This morning I dropped the kids off at school and came home to find two of the four
chickens had escaped their coop/run yet again. It appears that we need to clip their wings again so the little escape artists can't get out as easily. Once they're out, they're out. They usually will not just walk back into their coop without persuading. That means, they get to stay out until I find some food or scraps to toss in their run to get them to agree to go back. I'm rarely in the mood to re-enact the Rocky scene of chasing chickens around for hours trying to prove who's the fastest, and since I have no plans to fight Apollo Creed, then I don't see the point.
(Next time they escape, I'm totally putting on a sweatsuit and a red headband......Yo Adrian!)
Anyway, I get home, look out the window and I see Red buried down in the little patch of dirt that runs along our back window. She spots me getting closer to the window and I can see it in her eyes........."I wouldn't be digging a hole out here if you would get your act together and build me a REAL dust bath". FINE red, I'll move it up the list of priorities.
For those of you who are pretty new to chickens, a dust bath is way for the chickens to keep themselves clean and help them cool off a little in the heat. The fine sand or dust keeps their feathers nice and clean and free of mites and lice. You can use different sorts of materials for the birds to bathe in and I've read that people often use dirt or sand and mix in wood ash from the fireplace, diatomaceous earth (food grade), and/or dried herbs.
The wood ash is good for the chickens to nibble on because the charcoal acts as a laxative and rids their bodies of any toxins or internal parasites.
The diatomaceous earth kills mites, fleas, ticks, and lice. Take precaution when using the diatomaceous earth because it comes as a fine powder that can easily blow in the wind and it can cause irritation to the lungs or eyes, so you may consider adding a small amount to the dirt and mixing it in or putting a layer of dirt on top of the DE.
Use dried herbs in the dust bath to act as natural insecticides. Herbs such as mint, rosemary, and lavender are all good choices. I've read that dried thyme and rosemary have good anti-inflammatory properties which would be beneficial for respiratory illnesses.
So now that I have just enough information to be dangerous, lets get this project moved up the list so the poor little darlings have a nice place for bathing.
Sometimes I think our animals have it better than I do...........
And Then There Were Four...
Once we decided what age and breed of chickens we wanted, we thought about how many we wanted. We thought six was a good number because we wanted enough eggs for a family four and some left over to share with friends, family, and neighbors. The average hen lays five eggs a week; so 30 eggs a week seemed like a good big number, but not TOO much. We thought if six worked out and we eventually might want to get more and maybe start selling some eggs at a Farmers Market.
So anyway, we meet up with Becca at RGB Ranch to pick up our five Australorps and one Rhode Island Red (see how we decided on their breeds/ages in this blog). Tip #1 - bring something to put the chickens in! Hahaha - yeah we didn't even think of that one. Becca was kind enough to loan us her chicken crate. We paid her $15 for each of the chickens, which is about average. They were 3 months old (teenagers) and ~3 months away from laying age. We couldn't be more excited to bring them home!
Now I'd like to introduce you to our two dogs, Maggie and Zoe, who were waiting for us at home.
Duunnn... dunn... duuunnn... duuunnn... duunnnnnnn... Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. Dun. duuunnnnn duunnnn!
Normally they're the sweetest little angels on the planet. Mild, sweet, soulful. Maggie's the black one... she's not too smart, but she makes up for it in kindness. Oh except for that one time she caught the rabbit hiding out under our shed... that should've tipped me off.
Now we'd done our research and had the common sense to know not to put the dogs in the backyard with the chickens right away. To give them time to acclimate to each other. But try doing that with a house with a dog door and a back door that's being used by two young children.
Our biggest mistake was not keeping the chickens securely cooped up until we'd made sure the dogs weren't going to eat them. We hadn't finished building the chicken run yet, so we had to allow the chickens to free range all day.
We kept the dog door locked, which was difficult because both Maggie and Zoe are getting super old (12 and 13), so if they can't go out immediately we run the risk of an accident. Well anyway, I left the door open by accident on one of the first days after bringing the chickens home and Maggie was in the backyard in a flash. Within 3 seconds she'd caught one of the black australorps and shook her until she was dead. It was pretty horrifying. Feathers everywhere. I'm screaming like a banshee. I was just glad the kids weren't out there. I used a shovel and rake to pick it up and put it in the trash bin so that the rest of the chickens wouldn't see it and be sad about their lost friend.
