Rule the Roost: Raising Chickens in Your Backyard

It might seem a curious trend, but trend it has become!  From urban settings to modern, upscale enclaves, more and more of us are embarking on the adventure of raising chickens in our backyards. The backyard flock is an extension of an urban farming movement that has gained popularity nationwide. Raising livestock and crops domestically avoids the energy usage and carbon emissions typically associated with transporting food. This trend towards supporting locally-grown food has become a bona fide movement with its own terminology.The word locavore, defined by Merriam-Webster as “one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible,” was coined in 2005 in San Francisco by three women who hatched a plan to challenge Bay Area residents to eat only foods grown or harvested within a 100 mile radius of the city for an entire month. The Bay Area was up to the challenge, and the movement grew like basil in July. Locavore was named the 2007 Word of the Year by the Oxford American Dictionary!

If, like me, you're already on the bandwagon- or even if you're just thinking of jumping up here!- there is a lot of information to sort through.  Each municipality has its own rules and regulations, but in California, many towns allow residents to keep a small number of chickens. According to municode.com, The City of Calabasas allows residents to keep up to three small animals (including birds, chickens, ducks and rabbits) per home. Zoning varies not just town to town, but neighborhood to neighborhood, so check with your local governing bodies to be sure you’re in compliance with the law.

The popularity of backyard hen houses is growing, due in large part to a desire shared by many to reduce their reliance on eggs produced inhumanely on large commercial farms.  This was a big factor for me in deciding to have my own hens, but it cannot be denied that there are many other benefits to raising your own chickens.  My garden explodes to life with the help of our own composted chicken manure, and our walled rose garden pulsates with a charm and joyful energy made possible by the cooing and clucking of our resident brood. If you’ve never tasted a fresh home-grown chicken egg, I promise you that the moment you do, you will never want anything else!  With plump dark yellow yolks, they are much more flavorful than commercially grown eggs. According to Mother Earth News, home-grown eggs are reported to have seven times more Beta Carotene, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more Vitamin E, a third less cholesterol, a quarter less saturated fat, two thirds more vitamin A, and four to six times more vitamin D than store-bought eggs.  

And, believe it or not, chickens are smart! I love watching them run to greet the dogs and sing and call when they see me approaching from far away. They are surprisingly entertaining and docile, and they can even be affectionate. For me, raising chickens creates a connection to our food source that gives me a deeper appreciation of the animals that play a role in our circle of life. It is truly a priceless experience.

As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to have a quaint little coop and raise hens that could provide beautifully colored eggs. Until recently, most of my friends have raised their eyebrows when I’ve come clean about this lifelong desire, but that’s happening less and less these days. I’m sure they’re envisioning a hot mess of chicken wire and bird droppings, but it doesn’t have to be that way! A chicken dwelling can be designed to feel like an extension of the main house- as modern or traditional as that might be.

Our own little coop is designed in an authentic Spanish style to match our house.  It is clad in smooth stucco with antique Spanish roof tiles, and the doors have been made from antique Provençal oak shutters from an old French barn. A twelve inch square opening at one side of the coop near the ground connects to the protected outdoor area and allows the birds an easy way in and out.  A mature olive tree stands just outside the coop and is encircled with wire fencing and aviary netting which allows our hens to have a shaded run. In this protected area, they can scratch for insects and take happy dust baths.

Once we built the coop and created a secure outdoor enclosure, it was time to order the inhabitants! My two main criteria for the breeds in my flock were that they be friendly, docile birds and that they produce pretty, colored eggs. My first batch of chicks was comprised of Araucanas, Cuckoo Marans, Silkies, Buff Cochins, Partridge Cochins, and Frizzles. I ordered them from one of the oldest hatcheries in the country: Murray McMurray in Webster City, Iowa. Like most hatcheries, live day-old chicks are shipped from March through November in a minimum quantity of twenty five – enough little peeps to keep each other warm on their journey. Receiving that little box in the US Post was a day I will never forget, and I keep that tiny box to show anyone who doesn’t believe me that this is how they come!  

It might not seem obviously glamorous, but I think there’s something luxurious about going out to the coop every morning and saying hello to “the girls.” Taking a few moments to commune with nature and being able to bring in delicious, organic eggs that are still warm from their nests certainly adds richness to our lives.

There has never been a better time for becoming a chicken-raising hobbyist – no yolk (forgive me!).  Great websites, blogs, newsletters, mail order hatcheries, and online resources are plentiful.  Some of my favorite resources are:

Murray McMurray Hatcherywww.mcmurrayhatchery.com

My Pet Chicken www.mypetchicken.com

Clark Farm Chicken Coops www.clarkfarmbusiness.com

and the newsletter “Chicken Keeping Secrets”.