We’ve had our backyard chickens now for almost 3 years. Overall, if I had to do it again, I would. Just today I was talking to my chickens through the storm door while I fixed dinner and they were clucking pleasantly at me…
…while they covered the back door stoop in poop that I will inevitably step directly into the next time I go out the back door.
There are few things stinkier or stickier than chicken poop. It’s so difficult to remove yet you want to remove it so quickly.
I realize that there are things no one tells you before you start with backyard chickens. I think I need to make a list of those things. There might be people who would wait until a different life stage before getting into this, if only they knew. You can do a search for backyard chickens and get a million blog posts telling you how easy it is, how fun it is, how wonderful the eggs are. You can see hundreds of Pinterest-worthy chicken coops, including one from a friend of mine which is actually the bottom story of an enormous tree house/play fort. All very inspirational.
What I am here to tell you about today is what no one tells you about backyard chickens in a semi-urban or urban setting. In case you knew nothing about farm animals, like I did (or didn’t. or still don’t) beforehand.
In the past 2 years, here are the things I have encountered that you are likely to encounter too, at some point.
Poop – So much poop. If you let them “free-range”, please know that you ceding your backyard to them. It’s theirs now. You can never walk out there barefoot again. Even walking out the back door, you will find poop on the mat. If you don’t let them free range, you will be scrubbing, scooping, and sweeping poop out of the coop and chicken run (if you have one).
Salmonella from chicken poop – If you have children or perhaps forget to wash your hands very well at some point, you will get a nasty stomach bug. It’s just salmonella, which isn’t usually terribly severe. But it is no fun. If your chickens are free-ranging and you have children under the age of 4, understand that you are definitely exposing them to salmonella in the chicken poop that will be everywhere.
Mites – The standard answer to this problem on all the internet forums, boards, and blogs is “just sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the coop and nesting box and you’ll never have mites!”. That is a complete lie. I have gone through something like 25 lbs. of DE since last summer and it never did anything to either repel or quell the mite infestation. When your flock gets mites (which can actually come from wild birds, no fault of your own), you will have to treat them ALL (as in, catch each individual chicken and douse them) with either an herbal essential oil pesticide or DE (good luck with that). Then you have to empty and clean the coop and treat it with the same substance. You will have to do this every 6-7 days until the infestation subsides. I did this for 2.5 months last summer until the cold weather or the fact that I resorted to heavier pesticides finally worked. I had to wear protective clothing and a mask in 110 degree heat to keep from inhaling DE as the chickens squawked and clawed and pecked at me. I did that every week for around 10-12 weeks. Think about doing this before you commit to chickens.
Not all chickens are friendly – Our Buff Orpingtons were very shy, and their shyness came out as attacking when cornered. This is super fun when you have to catch them every 6 days to treat them for mites. The Red Sex Link that we have bit everyone for the first 1.5 years we had her. They also bite, peck, and attack each other. They will tear each other’s feathers out and make each other bleed. Sometimes you have to separate them.
Predators – We have lost two chickens to a bobcat and one to a hawk so far. Remember, every animal loves to eat chicken. They are easy to catch, have no natural defenses, and aren’t known for being intelligent. And they are delicious.
Death in the flock – Make sure you and/or your children are prepared to face death. In addition to the chickens killed by predators, we have also lost one to some kind of sudden illness that could have been egg bound or possibly liver disease My kids have taken each death in stride and never seemed particularly phased. We have been honest with them about what happened and they seem to appreciate that. But if you have qualms about discussing the death of a pet with your children, owning chickens might bring that fear to fruition sooner than you’d like.
Broody hen – Sometimes a hen will become convinced that her eggs have baby chickens in them and she MUST SIT ON THEM. This is called “going broody”. She thinks she has a brood. Unless you have a rooster in your flock (illegal in most urban/suburban areas), she obviously does not have a brood, but she doesn’t know that. She will chase the other hens out of the nesting box and peck anyone who comes near her. If she doesn’t allow the other hens to lay eggs in the box, they could hold their eggs inside and become egg bound (which is fatal to a hen). Unless you are prepared to find some fertile eggs and allow her to raise chicks, you will have to sequester her in a crate with an open bottom where she can’t sit down without adequate airflow under her bum for 2-3 days. When her internal body temperature cools, she should break the broodiness. Most people use a dog crate with the poop tray removed. We didn’t own a crate so we had to buy one ($60) the first time one of our hens went broody.
Finding a chicken sitter – It’s not as easy to find a chicken sitter as a dog sitter, because despite the free eggs, there are a number of things that could go wrong. There is a LOT of poop in the coop, so it has to be someone who is OK with walking through chicken poop. It’s possible the chickens might peck. Several times we’ve had chickens escape when the sitter opened the door and later had a neighbor call about our chickens wandering around the neighborhood (see Predators, above). Then you have to call another person who is comfortable both chasing and catching a chicken, and who is OK with being pecked by an angry chicken.
Mud – Chickens eat all vegetation in their area. They pull up any grass directly by the roots. Any area in which you keep chickens will have no grass at all. No grass when it rains means mud. Lots of mud. We had record rainfall in Texas this year. The coop was muddy for months. Did you know mud is the same color as poop? So who knows what all that stuff is that you’re wading through to gather eggs. The chickens are covered in it, the coop is covered in it, and you have to almost take a shower after feeding and watering them, which must be done every day since the food and water from the day before is already covered in mud. There’s nothing less fun than having to leave your warm couch and PJ’s and get dressed in what is basically hazmat gear to go out into the freezing cold mud to feed angry chickens.
I sincerely hope that you still want backyard chickens. They can be a fun adventure. They are not cheap and they are not easy. You will not be saving any money, but you will be more connected to your food and to your little vacuous, pea-brained pets!