are not sounds I expect to hear on a stroll in my North Oakland, Calif. neighborhood — the usual soundtrack is more like thumping bass, sirens, and the rattle of fast-food paper bags. And yet chickens are pecking in backyards on practically every block, in converted sheds and rickety but raccoon-proof enclosures.
Where I live, it’s mostly a matter of economics: chicken feed is cheap, and fresh, tasty orange-yolked eggs are expensive. Around the country, though, it’s safe to say that keeping chickens has never enjoyed as much cachet as it does now. Some cities are more chicken-friendly than others: the Municode Library website can usually tell you whether your city allows chickens, how many and what sex; just find your hometown and search its code for “chickens.”
I’ve been thinking about taking the poultry plunge myself, but I decided to get some expert advice first.
If these tiny-brained feathered friends are the Boston terriers of their decade, then Gail Damerow is poultry’s Cesar Millan. In the last 40 years, she’s raised dozens of different breeds and written Barnyard in Your Backyard and several other animal-care handbooks. But she’s best known for Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, now in its third edition. It’s the primer for all things chicken: from training your birds (yes, you can, although they probably won’t fetch for you) to keeping predators at bay to designing and building your own backyard coop. (Speaking of coops, we’re putting together a slideshow of cool coops for city chickens for Friday — if you’re proud of your poultry’s pad, send us a photo and caption!)
Gail graciously consented to answer my poultry-newbie questions by phone and email from her farm in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland.
Q. Can chickens really thrive in a small city backyard, or do they need real room to range?
A. Chickens can get along quite well in a small amount of space, provided they have adequate food and water, and their environment is kept clean. The main issue is finding things for them to do to keep from getting bored and picking on each other (like siblings cooped up in the back seat of the family sedan). The best chicken toys involve food that cannot be eaten quickly — such as a head of fresh lettuce or cabbage hung from a string so the chickens can peck at it.
Q. How big does a coop need to be?
A. For the enclosed portion of the coop, I’d want at least 3 square feet for lightweight laying breeds such as the Leghorn and 4 square feet for heavier, dual-purpose (meat and egg-laying) breeds such as the Rhode Island Red. For the chicken run, more is always better, but total living space (indoors and out) of 7.5 square feet per bird should be adequate.
Q. Is there any advantage to having four or more chickens versus two?
A. Chickens are flock animals that like company. I think three or four would develop a more comfortable social order, unless the facility isn’t big enough for the one lowest in the pecking order to get away from others. (As long as you have at least two chickens, one is always lowest in peck order.)
Q. Can chickens and raised vegetable beds co-exist happily in a backyard?
A. When the garden is in, the chickens will need supervision so they don’t eat or scratch up emerging seedlings or peck holes in ripening strawberries or tomatoes, etc. Also for safety’s sake, fresh chicken poop should be kept away from root crops for 120 days prior to harvest, and from other crops for 90 days, although people who raise chickens (who are around chickens, handle them, clean the coop, etc.) are less likely to be affected by potential poultry pathogens from garden produce.
Q. Are people better off building a simple coop with a run, or buying one of the pricy ready-made models like the Omlet Eglu?
A. That’s a tough one. Some of the ready-made models are nice, but some look a little iffy, especially for times when chickens don’t want to be outdoors, like during several days of torrential rain or in freezing cold weather.
On the other hand, I’ve seen chicken shelters built by people who shouldn’t be allowed to use a hammer. You have to think about an awful lot of things, not the least of which is the safety of the chickens (no protruding nails, good ventilation but not drafty, insulation, predator proofing, etc.), as well as how to efficiently position the feed, water, perches, nests, and doorways. Lots of different styles of chicken coops have been designed, but none is perfect. I have lived in the same location for nearly 30 years and have lost track of how many times we’ve remodeled our chicken housing; we just finished remodeling our layer house in mid-June. People always ask me for the definitive coop design, but there is no such thing.
[Readers, if you disagree and think you’ve um, nailed it: send us a photo of your coop for Friday’s slideshow.]
Q. Your books do, however, offer a sketch for a good workable coop.
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