DIRT NERD


CHICKEN NERD

I haven’t had chickens in years, but I had them for years before that, starting with the late, great Szechuan and General Tsao, stray chickens we captured snoozing along a fenceline in Broadmoor during the wee hours of the night, back when stray chickens ruled the streets of New Orleans. These regal queens were followed shortly by Kung Pao, Tofu, and Popeye, all acquired by more reasonable means. After that, the chickens kept coming and going. I think we had three to eight of them at any given time for about five years. In the early days they lived in our run and coop, but in the end we let them wander the yard as they pleased, decimating plant and bug to their heart’s content, inspiring awe in passersby as they crossed the road day in and day out.

Chickens are easy and you’ve got the power to make them yours and name them as you please. They are more than egg machines; they are also fertilizer machines, providing oodles of nutrients for our gardens. They provide hours of daily entertainment when Instagram loses its lustre, much like cats and televisions. They take care of insects around your house when left to their own devices, conquering fruit flies, mosquitoes, termites, roaches, and more with ease and to their infinite delight. And of course, they help put a dent in the industrial chicken farming system, making us and the world feel better about being alive.

It’s harder to find chickens in and around the city from traditional retailers than it used to be. Still, it can be worth checking in with Jefferson Feed, Double M Feed, and Rose Garden Pet Center for chickens, especially around Easter. If they carry chickens at all, they will generally only carry Rhode Island Red or Barred Rock chicks, as they generally have good temperaments, lay reliably, and can easily be sex-linked, meaning that their sex is determined immediately after birth. Easy though it may be with these varieties of chicken, sex-linking is not foolproof and even sex-linked chickens can still grow up to be roosters. Which are illegal. Which you probably won’t get in trouble for owning. Which everyone in the city used to abandon at the empty lot near Claiborne and Esplanade, where they all thrived and cock-a-doodled to their heart’s content for years. Where they no longer are and where you should absolutely not abandon your rooster because it is illegal. Also, while we’re talking law, you are legally allowed to own up to five hens at a time in the city of New Orleans.

There are plenty of full-grown hens available on Craigslist just about all the time. Sometimes they’re available in the city proper; but if not, you probably only have to drive as far as Jefferson, though sometimes you have to go out to Mississippi for the goods. Ready-to-lay chickens usually sell for $15 to $30, depending on the variety.

Raising your own baby chicks can seem like a daunting task, but it’s honestly pretty straightforward. Still, the loss of a chick or two is nearly inevitable, so if you plan to bring such delicate life into this world, steel yourself to death’s unwavering gaze. Keep the chicks in a small space, like a cardboard box with an incandescent light hanging over it. Baby chicks need a consistent temperature of 90° to 95° Fahrenheit. If you see the babies clustering tightly under your lamp, lower it to provide more heat. If they are hanging out along the edges of your box, raise the lamp up. In a perfect world, your chicks will mingle all over the dang box peeping the day away. Leave a little shelter in there for the chicks as well, like a shoebox, so that they can hide from the light if they tire of the incessant incandescence. Raise your chicks in this box for the first month of their lives, until they are clearly too big to be sharing such a tiny space. If you are introducing your chicks to an adult chicken population, wait until they start looking like real life chickens to do so. Grown-up chickens do not take kindly to young things. It is inevitable that they will be mean, but the larger your young chickens are, the better they’ll be able to stand up to the bullying of their elder peers. Feed them starter feed, not full-blown chicken feed, as they have very sensitive young bellies. Starter feed is finely ground and full of protein and medications that will help your baby chicks survive their early days. This stuff is available at PetSmart, though adult scratch grains are not. Two months or so into their lives, you can start mixing adult food with the starter feed, moving full on into adult feed at five months or so. This stuff gets really gross when it gets moist, so try to keep it away from water if at all possible.

The easiest, most dependable adult chicken food out there is scratch grains, readily available at Jefferson Feed. Scratch grains are full of dried grains that chickens crave. If your chickens live exclusively off this stuff, they’ll be just fine. Laying pellets are also easy to come by at feed stores. They’re chock full of calcium and other nutrients that compel chicken bodies to maximize egg production. They’re super processed; and chickens can live off of these pellets but they don’t love them. Still, they work. If you want eggs, these pellets will guarantee you eggs. It’s best to feed them pellets alongside scratch grains during laying season and leave the chickens to grains the rest of the year.

Chickens eat everything. They are omnivorous. You don’t have to buy them food if you have enough scraps to feed them or if you have a sufficient yard to let them wander indefinitely. Using your chicken run as a compost bin is a great way to feed chickens and expedite a high-caliber compost mix at the same time.

Generally, chicken homes consist of a coop and a run. Chickens sleep and lay eggs in the coop, and spend their days in the run. Ideally a coop has about 3 square feet of space for each chicken. It basically serves to keep chickens safe from predators and the elements. It can be as simple or elaborate as you please. It’s important the coop also has a perch and a nesting box as well, but that’s all there is to it. Chickens want to sleep as far from the ground as possible, and a perch facilitates them scratching that itch. If you don’t provide your chickens with a perch, they will have fitful sleep filled with predatory nightmares and keep you up with their consistent squawks. Chickens also want a soft and warm place to lay eggs, hence the nesting box. Just put something soft in a box that rests above ground and you will find that your hens will lay there for you comfortably and consistently. Egg hunts be damned.

