Ask An Asshole: Can I Be Good Chicken Mom?

I get asked about chickens from time to time, which I enjoy. Am I an expert? Noooo, but I have been backyard chickening since 2002. Can you get this information elsewhere? Probably, but maybe not quite in this form. Here are recent chicken questions from a reader and chicken advice, reprinted with the asker’s permission and edited to protect the guilty and the innocent. This is long, sorry RSSers. Would it kill me to put a cut in? A: Yes, yes it would.


Dear SJ,

I’m writing because you are my guru on all things chicken-related and I sort of got this urge to get me some chickens for my backyard. Ok, here’s how it went down: I was being generally bored and boring and thought to myself “hey, I have a house with a huge backyard…I should get some veggies and plant them, and maybe some herbs, and ooooh, CHICKENS!!” So I started looking online and everyone’s all “chickens are awesome! They are easy to take care of! They are great pets!” and that may be true, but I’m sure that’s not the whole story and I know you’ll tell me the real deal.

I don’t want to be a bad chicken mom. This is my current situation, please let me know the realities of chicken-owning and if you think this is a good idea: I have a one-story house (that I own) in [SoCal] on a quiet cul-de-sac. I have a huge backyard (not farm sized, but big), but it is currently all tiny rocks and large ugly shrubs I plan to get rid of (and a patio with a bbq). There are animals, such as giant raccoons and cats and such, that live in my area and come in my backyard. There is an apartment complex with a pool next door to my yard. I have two VERY small dogs who spend all their time indoors unless I’m walking them. I do not have a pool. I work full-time and there is no one home all day. I travel occasionally, but have someone house sit when I do. So tell me, is this a good idea? How much maintenance is there REALLY? How expensive is this? What are the drawbacks and advantages to having your own chickens (for eggs, not food)? Do they bite? Get sick a lot? Get eaten? Need lots of vet attention? How easy is it to get food and supplies? How much do they cost? Will my neighbors hate me?
If you’re over talking about chickens, I totally understand. I’d appreciate any resources you have so I can research further. You are my first stop (and first choice) for info, so sorry if my questions seem pedestrian.

Thank you for reading!

–Future Chicken Mom?


Dear Future Chicken Mom,

The real scoop on chickens! Yes, I think you can do it. I will address the specifics of what you asked me. The following is my opinion and based on my amateur experiences raising chickens.

Location: Your weather is very good for chickens and you won’t have any snow/cold problems, and the light means they will probably lay more and through the winter. This is good. If the backyard fence is normal size, meaning 4′-5′ or higher, and the space is large, most chickens will not want to roam. Why would they? They have it all: food, shelter, water, bugs to peck, etc. You can help with this by choosing docile, non “flighty” breeds. A good book or site will talk about how flighty/people shy each breed is (or is not). Also, chickens really want to hang together and make a flock. This also keeps them from wanting to run off. Mine call to each other when they are “lost” (alone).

Neighbors: I go for forgiveness rather than permission in most cases, as long as I am adhering to the law. Chickens (as in, not roosters) are generally pretty quiet. Mine cackle around ten a.m. or so, when they are laying, which is a time when people are awake or gone. See what your local laws are as far as number limits, coop distances from dwellings, etc. Perhaps do a quick google for “Your city+chickens+noise complaints” and see if anything turns up and how it’s handled. Neighbors, if you know them, are often amused (NOT ALWAYS, THOUGH) by chickens and excited to get the gift of backyard-fresh eggs every so often, which greases the wheels very well.

Predators: Enclosures are kind of like birth control. 99% of the time if used properly, you will not have problems. Chickens may still escape and predators may still get in sometimes, despite your best planning/building. My biggest problem with raccoons was at dusk or night, if I was late shutting the coop door, or if I forgot. The results–sometimes a dead chicken–was sufficiently traumatic to make me straighten up and do better. I do not have an enclosed run, but some people swear by them. Enclosures are nice to fall back on for certain occasions–what if a pipe bursts (knock wood) and you have workers in and out of your yard all day? What if you are having a barbecue and you don’t want Bessie hopping up on a patio table and taking a munch out of a drummy from one of her chickeny cousins? This has happened to me, and I wanted to die. I have NEVER had problems with cats. My kittens chase them a bit, but cats are pretty cowed by the BOCK BOCK feather poofing. I have had problems with large dogs in the old days, jumping their fences and running into my yard. My yard nowadays is very secure and dogs can only look on from the alley. You know your dogs best–if they will menace or just enjoy the show.

