Backyard Chickens – 8 Lessons Learned

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I have had backyard chickens for several years now in my tiny, urban backyard. I currently have three little cutiepie girls who free range everyday and live in their little green-roof coop at night. (You can watch the TV episode featuring my backyard & chickens HERE)

Chicken Area of the Garden

I was thinking the other day about how much we have enjoyed these chickens. When I started, I learned the usual chicken information..like you don’t need a rooster to get eggs, they stop laying in the winter (because they ovulate according to the length of the day) and the eggs are beyond delicious.

But I have learned other things too. Surprising things!

Below are the top 8 surprising lessons I learned from my chickens:

  1. Each chicken has a distict personality. Some are all sugar and sweetness. Others, don’t give a hoot about us. Wait…hoot? No. I mean “peep”. They don’t give a peep.
  2. Adult chickens poop about every 20 minutes. That’s a lot of organic fertilizer! And I discovered that if you feed chickens a boatload of blackberries, they will have bright purple poop within an hour! Yep. I know this from experience. (Trust me – little boys find this emensely entertaining.)
  3. Children LOVE to see chickens- Especially city kids. Okay, so that is not really a surprise. But until I had chickens, I had not thought about how backyard poultry is a great way to start a conversation with kids about food and eating local. I knew my kids would love having chickens, but I did not expect to influence the neighborhood kids too – especially our next door neighbors. They adore the chickens and I think everyone has learned from the experience.

    Double Shelled Egg

    Double-Shelled Egg

  4. Sometimes weird things happen with the eggs! We’ve had double-yolkers, strange shapes and then there was the time we had a fully shelled egg inside another fully shelled egg AND…that egg was huge. Yep – a double-sheller! Read about THAT here.
  5. Chickens really ARE easy to take care of.The trick is to keep the flock small. Like puppies, baby chicks can be purchased on impulse and this leads to people having way too many chickens for their space. That leads to sick chickens. Resist the temptation! Keep your flock size at a level you can handle and you can maintain them with minimum effort.

    Baby Polish Chicks are So adorable

  6. You WILL have to buy eggs at some point.Chickens ovulate when the days are longer. In the winter months, they usually stop all together unless you put artificial light in their hen house. (I don’t) People are surprised to learn that I have to buy eggs sometimes. (I do.) And those store bought eggs are just not the same.

    Chicken wire protecting new onion sets

  7. You CAN have a vegetable garden and chickens too. It just takes a little inginuity on your part. I block off seedlings with wire and reclaimed fencing. And it is important to remember that if you have too many chickens for your small space, they will do damage. Keep the balance. Only have the amount of chickens your garden can handle and your garden will survive.
  8. Somehow, certain chickens always have better “hair” days than the rest of us. I guess it’s a gift.

About the Author

Theresa Loe is the Co-Executive TV Producer and the On-Air Canning/Homesteading Expert for the national PBS gardening TV series, Growing A Greener World. She is a lifetime canner and a graduate of the Master Food Preserver Program. She studied both sustainable horticulture and professional culinary arts and she is a wrangler of chickens and two teenage children. (Not necessarily in that order.) Click here to download her FREE CANNING RESOURCE GUIDE of favorite must-have sources for preserving the harvest.

{ 46 comments… add one }

  • TeresaR April 15, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    We’ve never shared our [hard-earned] blackberries with the chickens, so I didn’t know their poop will turn bright purple…LOL!

    Oh, it’s always a sad day in winter when we get zero eggs for a stretch of time. You are so right they aren’t the same: even the local farm eggs or the Organic Valley organic eggs don’t measure up to our own.

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 16, 2012 at 5:42 am

      It is a sad day when we go out and there are no eggs! So many people are surprised to learn about that. But I guess I also like that the girls get a little vacation. We can all use a rest now and then, right? Ha ha

      Reply edit
  • Bee Girl April 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Ha! Great post! We have 7 chickens and 9 new pullets…we are hoping to never buy eggs again by freezing some when they are in abundance :-) Fingers crossed!