Unfortunately my kids are a bit smarter than the chickens (errr a lot more actually) and that same day Greyson (my 6 year old son) says,"We're missing one! I can't find her." I gave him a long look and he says "What?" I went with my gut, which is to never lie to my kids. I think they can handle more than most people give them credit for and learning about life/death is part of growing up. I didn't want to make a big production out of it, I matter of factly told him "Well babe, Maggie got one." Charlotte's too young (4) to really get it or care. Greyson seemed pretty unfazed and took it in stride. I felt like it was pretty a good parenting moment.
It was about a week later that the next sad sad murder happened. I was sanding the chicken coop making it pretty for our hens (and neighbors). The kids were coming in and out of the backyard while I was working away and Maggie pushed past Greyson into the backyard. I'm using a sander machine so I don't hear him shouting as Maggie darts around the backyard chasing the chickens around. She full-on chases a chicken in a circle around Greyson's legs and catches and shakes the poor bird to death in front of him, At the crescendo of the attack is when I finally hear it all and seconds too late to reach them. My son has witnessed a murder. I can definitively say that he has had his first traumatic childhood event that is sure to be burned into his memory. (sigh) Parenting fail.
But this kid is a champ. He's a bit shaken up, but he takes it on the chin. I'm pretty impressed by the guy's resilience. Now Maggie knew this time that she'd done something bad. Naturally I'm very upset with her and put her in her crate (don't worry, I love my dogs. I didn't beat her or anything, but she knew I wasn't happy and that she'd done wrong). I was worried she'd never be allowed in the backyard at the same time as the chickens again.
For the next ~2 weeks we did a pretty good job of keeping the dogs and chickens apart. We'd bring the dogs into the backyard on their leashes so we kept a controlled environment. We let them get to know each other and get acclimated. Once they got over the novelty you could see the dogs ignoring the chickens and everyone relaxing. Our next step was to let the dogs off their leashes while standing protectively by the chickens. Maggie never again attacked a chicken! It just took some time and patience.
Things are so great now. Here's Maggie hanging out with the chickens and eating kitchen scraps with them! I'm not sure if she thinks she's a chicken or if the chickens think they're dogs. But they're definitely good ole' friends now! Everything's forgiven.
Long story short - Have a secure place for your chickens to safely keep separated from any pets you've got. That was our big mistake. We rushed bringing the chickens home too quickly. We should've built their secure run first.
Make sure you do the long drawn out introduction and acclimation period before letting any of your other animals in the same space as your hens.
Side note: four chickens is not enough for a family of four. We're getting 3-4 eggs a day which we go through pretty quickly. I like to bake and I make eggs more mornings than not. We're still having to buy eggs from the store every now and then to supplement, which is a complete bummer. The City of Allen just passed a new ordinance finally allowing backyard chickens (see my journey passing the ordinance through in the blog post HERE). They limited it to four chickens (I'd been pushing for six, but I figured compromise is a part of democracy). So we're going to try and make four work. I might consider working on pushing for an increase in the # of allowed hens once enough time's gone by for them to see that residents don't complain like they were worried they might. But we'll give it some time and see...
Bringing the Chickens Home
Once we'd equipped ourselves with the basic chicken equipment (feeder, water bucket, and chicken coop) and it was time to find our chickens!
You need to decide both what breed(s) you want and also what age: do you want baby chicks that you can buy for ~$1 each? Do you want 3 month old teenage pullets who have made it through infancy and are a few months away from laying eggs? Or do you want an adult egg laying chicken who's just hit her prime (6 months - 2 years old. Chickens stop producing eggs around 3 years of age on average: which of course can vary dramatically depending on breed, living conditions, chance...).
We liked the idea of baby chicks because the kids could really see their whole life cycle. Plus they're so stinking adorable! And cheap. We had a friend who owns a brooder so we could've borrowed that and not had the main "big expense" that comes with baby chicks. But... honestly we just didn't want to wait 6 months longer to start getting eggs!