There’s a couple of common sense things that help with predators. If it IS dark when you go out there, take a flashlight to make sure you are not locking up a predator WITH your hens. Do not build under a dense tree or near dense bushes, especially if they have connections to other trees or structures near your yard (raccoons travel on these routes). Lock food up at night, or if it’s in a run, keep it out of reach of greedy little raccoon arms. Storing food outdoors is fine, but make sure it’s rat proof. I use a small metal trash can with a snug lid.

Your schedule: Pullets and chickens do not need or want babysitting. They will be fine all day on their own, pooping and trying to find a way to get at your herbs.

The real story on the time sink: Assuming you have a coop and no enclosure, the two times a day when chickens need you, EVERY DAY, is in the morning to be let out, pretty early, like shortly after sunrise. It is okay to go back to bed yourself, heh. They can wait longer, but I figure it’s humane since they rise and sleep with the sun. At dusk/dark when they march into their house you will need to lock up after them as well. If you have a fully enclosed pen (meaning the “roof” is fenced in as well) with a coop inside, you can probably leave the coop door open most nights, but expect to check on them 2x a day for food, water, eggs, and to make sure they’re healthy. On a normal day, my chickens demand 5 minutes of my time. Seriously. I can give them more and talk to them and throw them worms when I’m weeding, or feed them treats, but minimum: five minutes, which is let out, check/fill feeder and waterer, check for eggs, and lock up at night. On the weekends I sweep out the wood chips and check their oyster shells bowl (necessary calcium boost for strong eggshells), and replace the chips–this is another 10-20 minutes.

Chickhood is more of a timesink. Until they are feathered out at 8 weeks, they will need closer tending. This time around I checked on my chicks 4-5 times a day at least in the first week or two, to make sure they had not done anything stupid and to make sure the heat source was groovy, etc. After that you can cut it back to about 3x a day. I also wanted to handle them A LOT so they would be more docile and interested in people. If you raise chicks, you may consider doing it when you have a break from work? However, I have raised chicks and held an office 9-5. They sleep a lot because they grow so fast. Just make sure without fail they have food and water all day.

Money: I built my coop and it cost about $150 all told. I could have gone cheaper, probably, or spent a lot more. I wanted a largish cube that would be easy to clean standing up and easy to collect eggs from, and it is. Now that Seattle chicken limits have gone up, I’m glad I built a 4’x4′ cube. You can also buy a coop from a site like Eglu or look for something local. I’ve seen people online who’ve modified a doghouse. Coops need to NOT be airtight (duh), be easy to clean, have perches, and have layer boxes. A 30#(I think) bag of layer feed with all my girls lasts me about 2 weeks, and it’s $10/bag. You can spend twice that if you want to go organic. With three chickens I think it lasted about 6 weeks. I also buy oyster shells which are something like 35 cents a pound, and they eat them slowly. I don’t do “grit” or “scratch” since they are free range in a large yard, but that is also cheap. I also feed them veggie scraps and non-chicken meats. Make sure you can get feed and oyster shells nearby, always. Find out what day they get feed in. I get my feed from a “natural” local pet food store that saw a niche waiting to be filled. If you run out you can cheat it with some oatmeal (they love hot cereal) or some leftover chow mein in the short term.

Buying a pullet you can expect to pay anywhere from $10-$30 for a good healthy layer. Sadly, it is hard to tell by looking at some chicken that is posted on craigslist. Generally I prefer to raise from chicks. I am gung ho about buying them sexed and paid about $4 per to ship them from a hatchery, but the minimum order was 25 if I didn’t want roosters included. If you want to pick chicks up somewhere, look around for feed stores. I also bought a feeder and a waterer. There is a reason these feeder designs were invented and exist–minimal mess and waste. Yes, you can feed or water chickens with buckets or tupperware (I do sometimes when I am cleaning their waterer), but spend the $5-$15 and invest in a feeder and waterer. I got these from the feed store where I bought my first chicks.