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 17, 2012 at 7:06 am

      I have not tried freezing the eggs. Do you crack them and place in containers?

      Reply edit
      • Rebecca Boitnott May 25, 2012 at 5:22 am

        We use freezer bags , but you could use ice cube trays . Make sure you scramble them really well. I add a small amount of salt to the ones i’ll be using for cooking and sugar for baking. Always label everything ( how many eggs and what additives) . These work really good for camping. There good for about 6 months.

        Reply edit
      • Christy February 3, 2013 at 10:08 pm

        Even better.. crack the egg into a whoopie pie pan, or a muffin pan in a pinch. and bake. Then freeze for breakfast sandwiches. I always keep them on hand for quick “mcmuffins”. And Ice cubed scrambled eggs are perfect for using in recipies.

        Reply edit
    • Suzi May 12, 2012 at 7:06 pm

      I am experimenting with freezing eggs. I need to pull some out & see how they cook as scrambled eggs & in baked good. I lightly beat a bunch in measuring cup & then pour them into silicone muffin cups…When frozen, I pop them out & into a storage container.

      Reply edit
      • theresa May 13, 2012 at 4:02 am

        Suzi-
        This is great info. I so need to experiment with this too. Most of the eggs we eat are scrambled or mixed into something else. So, it really should be a great way to store extra eggs!

        Reply edit
  • Tammy April 17, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    So glad I stumbled on your blog, we are getting ready to start out raising chicken journey, starting out with just 2-3, we don’t want to overwhelm our neighbors. My kiddos are do excited, hubby is coming around and my friends and family think I’m nuts going through a mid life crisis, the joy to teach my kids where our food comes from is priceless to me :) .

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 17, 2012 at 1:19 pm

      Tammy-

      I am so very glad you stumbled upon my blog too! Welcome!

      You crack me up about the mid life crisis. But you know, what you are doing is such a great thing. Your kids will learn so much from this experience including responsibility, stewardship and where their food comes from. All good stuff!

      ~Theresa

      Reply edit
  • thaydra April 18, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Your chicken garden is gorgeous!!! I am currently having to move, but the one HUGE thing on my “must” list for the new place is room for chickens! I’ve always wanted them, and I’m happy to hear that having a veggie garden AND free-range chickens is totally plausible. Love your blog, and am now following it! =)

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 18, 2012 at 11:12 am

      I will tell her you said she was gorgeous…only now, she might get all full of herself! LOL I hope you find your space for chickens AND veggies. Moving is a pain, but I also like the idea of starting fresh. It can be exciting! Good luck and I look forward to you visiting again soon!

      Reply edit
  • Megan April 18, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    i’m going to do a post with pics tomorrow, but i guess ill ask here too. i have 3 chickens, about a month old and one is much smaller than the other two. also, her feathers look much thinner. do you think she’s sick? she acts normal, but just doesn’t look normal….

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 18, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      Hi Megan,

      Are all three chicks the same breed? Does the chick eat and drink well and is as active as the others? Is her nose clear and her eyes bright? If she truly is acting like a healthy bird, I think it could be that she is just a runt. But if she starts to act sick or if her nose or eyes are goopy or she seems lethargic, I would separate her. Otherwise, she may just be a slower grower.

      Go ahead and post on it and see what other’s say. And please keep me posted on how she does!

      ~Theresa

      Reply edit
  • Earl April 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    How do you keep your grass so green and not all scratched up?

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 18, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      Hi Earl,

      That little patch of grass is on one side of my garden. When I let the chickens out in the day, they free range mostly on the other side in the veggie/herb/flower garden. The garden on that side has dirt pathways and they seem to like that better. I do let them roam the grass area about once a week, but they are more interested in the dirt areas than the grass areas. Plus, keep in mind that I only have 3 chickens. They don’t do that much damage if you keep them moving.