The chicken run is where your chickens do their lives. Give them at least eight square feet of play space per chicken and they’ll be alright, though the more space they have the better. Just a few feet of wire will suffice to keep your chickens in. However, if you don’t plan on actively closing your coop at night, you’ll want to build a fully enclosed run, with a wire roof, so that predators can’t get to your chickens at night. Also, chickens don’t fly a lot, but they do fly a little. Depending on the breed, you may have to build a tall fence, 8 feet or so, or clip your hen’s wings if you want to ensure they don’t leave their designated area. Clipping chicken wings is painless to the chickens and easy for you to do. It is sad and funny to watch them try to fly after their wings have been clipped—but again, all that you hurt in doing so is their pride. You do leave them far more defenseless in the face of predators, however; so if you’re going to clip a hen’s wings, make sure you’ve provided them with a proper safe space. Of note, chicken wire is a bit of a misnomer as it doesn’t keep out a lot of critters with its wide and loose design. If you want to ensure safety from possums and raccoons and such, you may want to invest in more tightly knit half-inch hardware cloth or a similar product.

Chickens love fresh water but they are notoriously disgusting and great at ruining their own water supply. They poop in water and kick dirt into it with ferocious gusto. Keeping their water slightly off the ground will discourage this bad behavior, but still you’ll want to refresh their water every day or two. Automatic chicken waterers exist for a price, and gravity-fed bowls aren’t a terrible idea. Also, special chicken bowls that hang from string above are designed to not get nasty, so that’s an option.

If you have a run and a perch, chickens won’t be spending much time at the bottom of your coop, but it’s still a good idea to have bedding there for the sake of cleaning (if nothing else). Bedding can be anything easily moveable that is biodegradable and relatively soft. Wood shavings and straw are great. Pine needles are less than ideal as they are uncomfortable for chickens, and hay is to be avoided as it attracts unwanted bacteria. Changing out bedding once a month or so is usually sufficient to keep horrible smells and disease away.

The point of all of this, ostensibly, is eggs. First off, you don’t need a rooster if you want eggs. You don’t need a rooster unless you want fertilized eggs. You can count on regular, near daily eggs between March and September, weather dependent. The rest of the year you may still get eggs, but they’ll be less frequent. If you want to encourage year-round laying, you can install a lamp in your chicken coop with an automatic timer that stays on 14-16 hours a day. It’s a mean trick and it’s harsh on chicken bodies, but it gets the job done and it’s how the eggs you get from the grocery store are made, so do what you will with that. Know that if you are treating your chickens to such trickery you are still giving them a far, far better life than that given to industrial brooding hens. Chickens generally lay regularly for three to four years, though they live for up to ten. Older chickens will still lay on occasion but not with the prowess they showed in their youth. If your chickens are laying outside of the nesting box, you can encourage them to lay where the eggs can be easily found by placing ping pong balls or store-bought eggs in their nesting box. Also, keep it clean and cozy.

Beware of egg-eating chickens. Sometimes hens will accidentally discover that eggs are delicious, and once they do, there is no stopping them. Worse, when one chicken starts to eat egg, the habit tends to spread among the flock and you can easily end up with a whole hen-house full of child-murdering cannibals. To stop this from starting, collect your eggs daily and don’t let eggs break in the coop. If they do, clean them up quickly and completely.

On the other end of the problematic egg spectrum, sometimes hens will take too much care of their unfertilized eggs, believing them to be fertilized. These are known as brooding hens, and they will sit on eggs all day and all night without end. It’s unhealthy for her and it keeps you from getting eggs. You’ll have to boot her out of the nesting box and steal the eggs, perhaps for a few days in a row in order to end this bad habit.

Speaking of fertilizer, if you want to use your chicken litter (that’s farmer lingo for chicken poop) to feed your garden, you are smart and amazing and you should definitely do that. Just make sure you let your litter compost for a little while, three to six months after collecting it from the coop, before applying it to your plants. A good way to gauge the viability of your chicken litter as a plant fertilizer is to wait until the wood chips or whatever bedding you had in the coop has decomposed and looks more like dirt than wood alongside the poop. If you add uncomposted chicken litter to a garden bed you risk diseasing your plants (this is the direct cause of those spinach and romaine lettuce salmonella outbreaks that have plagued Big Ag in recent years), or burning your plant’s roots with nitrogen that is too highly concentrated. Used appropriately, composted chicken litter is a fantastic, full-spectrum organic fertilizer for your plants.

Love your chickens well, enjoy your new life as an ultra-healthy egg eater and earth-baby caretaker. And don’t forget to wash your hands when you’re done, because salmonella is real.


Questions about the information in this article or further Dirt Nerd Truths? Contact Ian@hotplantsnursery.com.

illustrations Rachel Speck