Get your Garden Clucking with an Urban Homestead!
Last month the city of Denver made it easier for residents to own backyard livestock. Now it seems that everyone wants to own a few chickens! A friend of mine has been raising chickens for over 2 years so I took a trip her house in Littleton to find out what all the fuss is about over urban livestock.
What makes backyard chickens so appealing? Aside from getting your morning eggs from the coop everyday, why is everyone so eager to get their own flock and start an urban farm, even in downtown Denver?
Loelle’s flock of hens live happily in their coop which used to be a sandbox at the ground level of a marvelous 2-story playhouse, complete with a large tree smack in the middle and a swing-set off to the side.
She let the chickens out of their coop and into the back yard and we quickly learned why the birds have captured the attention of so many people. They are adorable! Loelle’s kids wanted to show us the chicken chair so we looked around for a chicken-themed, decorated lawn chair. Out came a plain white plastic chair and the chickens roosted on the arms and back of the chair.
Their feathers are stunning in the afternoon light. The Australorp has glossy black feathers with a green sheen.
Then the birds high-tailed it to the shade of a tall bush and started scratching the ground. Within minutes all of the birds were pulling worms out of the ground. We could hear soft cooing sounds from each of the birds. The chickens were entranced: scratch, catch worm, eat, coo, scratch, catch worm, eat, coo.
The hens ate all the worms they could find then moved over to the garden, where the veggies and flowers had already grown fairly tall, and found more bugs to munch. Surprisingly they did not eat the plants. If left on their own for an extended period they could have rendered the garden to compost rather quickly.
My daughter and I each carried a hen back to the coop. Holding them rather like a football, the birds were calm, we were calm, the chickens seemed to enjoy the short walk back their home.
On the ride back home, my kids and I quickly decided that we need to build a coop and get us come chickens! In the car, my daughter named her first chicken: Mrs. Pepper.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t make the decision to become a suburban farmer in haste over the course of a short car ride. Come September I will be working from home and once again homeschooling the children. Having chickens in the backyard will provide me and the kids with an amazing project involving research, design, construction, and cute and cuddly fluff balls. Most importantly we have the time to devote to the entire process.
There is a great article from Mother Earth News magazine that goes through several poignant questions to ponder before diving into the life of a city farmer. I went through those questions and can honestly say I am willing and able to commit to the care and raising of a backyard flock.
As soon as we got home we looked up baby chick videos and found the Murray McMurray site featuring the most melt-your-heart-cute chicks in live-action video (sometimes slow-action when one New Hampshire Red was trying to fall asleep – even more cute)!
All the birds are adorable when chicks however my son has specified that one of our baby chicks be a buff color, any breed as long as the chicks are buff, because according to him they are the cutest. To fulfill the requirement we have narrowed the field to either a Buff Orpington or a New Hampshire Red.
Mrs. Pepper must be of a salt and pepper feather color which means we will need one Barred Rock (also known as Plymouth Rock).
I really like the idea of staying with American birds however several birds I’ve read about originated in England and were brought over the pond in the early 1800′s making the breed more American than my own family. Perhaps my perspective needs to change.
The Light Brahma is a big fluffy bird which appeals to me because I met one at the Denver County Fair preview and she was a beautiful, calm bird.
Choosing a chicken breed(s) to raise is the easy part – unless you start falling in love with all the fully chicks in the videos from Murrays! We simply need good egg laying birds that are big so they have a lower chance of flying over the fence to become the neighbor dog’s dinner and that can tolerate our cold winters with little heating in their coop. All of the above birds fit that long list.
The biggest job for Loelle with raising her chickens was deciding upon and building the coop. Initially the coop was quite small, rather a glorified dog house. The small size made cleaning out the coop a hassle – stretching and reaching. The following year the coop expanded to accommodate a fully upright human and lots of room for the hens.
For me, the building of the coop is not only a challenge in the simple building of it but I also want to accomplish this on the cheap! Sure I could spend a lot of money and make a chicken mansion or I can be resourceful and save money (to put to good use in my own house).
If done right, the chickens benefit with a lovely and safe home in which snuggle in at night and to lay their eggs. The birds really don’t care how much money is spent on their coop, they just want a nice place to roost.
I sent pictures of our adventures at Loelle’s along to my family and heard back from my Aunt and Uncle who live in California. Turns out that my Uncle raised chickens in North Hollywood in the 1940′s and 50′s in what was then a desert (well it’s still a desert but with lots of irrigation). I called up my Uncle to learn about his experiences.
As a young boy he was able to build a coop and take care of 30 chickens all the while attending school everyday. He would come home from school everyday and let the chickens out into the yard to run around and eat bugs and grass. His chickens didn’t require much feed as they ate most of their food from my Uncle’s backyard. He encouraged me to give chicken raising a go. As a kid he really enjoyed raising the birds and found it fairly easy.
He thinks my kids will love the adventure – even the cleaning out the coop part. Providing the birds with good shelter, food and water then you’re off to a great start, he says.
I have my work cut out for me in finding the best spot in the backyard for the coop, determining a design that can be achieved with found materials, then bring on the birds.
Loelle recommends the website Backyard Chickens for all you need to know starting with Raising Chickens 101 to a Learning Center to every coop design you could imagine (some with flower boxes under the windows).
I also found the website Egg Laying Chickens to be very informative.
At the library, I found two great books that have helped with many of the how-to’s: “ Pocketful of Poultry” by Carol Ekarius which is chicken picture book heaven; and “How to Raise Chickens” by Christine Hendrichs that covers all the basics.
“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Homesteading” by Coloradoan Sundari Kraft is a wonderful guide covering urban gardening to urban livestock and everything in between. Sundari will be teaching a Backyard Chicken Keeping on August 7 at 2pm. This will be her last class this year as she is going on maternity leave! You can also meet Sundari and learn more about the book at her August 11 appearance at the LODO Tattered Cover.