The thing is, we wanted chickens young enough that we got to watch them grow up a little bit at least and really "bond" with our family. I got an email from my favorite feed store in Plano, Wells Brothers, that they were having chickens for sale one weekend coming up. The owner's daughter, Becca, runs a farm called RBG Ranch and they raise & sell chickens. So she came out to her father's store for a weekend expo. I loaded up the kids and headed on over. I spent a good hour chatting with Becca while the kids hung out with Becca's daughter and the chickens (she's a wealth of knowledge!) about what kind of chickens we wanted and what age. She recommended we get pullets (teenagers). They've made it past the tenuous baby-stage (where you're likely to lose a few, and have to explain that to the kids...) but they're still young enough that you have the experience of raising them from young to adult lives.
That sealed the deal! I took Becca's information and promised to call when we were ready to buy some pullets.
Next we started to research what breeds we wanted. Becca had been raising Australorps and Rhode Island Reds because she knew them to be good backyards chickens. I looked them up first and found them to be perfectly suited to us!
Rhode Island Reds are pretty smart as far as birds go, They're curious, but they're very gentle sweet birds. Pulling from my favorite website when looking for breed information, www.backyardshickens.com they get a 94% positive rating from their community of backyard chicken farmers,
Australorps (the black ones) are sweet tempered, great with other birds, very human friends, and great long term layers. The community gives them a 95% positive review.
Our family loves "Red." She's definitely got the most personality and is the little ring-leader of mischief. But she's also the move "pet-like." She follows up around the back yard and bumps into our legs for attention sometimes. She was the first to allow us to pick her up and to pet her. She's the family favorite.
The black Australorps are great chickens. No complaints. Maybe it's because we have three of them (previously five), but they just have a little less personality. But we really enjoy them all the same.
Products mentioned in this blog:
While we were waging a campaign to the city to allow us our backyard chickens, we started planning what we'd do when we won!
First things first, we needed the equipment necessary for chicken keeping (water bucket and feeder) and our sweet hens would need a home.
We started with an internet search. Pinterest has a ton of awesome chicken coop ideas and tons of downloadable free coop plans. One of my favorite websites www.backyardchickens.com has a whole community of chicken keepers who have shared their homemade coop plans. We kicked around the idea of building our own coop for a while, but when you looked at the cost of lumber and the amount of time it would take - we didn't feel it was worth it to us. Maybe if we had a bunch of spare wood or materials laying around that made it a cheaper option... but we really didn't. We'd have had to buy everything which would cost as much, if not more, as just buying an already made coop..
So we looked at buying a coop. We went to our local Tractor and Feed store which had a few coops in a box (a very big box). Their cost was between $250-600 for coops that would fit 6+ birds. We knew from research that we wanted 6 birds - that's the minimum I'd recommend for a family of four if you want to have enough eggs for your cooking needs (and have enough left to share with family, friends, and neighbors periodically). We're down to four chickens right now and we're having to buy from the store every so often because we don't have enough eggs for our family (which also doesn't leave us any to share which is kind of a bummer).
Anyway, for $250 the coop seemed extremely basic/cheap and those lower cost ones typically had a good amount of negative reviews. We looked at other websites like Hayneedle.com, anthropologie, and Williams Sonoma even. Beautiful coops, but very expensive!
So we turned to our reliable friend Craigslist and spent some time searching. Eventually we found the PERFECT coop for $200. It was only a 20 minute drive into the country - someone had a bona fide farm with goats, horses, dogs, and chickens all wandering around. It was really cool visit. They had bought a bigger coop and were selling their smaller one - it was a little weathered from the Texas sun, but with a little TLC we knew it would be perfect! It is adorable. Fits up to 12 birds, which is perfect because we didn't know for sure how many birds we'd end up wanting/getting. Who knew if 4 was enough, 6, 8? So that left us the ability to grow our flock. We knew we'd never want 12 or more - we're not looking to make this a business, just a fun hobby.
So I spent the weekend sanding the coop down, staining it with some walnut colored brown stain we had left over from past projects, and sealed it with two layers of sealant (waiting a day between each coat)..
