A couple of weeks ago, I received a gift of four eggs from my dear daughter. These weren’t just any eggs: they were among the first eggs produced by her very own chickens. The eggs themselves are unusual and lovely: on the small side, with a greenish tinge and deep orange yolks. I’ve been visiting the chickens and hearing about the chickens, and finally I’ve been inspired to write about the chickens. I asked a lot of questions and got a lot of answers. Here’s what I found out:
What made you start thinking about getting chickens?
There were three reasons:
- improve the fertility of the garden soil
- fresh, high quality eggs for the family to eat
- a fun project to do with the kids.
What research did you do before you got the chickens?
We borrowed books from the library and read articles on the Internet. We talked to other people who keep chickens (our neighbours and the school principal). They were encouraging, but they did warn us that we would have to protect the chickens from predators. The man who gave us the chickens said the same thing.
We built the coop. It wasn’t quite finished when we brought the chicks home, but that was okay because they were too young to go outside at that point. It was mid-May and we would have had to have a heat lamp to keep them warm enough outside. We put them in the bathtub in our spare bathroom. They stayed there for about six weeks, by which time they were ready to go outside and the coop was ready for them.
Tell me about the day you went to get the chicks.
We went to the farm and looked at the setup. This was out in rural Metchosin, where they’re allowed to have lots of chickens and they can have roosters as well. We looked at the setup there: the coop, fencing and nesting boxes. In the basement of his house, the chicken farmer had 30 or 40 available chicks in a large cage. All of these had hatched from eggs produced by his own chickens. He encouraged us to take more than five chicks (our legal limit for our lot size), because some of them would turn out to be roosters and we would have to take them back.
We took the chicks home and gave them names: Beatrice (black & white), Kira (orange & white), Hawk (orange), Eagle (orange), NASDAQ (all black), Meera (orange & white) and Orange Lynora (orange, obviously).
After two or three months, we could tell which ones were roosters. They started to get aggressive and were pecking at the other chickens. They got spurs. One of our favourite chicks was NASDAQ, but we had to take him back, along with Meera and Orange Lynora. In the end, the chicken farmer kept NASDAQ and he turned out to be an excellent rooster; in fact, the farmer said NASDAQ is one of the best roosters he’s ever had.
- It had to be predator proof. The predators are Cooper’s Hawks, raccoons, eagles, mink (in outlying areas like Sooke), cats, cougars, dogs and owls.
- It had to have both an indoor and an outdoor area. Chickens need light. It can be artificial light, but they won’t live as long as they will with natural light. Also, artificial light has the potential for starting a fire. The climate here is mild enough to let the chickens out into the outside part of the coop.
- It had to have perches. Ours is a two-by-four on its side. In nature, chickens sleep in trees.
- The food and water have to be up off the ground, away from rats and the chicken poop.
- The upper part of the coop (the enclosed area) and the nesting box need to have wood shavings on the bottom.
- The coop needs to be ventilated: the roof is corrugated tin, so air can get in through the spaces and there are windows that we open just a crack.
What breed are the chickens?
Because the chicken farmer didn’t separate his chickens by breed, they are all mixed breed. The two hens that are laying now (Beatrice and Hawk) are producing greenish eggs, so they probably have some Araucana, Ameraucana or Easter Egger in them. Some breeds can produce colourful eggs: pink, blue, green, chocolate brown. The colour of the eggshells can also be influenced by diet. We are currently working with the children on a science project to see if the colour of the eggs can be changed by feeding the chickens beets.
There are different types of food pellets. We started out with Starter Pellets, and now we’ve moved on to Laying Pellets. Every few days, we give the chickens oyster shells for calcium and grit. This just goes onto the floor of the lower part of the coop. Because chickens don’t have teeth, they have to have grit to help them digest their food. We also give them weeds, grass, leafy greens and worms. The chickens really like worms and insects. I keep a worm farm under a tarp in the garden. Every day, we throw in a quarter of a coffee mug of “scratch”: grain, seed and corn. Chickens are omnivores: they do need some meat, poultry or fish. I gave them the last of the Christmas turkey, with the small bones removed so the chickens wouldn’t choke on them. We removed the bones later.
When I make oatmeal for the family, I cook up some extra for “the girls”. Depending on season, I give them produce such as cucumbers, watermelon rinds and squash. I crush eggshells and put them back into the coop. Not everyone does this because they believe the hens might start to eat their own eggs. I make sure to crush the shells into really small pieces so they are unrecognizable. Eggshells provide calcium and grit.
How much work is involved in keeping chickens?
Once or twice a day, we look for eggs. We stir the wood shavings around to distribute the ammonia from the chicken poop. This helps the shavings absorb the ammonia. We change the water once a week (it’s a self-watering system) and top up the food pellets. Twice a week or so, I use a hand cultivator tool to scrape off the perches and nesting boxes.
The floor of the coop is dirt covered with wood shavings and oak leaves. This is a deep bed method that creates heat. It all starts to compost and insects are attracted into the coop. The chickens eat the insects. After awhile, it all gets too deep and if left untended, it will rot the beams of the coop eventually. We remove buckets full and put it around the base of the fruit trees or use it to top dress kale, cauliflower and broccoli. It’s hot and can burn the roots, so we don’t put it too close to the plants and don’t dig it in.
How old do the chickens have to be before they start laying eggs?
Right now, only Hawk and Beatrice are laying. Hawk was the first one to start: she was seven months old when she started. She’s been laying an egg a day, and now Beatrice is laying, too. Sometimes hens will lay two eggs in one day. It’s seasonal: you will not get as many eggs in the winter.
What are the rewards?
It’s more satisfying and fun than I thought it would be. Finding the eggs is like having Christmas every day. The children are very involved and really love having the chickens.