Thursday, April 25, 2013

Infographic time: the chicken coop checklist

Many thanks to Jason Macek for sending us a link to the great chicken coop checklist infographic linked below. Building your own coop? If you follow the advice below, you'll never find yourself saying, "wish I'd built it that way the first time." I like the encouragement to use the deep litter method, and plenty of warnings about predator-proofing. Can you find anything missing from the list?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why Urban Chicken Eggs Are Green

No matter the color of your urban chicken eggs shells,
they're all green at their core, and by that I mean green as in "sustainable," not green as in "eww, to the compost heap with you!"

Indeed, if you're doing what wise backyard chicken farmers do and keeping your unwashed eggs on the counter (in something like this Stoneware 12-Cup Egg Tray), your eggs are increasing your sustainability footprint in a big way:
  • turning locally-sourced scraps, bugs and weeds into a nitrogen-rich fertilizer for your plants
  • turning locally-sourced scraps, bugs and weeds into nutritious protein sources for you
  • cutting the carbon footprint of your protein sourcing from miles to meters
  • cutting the refrigeration costs to nil if you've got counter-top eggs
So on this Earth Day, pat yourself on the back for being at the head of the sustainability curve and throw a little scratch to the girls to thank them for doing their part, too.

Flickr photo credit: pinprick

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Stop washing your eggs!

It's hard to resist making eggs pretty when they're removed from the nest. But washing your urban chicken eggs is just about the worst thing you can do to them. The first few eggs we got from our hens, I promptly took them out of the nest and straight to the sink to wash off the dirty bits. Can't have any feathers or dirt (or poop!) clinging to the outside of the egg, nosirree.

A clean shell means a good egg, right? Wrong.

My desire to have clean shells was born of all those years buying eggs in the store. My mother taught me to always open the carton at the shelf to see if there were any cracks or breaks or other reasons to try another carton. And I learned that a carton full of clean white shells meant they were good eggs. And good eggs were always refrigerated properly, just like it says on the carton.

Fast forward to my urban chicken years, and I've come to learn something very, very different about eggs farmed from the backyard: once the egg is removed from the nest, there's really no intervention required. Not even refrigeration!

Why? Well, just before the fully-formed egg passes out the vent of a hen, her body adds a moist, protective coating called the bloom. This wet bloom dries quickly when the egg lands in a nest and it becomes a protective shield, covering all the pores in the egg so bacteria and dirt (and even air) can't get inside the egg. The bloom also traps moisture inside the egg so the yolk and albumen don't dry out.

This coating is why eggs can be left out at room temperature for weeks, if not months, and still be edible. This coating is also why a hen can save for several weeks to keep a clutch of a dozen eggs or more in her nest before sitting on them to incubate them into little chicks.

When we wash eggs, we actually remove this bloom, this protective coating, from the shell and at best, make it possible that air gets into the shell and degrades the albumen and yolk (making them runny and less nutritious). At worst, we're effectively pushing the bacteria that was outside the egg shell through the pores and into the inside where it wreaks havoc until we open it. This havoc is only slowed down by our refrigerating the eggs.

So what to do instead of washing your eggs? Try keeping a bit of sandpaper by the coop to sand off any stuck bits. Or a fingernail brush to brush off bits of nesting material, feathers or poop. Just do your best to keep your eggs dry and the bloom intact so nature can protect your eggs as they sit beautifully on the counter.

And if you must, must, must wash them? Do it just before you eat them.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bird flu from the backyard flock? No.

With the recent deaths attributed to the H7N9 strain of bird flu in China, we should prepare ourselves for an influx of trollish comments about avian influenza appearing on any and all stories about backyard chickens.

Last time around (with the H5N1 fright in 2008/2009) it seemed no discussion on legalizing urban chickens could avoid at least one paranoid citizen piping up with "Chickens in the city? Haven't you heard of bird flu?!"

And while I posted back then about how urban chickens are actually part of the solution to stopping the spread of bird flu, I think it's worth revisiting the topic today.

How likely is it you'll get bird flu from a backyard flock of hens and die? If you're like 98% of the readers of this blog who live outside of China and Southeast Asia: it's nearly impossible.

At right, you'll see a snapshot of the World Health Organization's (WHO) map of the spread of H5N1 in 2012 to see where it is (click on the map for a larger image).

Notice anything missing?