Aggression: Cardinal rule–do not overcrowd. DO NOT OVERCROWD. They will turn on each other. Your yard sounds plenty big. I think the rule is 5 square feet per chicken, but I err on generous. This is another reason to haul ass out of bed in the morning and let them out, so they don’t start fighting for funsies. As I mentioned earlier, I choose chicken breeds based on their traits. Here is my criteria: 1. Aggressive or Docile? (an aggressive breed is VERY unlikely to “protect” the rest of the flock, she will only save herself!) 2. Flighty or homebody (a flighty bird may be a good layer but can hide all of her eggs!) 3. Decent Layer? (Your call what “enough” production is. I expect 3-4 eggs a week for my needs.) 4. Appearance. My chickens do not bite me or each other, but they do peck to keep “pecking order.” Biting/clawing is what I think of more as rooster behavior. Hens are straight up prey.

Sickness/other maintenance: Being a chicken is fairly nasty, brutish, and short. You hatch out of an egg, COOL! A few months later eggs are rocketing out of your butt, WTF?? Then a raccoon eats you, sad. I have heard of chickens living to six or more, but they are generally not laying at that point. I will be culling my old chickens at some point. I do not do vet visits, and I have not dealt with any sicknesses or even parasites. I try to go the preventive route–a healthy chickhood, clean food and water, lots of sunshine and fresh air. They are pretty simple creatures. Any decent chicken book should touch on what it looks like when THAT HEN AIN’T RIGHT. I’d say they have a higher mortality rate than your typical cat or dog (I do take mammals to the vet, your call if you want to go there with chickens), so be prepared for loss. I’ve not lost one since my most recent batch in 2008 (I lived in apartments from 04-06).

Resources: Up here we have “Tilths” or kind of urban gardening/farming clubs that provide resources, have plant sales, teach classes on chicken raising, and give referrals for more local organizations and information. I would tap into that community as much as you might need to. For general questions I use (and I have sold chickens on) Backyard Chickens. There are some brilliant, calm, sensible, knowledgeable people on there, and some SHOCKING jackasses who probably have to be reminded to breathe. And those people can keep chickens alive, so you can too! Seattle also has coop tours so you can rubberneck at what those who came before you have done.

I have Choosing and Keeping Chickens by Graham. It’s British, so you may feel some American breeds are missing, but it’s good. Chickens in Your Backyard (Luttman) is very popular, but I felt it was kind of incomplete somehow.

Is it worth it? Really, that’s up to you. There’s no crime against trying it out and deciding it’s not for you, or taking a break every now and then for a year or a couple of seasons (meaning all your chickens die peacefully in their sleep of old age to the melodic strains of harp music and you decide to take some time off). I love what they do for the yard–eat small weeds, keep the bugs down, munch the grass down, and make the grass REALLY green (I am not a lawn nut, but it’s a perk). I love that they eat the girls’ food waste and scraps, which feels like a win. They are curious and funny to watch. I think of them as a hobby that results in a lot of pleasure and not much real gain, but the eggs are delicious. On the backyard scale, I think you may look at breaking even eventually, but I think that’s not the point for most people.

Here’s a few questions you should ask yourself, and these are just food for thought: If something happened to one of your hens and it was in obvious, irreparable, broken/bloody misery, could you bring yourself to have mercy on it and put it down? Despite your best efforts, you may also get a chicken that is an aggressive pecker, or a sad pariah chicken, or an egg eater. Can you get rid of these chickens? If all your chickens turn 5 and the eggwell dries up, could you cull them, or would you want to? Do you travel, and if so, could you find someone to care for your chickens (Housesitters generally do fine)? If you accidentally got a rooster, could you turn it into soup or is there a resource to rehome him? If there are spots in your yard that the chickens are targeting (and eating/ruining) can you stand having a fence around gardens or flower beds? I have green plastic fencing around all my berries and my garden, otherwise the chickens would eat not just the berries, but the raspberry leaves down to the canes. Do you have any known poisonous plants in your yard? Will it bother you if they come up on your patio and poop it up like crazy (they will, but it’s easy to hose off)?

Thanks for writing, and good luck making your decision.

You alls feel free to comment if you have anything to add, or other questions, or do something totally differently–I’d love to know.

11 thoughts on “Ask An Asshole: Can I Be Good Chicken Mom?

  1. This was great! Apart from the fact that you should SO have a Q&A blog.

    Our chicken plans are now at the building a coop stage, I have visited chicken-keeping people nearby to see their set-up and found someone who advertises coops on Gumtree and who has something very close to what I want.