      The way I get it green is with organic fertilizer. That grass area is very small (only about 8 ft by 8 ft) as the rest of my garden is all planted with edibles and flowers.

      Hope that helps!

      ~Theresa

      Reply edit
  • Astra April 19, 2012 at 1:53 am

    Great summary of the benefits to keeping hens, i hope this encourages people to give it a go. We’ve now settled into our new rented home and are going to get 2 later this month, ive missed having hens and i cant wait :)

    Just found your blog through bee girl, its really lovely and interesting, ill be back lots :)

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 19, 2012 at 4:31 am

      Hi Astra-

      How fun to be getting some new hens at a new home. I’m glad you found me and I look forward to hearing how your new hens settle in.

      ~Theresa

      Reply edit
  • Erin April 22, 2012 at 9:26 am

    I have 10 chickens and 4 ducks. They all live together in a large fenced in area but when I am home, I let them free range all over my yard and garden. My garden is made up of raised beds so to keep the birds out I just lay some chicken wire on top of a bed or surround an individual bed with wire. They can still get in the garden and dig but not in the beds I have protected. Works great.

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 22, 2012 at 12:15 pm

      That’s great Erin. I have heard that ducks are great foragers. But I also heard that they smell a bit more than chickens. Do you find that to be true?

      Reply edit
      • Erin April 22, 2012 at 2:36 pm

        Yeah, they definatly poop a whole lot more than the chickens. They also turn every waterer into a muddy mess. My plan is to fence in the whole garden and let the ducks live there. They will feed on bugs without scratching the garden up. We will see how it goes!

        Reply edit
  • Trina April 23, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Do you have to have a heat lamp in the winter to keep the chickens warm? And if there is snow on the ground do chickens still like to wander and forage?

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 23, 2012 at 9:20 am

      Hi Trina,
      I live in Los Angeles and have extremely warm winters. So no – I do not need heat and there is no snow. My friends in colder climates tell me that if you have enough chickens in the hen house, you only need a light if it is really cold for long periods of time. (They huddle together for warmth) But if you live in extreme cold, then yes – a light is important. And the chickens won’t forage in deep snow, but they will scratch in a light snow or dusting. They just eat more feed because they don’t have any bugs to eat and some people supplement their feed with more protein.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply edit
  • Haji April 23, 2012 at 8:52 am

    While my Ameraucana chickens each began laying an egg every two or three days during the winter months, my Reds never slowed down at all. I think some breeds are better than others with production during short days. Buff Orpingtons are another that do well.

    Of course, my winters are fairly mild, compared to other parts of the country, allowing for my ladies to get out and forage everyday of the year.

    I also found that feeding walnuts to them really boosted their production (maybe, the oils?). Again, I am lucky to have my own walnut orchard, so I always have a stash to share with them.

    Reply edit
    • theresa April 23, 2012 at 9:22 am

      Oh I did not know that reds and buff orpingtons lay during the shorter days! My girl friend just got 2 for her flock. I will have to tell her.

      Lucky you to have walnuts! I bet it is the oils and such a great thing to feed them.

      ~Theresa

      Reply edit
  • Melody April 23, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Hi,
    I’m new to your blog and found you on pinterest…. I love the information regarding your chickens. I have never raised chickens, always wanted to and now we should be getting the first of ours and our chicken coop soon! I have been reading everything I can on chickens and can’t wait to get them! Thanks for sharing.
    Melody in Arizona

    Reply edit
  • Kristina May 7, 2012 at 10:15 am

    True! Although I would say that if you have enough chickens and you store your eggs in the fridge, you shouldn’t need to buy eggs when they molt. That’s my experience anyway.

    Reply edit
    • theresa May 7, 2012 at 8:38 pm

      Good point Kristina. I just always end up giving so many of our eggs away to friends, I don’t end up with surplus. I suppose I should be stingier with them! Ha!