After one weekend's worth of work we had a $800 chicken coop to house our new chickens in (for the more palatable price of $200!):
Our last touch was to build the chicken run. Luckily we already had an old metal dog pen that we unscrewed and straightened to run from the coop to the shed. We bought a roll of reeds from Home Depot to put across the top to keep the chickens from flying out and to help with shade. We used some fencing materials to block of the right side of the coop so the chickens have plenty of room to hang out along our fence line and behind the shed. We usually let them out every day for a couple of hours so they can free range. Our tree is good coverage to keep them safe from hawks (I saw one swoop down one day, thinking about grabbing one of chickens for lunch - it was crazy!! Luckily they hid under the tree and were fine).
July 2016 I won the petition to the City of Allen, Texas to overturn their anti-chicken ordinances and to allow backyard chickens!
Here's how I got there.
My husband Challie and I have always talked about buying land in the country. Having goats, horses, cows, pigs, acres of fruit trees and vegetables. But in reality we work in the city, have a suburban-sized back yard, and no experience in livestock of any kind. Well after years of toying with the idea, we decided to get serious and do a mini-version of the farm idea. We wanted to have some backyard chickens.
It’s the perfect family project! The kids can start developing a work ethic with the “chore” of collecting eggs every day. They can see first-hand the farm-to-plate chain and understand that their eggs don’t actually come from a shelf at Kroger. Plus they're so much healthier (and better tasting)!
In contrast to factory farm eggs, eggs from backyard chickens have 25 percent more vitamin E, a third more vitamin A, and 75 percent more beta carotene. Not to mention more omega-3 fatty acids than factory farmed eggs. Grocery store eggs can be there for days
and even weeks. Air seeps into the porous eggshell and affects the nutrients, taste, and consistency of the eggs. Fresh eggs have firmer whites and super bright orange yolks.
To get started on our exciting new family project, we went to our cities’ website to make sure we were allowed to have backyard chickens. Sure enough, it was forbidden... or basically forbidden. You could have a chicken coop, but it had to be 150’ away from any neighboring property line. That’s the distance of a football field, 360 degrees around. In Allen, a suburb north of Dallas, that allows 0% of residents to actually have chickens.
So I did some research. Okay… a lot of research. (I’ve listed a ton of resources at the bottom of this blog, enjoy!) Once I knew my stuff, I decided to take action and get the ordinance changed!
I started a petition to "Change the city ordinance banning backyard chickens and turn Allen into a pro-chicken community" on Change.org. I then built a Facebook Page in which to promote my cause. I carefully laid out all the pro-chicken points while addressing the more common anti-chicken concerns in a thoughtful, clear, and concise essay. I set a budget of $100 and did some targeted display advertising to residents of Allen ages 30+ and boosted some of my posts.
During this time, I started interviewing for a new job. It was for a Director of Marketing role and I interviewed with both the company’s CEO and the President. Midway through the interview the President of the company says “So, what are your interests?” I give a pretty generic answer “Oh my family, cooking, church…” and he gives me a look and says “What about chickens?” Well I burst out laughing. It never even occurred to me to Google my own name and see what comes up (which is a total rookie mistake, but I was lucky enough to be old enough that I wasn’t doing anything embarrassing anymore by the time social media became a thing). After a little laugh, I talked about how, yes, I actually was advocating my city to allow us to have backyard chickens. I think it would be a lot of fun and beneficial for my family, yada yada. I was clearly a little embarrassed to be talking about something so non-important-business-womanish in this level of an interview but then the President said… “I really liked your petition. It was very well researched, articulated, and organized. I found it very compelling and impressive.” Honestly – I think that’s at least partially responsible for why I got his vote for the job!
Anyway, the petition was fairly new still, I think it had maybe 300 signatures when I started my new job and became pretty busy and distracted. I was side tracked for a few months while I got up-to-speed on the new gig. In January, 2016 I was ready to put some attention back into my advocacy.
I notified all the petition signers and Facebook followers to show up and support my speaking to the City Council meeting January 26th. I asked them all to email the City Council expressing their support for updating the ordinance. KEY NOTE: I included the email addresses for the Mayor and all the City Council Members (no one is going to make the effort to look it up themselves) and a draft email they could easily copy/paste. Anything to make it easier is most effective.
