Lisa's backyard chickens
last updated 02/21/09
I live in urban San Diego, in the Hillcrest area:
I started raising chickens in our backyard because, after discovering the true meaning of the label "organic free-range" on grocery store eggs, I wanted eggs from free-ranging birds that ate grass and bugs but couldn't find a consistent source.
Out of the Box and Into the Yard. . .
In June 2008 I bought 9 banty Ameraucana chicks from Kahoots and raised them indoors until they started flying out of their box:
Then I moved them outdoors. Here they are as teenagers:
Kahoots told me that all of the chicks I bought from them were hens, but 5 of them turned out to be roos. :-/
This is one of the hens, Sweetiebird, all grown up:
Sweetiebird is unusually friendly, even for an Ameraucana, and she also likes the camera:
She is at the bottom of the pecking order of the whole flock. I wonder if the traits are connected...
Eventually I had to rehome the roos: one of our neighbors didn't like the crowing. I thought 4 banty hens was a sadly small flock so in August 2008 I had a batch of standard Ameraucana chicks shipped from Cackle Hatchery:
This time they really were all hens . The roos managed to father 3 chicks before they left for new homes:
Two of the three made it to adulthood (I think I lost the third to a feral cat). They have grown to be beautiful roos:
These boys have an interesting behavior that my other roos didn't. They feed bits of food to the hens just like hens feed their chicks. Maybe they do it because they were raised by their moms (as opposed to a brooder or a person). The roo in the front is Randy; the one in the back is Dandy. Next to Dandy is Bernadette, who is totally in love with Dandy. He's so little compared to her, so he can't quite manage the romance part. But the two are inseparable anyway. It's so sweet! I'm thinking about keeping these guys unless they get mean.
I gave all the big girls French names (ala Les Folies Bergere). I think they are really beautiful. This is Antoinette:
Antoinette has green eyes:
I don't know if green-eyed chickens are common or not, but I've never seen one before.
This is Simone:
I love the patterning of her neck feathers:
and her major muffs:
Simone got sick for a month or so; I think she ate something bad. I flushed her crop out and filled it with saline, and she seems to have recovered. Whew! And thanks to all the BYC forum advice.
This is Babette:
Babette has a bad habit of wandering around by herself, which is fairly dangerous when there are hawks around. She once tangled with a redtail and got slashed pretty badly before I could chase it away. My neighbor Betty (a nurse) cleaned out the biggest gash and doused it with tea tree oil. There isn't much skin to sew on a chicken, so we just left the gashes open. I cuddled Babette for a couple of hours to keep her warm, and then she wanted to go back outside. She doesn't seem to be worse for the wear despite the gashes, and losing most of her tail and back feathers. She's now one of my most reliable layers. Chickens are resilient little things...
This is Fifi:
Fifi's chest is the most beautiful shade of buttery cream. She's gorgeous, but camera-shy - so I have yet to take a picture that does her justice.
On Housing (or Lack of It) . . .
I don't house my chickens in a coop; so far they haven't really needed one. The climate here is very mild, and there is lots of shelter for them. They can fly very well, so they roost at night on closet rods I've mounted on a stucco wall under an overhanging patio:
The poles are mounted high enough off the ground that nighttime predators can't reach them. The girls lay their eggs in the nest boxes mounted next to the poles:
The hen sitting here is Brattybird, one of the bantys. She went broody with a vengeance on 2 dud eggs and I felt so sorry for her that I bought some fertile eggs from Brenda at Littlepeddler's Marans (French Black Copper Marans, C1 Jeane line). Little Odile here hatched on New Year's Day. Here she is with her stepmom and a second batch of Marans (also from Littlepeddler) that hatched on Valentine's day:
Why no coop? Certainly it would be more convenient to contain my chickens, and also easier to keep them safe from predators. But I'm convinced that chickens (at least ones like Ameraucanas that haven't had all the instinct bred out of them) are so much happier cage-free:
Their natural behaviors served them well before humans kept them in cages, and seem to be working just fine in my yard too. Compared to cooped chickens I know, mine seem to be much happier - as much as anyone who's not a chicken could know, anyway. Besides, I want them to eat lots of bugs and greens, and I love learning about their behavior by watching their natural interactions. Here you can see two of the bantys co-parenting their collective three chicks, showing them some tasty bread bits I brought for them:
My chickens can easily fly over the fences in my backyard and leave, but they don't. I'm pretty sure it's because they are happy and relatively safe. They have plenty of places to scratch around, hide, and explore:
...plenty of grass to eat:
...and a doting owner
On Chickens + Garden . . .