  2. I’m glad to hear you’re making progress. Sounds awesome! And this is a Q&A blog, apparently, as long as people ask Qs, heh.

  3. My question is, how DO you deal with snow/cold weather? I want to know all about chickening even though it’s probably just a fantasy for me. That’s why I haven’t already attempted to learn more despite my interest. Still, if you’re willing to share information I’ll gladly absorb it.

  4. Very informative, SJ! Thanks for writing it. Alas, my town’s ordinances disallow chooks, but I enjoy living vicariously through you.

  5. MB: Thanks!

    Zig: It depends on how cold your weather is. I have not done chickens in a truly wintery place where it snows a lot and is below freezing for a lot of the winter. Here in Seattle if it snows for a day or two I dig away the snow so they have grass to dig at still and are not just wading around in snow all day. I think a covered run is handy, or other covered area. My chickens have trees and other cover (my coop is raised, even, and their feeder hangs from the bottom), which is nice because most of our winters are rainy and I don’t really want to force them to be out in the rain all day. You can provide light and heat in your coop. Since I work from home, I go out and bust the ice on their waterer a couple times a day, but if it’s really cold obviously you want a heated waterer.

    I think they keys are insulated/warm coop, light, and cover to get out of the snow. This post seems sensible to me:

    I’d like to keep seramas but I don’t want to build a whole structure, since it is too cold for them here. So look for hearty breeds if you go forward.

  6. Thanks for your awesome response. My only remaining questions are: Do I have to cull the chickens? If there is a chicken problem, can I have someone get her/them? Do I need to have grass (I don’t; I have gravely-pebbles)? Can you please explain the pen/coop set up?

  7. Nooo you absolutely do not have to cull chickens, ever. If you want some that lay eggs for a while, and then go off into a quiet eggless retirement, then that is your choice. The upside is they are with you through their lives. The downside is that, if you have city/county chicken limits, then you are out of eggs until they die. Chickens lay best in their first year or two, so for the majority of their lives you are looking at few/no eggs. Calliope is three now and she is still laying 3-4 times a week in the summer. I give them breaks in the winter (no forced lighting).

    If you have chicken problems, there are vets that will put them to sleep, like a cat or dog. I would find one before I got chickens, since this seems like it would be more rare in an urban area than the ubiquitous cat and dog vets.

    You don’t need grass to raise chickens, they do fine on a variety of substrates. Pebbles could be good for drainage and would probably need to be raked or hosed, since I can’t imagine the poop would compost quickly enough on them–you’d have build up if you left it totally alone.

    To enclose, you need:

    1. Enough square feet per chicken for health and to prevent fighting.
    2. Some way to clean or otherwise refresh the substrate, because they will poop and poop constantly. There are different “rules” for refreshing your substrate based on the size of the pen and what it is made of. I would consider putting down some kind of safe chips for hens or sand, since that can be raked out and/or composted, while rocks are going to be more challenging to clean, unless you found a way to hose it out fairly often. I would do a lot more research about this if I was going enclosed (cedar can be harmful, for example). I don’t think there’s a “right’ answer, it’s what’s cost effective and does not keep your hens in a state of constant muddiness.

    On substrates:
    Discussion on drainage/muddiness

    Pens and Coops: Some people put their coops inside of pens, like so: You can see it’s totally sheltered, but airy, dry, and should be predator-proof. My coop just kind of hangs out in my yard. In my old house, I had a run which I used only when I needed them enclosed, like if the fence was open, and I let them out the back door of the coop. This used simple wire fencing with no top and was just for the purpose of keeping them contained in the short term, which it did will for.

    I’m not for or against enclosing. I say, whatever works. Free range works very well in my yard. But if you do enclose, remember that you’re going to create an environment that’s a bit biodomey–the chickens will rely on you for everything (nutrition, grit, combating boredom). I hear some people hang up cabbages in their runs to give their chickens something healthy to peck at. Whatever you do, make it easy to clean and care for! Let me know if you have any other questions.

  8. Do any of your girls think they are boys? My neighbors at my old house had a couple hens and one of them was gender-confused so she’d constantly emit this anemic, annoying crow. I’m pretty sure I’d suck as a chicken-mom but I’ve got chicken-envy just the same.

  9. I have heard of this phenom! My naked neck chest bumps the others a lot. I think she’s trying to be top chicken of the new batch.

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