      Reply edit
  • michelle yeaton May 7, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Thanks for sharing!!! xoxo

    Reply edit
  • Elaine @ Sunny Simple Life May 10, 2012 at 7:43 am

    I live in SoCal too and am a new chicken owner. I just can’t get enough of your coop. It is a feast for the eyes and such a wonderful addition to your garden. Love it!!

    Reply edit
  • Pam s May 16, 2012 at 6:47 am

    Do you worry about dogs and raccoons attacking your chickens. Are your chickens pets that give you eggs> Or do you eventually eat them/

    Reply edit
    • theresa May 16, 2012 at 6:58 am

      Hi Pam,

      I do not worry about dogs because my backyard is completely enclosed. All the yards here in the city are fenced and we don’t have any stray dogs, so the hens are well protected. As for Raccoons, yes they can be a problem. I have the chickens well locked up at night and the raccoons don’t seem to be able to get in. My chickens are pets. We won’t eat them, even when they stop laying. But I am not opposed to eating chickens. It is just that I have two young boys who are madly in love with these hens.

      ~Theresa

      Reply edit
  • Tammy May 16, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    Theresa

    We finally got our Chickens, I was able to convince my husband to extend our run a little bit, so we ended up getting 4 Rhode Island Red Hens, I was hoping for a variety, but that’s all our feed store had, and they are 4 1/2 months old, we love them so much, ( Polly,Penny, Mini, and Lulu ) all named by our kiddos, we are having a great time with them. Although I think my husband thinks I’m nuts, since I go out there every morning to talk to the girls, and they totally answer me back when we talk, ( lol), I love it.

    Thank you for all your wonderful information ;) .

    Reply edit
    • theresa May 19, 2012 at 2:50 pm

      Love the names Tammy! So cute. My chickens talk back to me too! So funny.
      ~Theresa

      Reply edit
    • theresa May 24, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      Hi Tammy-
      I don’t know what happened, but I just noticed that my two replies to your comments disappeared! Hmmmm. Well, I will do them both again (hope I don’t give different answers! Ha!)

      I love the names of your hens. Very, very cute. And I totally talk to my chickens too. They seem to be talking back. Just wish I knew what they were saying! Enjoy your sweet chickens. Your kids will learn a lot from the experience!

      ~Theresa

      Reply edit
  • SallyMPG September 5, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    Just started our backyard chicken journey, can’t wait to see how it all goes. Thanks for the great post, it is very helpful.
    :)

    Reply edit
  • Anna December 30, 2012 at 7:37 am

    I love your Chicken with the feathers all over it. How can she see? I can not wait to build our chicken coop. We were just approved in November that we can have up to 6 chickens in the city. We have our girls (chickens ) in NC with my brothers. The Road Island Red chickens do lay in the winter. Also I have found out that the chickens really help both of my children who have autism. they seem to calm them down and it also teaches them to be responsible .. I love your post. Thanks.

    Reply edit
    • theresa December 31, 2012 at 6:00 am

      Hi Anna-
      Charlotte (the chicken with the feathers) does NOT see well at all. We always have to keep our eye on her as she is a bit of target to a predator. But she is cute as a button! We love her.

      Reply edit
  • Pat February 17, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Did you build your chicken coop and the outside area for your chickens? Are there plans available for that.
    I have about 15 chickens about 25 yrs ago and miss having some around. I would like to have 4 or 5 again and you design looks perfect.

    Reply edit
    • theresa February 19, 2013 at 7:18 am

      Hi Pat,

      I did not build the coop. I bought the basic coop from http://www.greenchickencoop.com many years ago. I added the green roof to it myself. Since that time, the company has been featured on Martha Stewart and some major websites. They have more designs now. But they are not cheap. If you are looking for an inexpensive solution that you can build yourself, I would check over at BackyardChickens.com. I think they have design ideas.

      Good luck with your new coop!
      ~T

      Reply edit

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