The girls are doing an amazing job in my backyard...they have single-handedly (bipedally?) changed the soil from rocky sandstone and clay to beautiful black loam. I haven't had a snail or slug for months. Of course the girls also dig up small plants and nibble everything in the vegetable garden, so it's been a challenge to find chicken-proof plants.
I've learned some interesting garden facts, like rhubarb leaves aren't poisonous (to chickens at least, who find them delicious). Chickens do NOT like celery, oregano, marjoram, basil, or any kind of mint. They absolutely LOVE dill weed, and of course carrot tops, lettuce, and parsley, but not from my hand (they prefer the fresh stuff they pick themselves, just like I do). Of course their favorite is green growing grass:
I just planted a decent-sized patch of native grasses in hopes it will distract the chickens from plants I'd rather eat myself. I had to fence off the patch for a month or so to let the roots get established, but it's doing beautifully now, chickens and all:
Chickens are expert mowers so I never have to mow my grass. And of course chicken poo is great fertilizer. There is no speck of soil they haven't turned, no leaf they haven't raked. It takes about 10 minutes every other day to sweep and [quickly] hose my patios and brickways to keep flies and smell away, but all in all I'd much rather sweep than turn soil or compost! It's not a bad trade for...
I feed my chickens mostly organic layer pellets and scratch, with some whole-grain flax seeds for Omega-3 fatty acids, and whole-grain quinoa for protein. The chickens eat as much of this mixture as they want, but I think most of their food comes from the garden - greens, insects, spiders and spiderwebs, organic bits in my (all-vegetable) compost pile, fruit that falls on the ground, and bits of stale bread (homemade organic) that I give them as treats. I put iron on my citrus trees, and control whitefly with a lavender-oil based organic spray, but that's it for my chemical contribution to the yard.
I'm now getting about 2 eggs every 3 days from each of my hens. I can't help but think my chickens' eggs are more healthy to eat than grocery store eggs...at some point I'm going to ask my organic-chemist husband to analyze them side-by-side so I can prove it scientifically!
On Predators . . .
I've had an interesting and unexpected time with predators. At night, there are cats, raccoons, possums, and rats that troop through the yard, but none of them can reach the chickens up on their perch or in the nest boxes. Occasionally a hen decides to sleep on the ground (or maybe she falls of the perch in the middle of the night). I know this because they lose their tails to possums when they do. Here's Bernadette one morning (notice the lack of tail):
Here's her tail:
My bigger predator problem is that hawks patrol the neighboring canyon. There are a couple of very large redtails that check out my free-range chickens periodically. I lost several young pullets to them before I discovered a wonderful trick. I strung up a loose spiderweb of kitchen string between trees and bushes over the whole yard:
Hawks won't fly under the web. They cruise the hens at low altitude, or sit in one of the big trees or on top of an arbor to watch. Of course, they scare the living daylights out of the chickens, but save for one hole in the spiderweb we discovered because of the Babette-attack, they don't come down. I'm gradually replacing the kitchen string with 20-pound test monofilament fishing line (less visible to humans):
...and that seems to be working just as well as a hawk-deterrent, so far anyway. But I've had one unintended consequence: mice!
Perhaps the fishing line is keeping away night-flying owls as well as the hawks! So far the mice are sticking to a little burrow they made near the chicken food. They're so cute! Hopefully they won't feel the need to get inside the basement, or I'll have to trap and move them to a new home.