I brought little chicken buttons (just paper & tape) for supporters to wear at the meeting as a visual show of support. I contacted the media and received two responses from reporters who covered the story.:
Now with the public support behind me and some decent media coverage I spoke at the City Council meeting January 26th, 2016. February 9th I heard back from the city that they were taking our petition seriously and were putting together a committee to review the issue and present a proposal sometime in March.
It wasn't until mid-April that I finally heard from the city that they'd presented the proposal to the City Council in a private meeting and they'd ask that the residents have a chance to review it and give feedback before it was put to a vote. During every lull and waiting period I'd post updates or link to relevant articles to keep my advocate community engaged and involved. If you visit the Change.org page or the Facebook page you can see the regular stream of updates and information shared.
So it was April 14th, 2016 and I, along with the owner of a local feed store that I'd reached out to, his work colleague a Purina food rep, and one other passionate Allen resident met with this subcommittee. We reviewed the proposed new ordinance and gave a few suggested changes (see more details on the first draft HERE).
It was another two months before we heard from the City Council again. They were doing a small workshop on June 28th to discuss the proposal. I couldn't make this one (which killed me) but I was out of town on business travel. Following the workshop the consensus was that it was likely the ordinance would pass in the next City Council meeting July 26th.
I encouraged all the petition signers and Facebook followers to email the Mayor and City Council with their support one last time (for probably the 10th time. I wanted to be persistent, but not obnoxious). Again, I included email addresses and an email template they could copy/paste and customize as they saw fit.
I reached out to the media again the day before the vote to let them know the big day was finally there. I gave an interview with the local Allen American newsletter again.
The time came - I nervously waited until the meeting got to the Chicken Ordinance vote (about 30 minutes in). Our City Manager did a fantastic job pitching the updated proposal. The City Council was a little more ambivalent about it than I expected - there was a 50/50 divide between them and I began to get nervous it wouldn't pass! The hardest part was that it was not a public discussion and I couldn't chime in when the nay-sayers had misinformed or illogical arguments.
At 8:30pm July 26th I was able to post the following update:
"I am happy to announce the new pro-chicken ordinance was approved and passed by the City Council tonight! It was a good 30 minutes of rigorous debate and a few concessions were made in order to get it approved.
They did decrease the # of chickens allowed to 4 female hens. No roosters of course. The chicken coop enclosure must be 20' from a neighbor's property line.
Allen citizens must apply for a one-time permit. The permit will not be granted if the home resides in an HOA that restricts the home from keeping chickens or if there are any deed restrictions against chickens.
All-in-all I'd call it a success and am very proud of all of Allen's Citizens who united to affect change! Thank you all so much for helping make this happen!!!
The following article was in the next day's Allen Star newspaper (that's my son Greyson collecting eggs from our coop):
I can't thank the Mayor of Allen, the City Council, the City Manager, and all the residents of Allen who worked together to implement positive change for our city!
Now... a good percentage of Allen lives in Home Owners Associations (HOAs) and it’s likely they have rules against chickens. I’m happy to not be in an HOA. Our last house was in a strict HOA and it was not something we enjoyed or will live in again. I can only encourage chicken-keeper-wannabees to start the petition process to overturn their outdated HOA rules against chickens and continue the good fight!
We have four chickens we call “the Black Ones and Red” (we started with six. You can read about it in another blog "And Then There Were Four"). They are low maintenance, friendly, and so much fun! We eat fresh eggs every day. The kids love going into the backyard and checking for eggs (seriously every 1-2 hours they’re out there looking). It was absolutely worth the time and effort it took to bring about change to our city ordinance. I am so happy and proud that I was able to bring this fun experience and life lesson into my kid’s childhood – but also the lives of my neighbors and residents of Allen, TX. There were some nay-sayers along the way. But as time goes on and their concerns do not bear fruit, I expect them to forget the law ever even changed and to move on with no ill-affect or change to their lives.
If you’re in a community that doesn’t allow chicken keeping please check out some of the below resources that were a great help to me. If you have any questions or need advice on bringing about change in your city or town I’m happy to help. Just comment below and I’ll respond promptly!
Cooking & home projects galore! My secret inner-designer revealed.