That's right, the Americas. And why? Because there still has never been a recorded case of H5N1 bird flu in North or South America (or Europe, outside Turkey).

Why? Because it's very very very difficult for H5N1 to spread across such great distances, and even so, avian flu needs certain conditions to spread: crowded facilities of thousands of stressed hosts in close contact. Those conditions are never found in a backyard coop.

In fact, so long as we take good care of our hens and ourselves, our backyard coops are actually a buffer to the spread of any virus.

So the next time someone cries out about backyard chickens spreading bird flu, feel free to call them Chicken Little and show them a copy of the WHO map above.

Interested in learning more? I highly recommend reading Bird Flu--A Virus of Our Own Hatching by Michael Greger, MD.

Monday, April 1, 2013

It's time we outlaw cats and dogs, too

After 6 years of trying to support the cause of urban chickens, I've had a change of heart.

The reasons often cited for keeping chickens from within city limits seem reasonable, right?
  • they make too much noise
  • they produce too much smelly poop
  • they spread disease
  • they'll lead to over-crowding conditions
So, to heck with trying to legalize chickens in the city!

And just so we're safe from any of these problems an animal in the city might cause, we best simply ban all animals from urban settings, including those "beloved" cats and dogs. Here's why:

Yes, hens can cluck and bawk from sun up to sun down. But then they stop once they're in the coop at night. So if you're trying to sleep during the day since the neighbor dog barked his fool head off in the backyard because his owners left him out while they were on their own date night, those pesky chickens will keep you from catching Zs while the sun is up. Oh, and once you shut the hens up, good luck getting that nap in if your cat is hungry!

Smelly Poop
Have you ever driven by an industrial-sized chicken coop out in the country on a hot and humid summer day? The stink is enough to make you cry! That's why anyone keeping thousands of chickens confined in one small space should do so well away from anyone else's open windows.

How many of you have friends with dogs that you don't dare walk on their grass for fear of stepping in a steaming pile of dog love? Or at the neighborhood park? Or even on the sidewalk down the block?

And how about that friend of yours who has cats with a litter box in the guest bath? Nothing like stepping on scattered litter and holding your nose while doing your business next to where the cats (try to) do theirs. Litter boxes do need to be changed, right? I mean, when the cat starts eliminating anywhere but in the box because the smell is too bad for the cat, we've crossed a line, right?

Spreading Disease
Bird flu. Salmonella. Rabies. Distemper. Toxoplasmosis. They're all dirty creatures (so are humans). But somehow we've managed the risk. But better safe than sorry, so ban them all from human contact!

Puppy Mills and Crazy Cat Ladies. Enough said.

BONUS: Menaces to Society
Dogs: Each day, about 1,000 US citizens require emergency care treatment for a dog bite injury.
Cats: cats kill more than 1 billion birds per year.
Chickens: I got nothing. But I'm sure there's a killer rooster planning something soon.

So, given the inconveniences of keeping animals around that we're not going to eat for dinner, let's ban them all. Shall we start with a ban on cats in houses that have no yard or and only a single bathroom?

PS A little research to share with you. Type "Why I hate..." into Google and this is the results list:
  • why I hate dogs: 55.9 million results 
  • why I hate cats: 29.4 million
  • why I hate chickens: 7.3 million
Dog lovers definitely need a better PR campaign. That, or the cat lovers are already waging a successful war against the dogs. Oh, and fish? Beware, you're on the bubble!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Urban Chickens As Salmonella Carriers? Wash Your Hands!!

This past weekend, Seattle NPR-affiliate KPLU posted Backyard Chickens: Cute, Trendy Spreaders of Salmonella, an article by Nancy Shute. To save you the read, here's a synopsis of the article: sensationalist headline, some scary statistics from an outbreak of salmonella tied to a particular hatchery, concludes with the common-sensical "the CDC says wash your hands to reduce the risk of spreading the disease."

There's a lot of simple wisdom in that directive from the CDC: wash your hands. In fact, the CDC directive applies to reducing risk of transferring diseases to humans from any animals. Well, except for the danger cats pose to pregnant women.

Looking back over four years ago, I published on this blog a series of posts exploring some of the more common concerns I see raised in the debate to allow urban chickens:
Time to blow the digital dust off those posts as we get into the season renewed urban chicken interest. What's old is new again.

Flickr Photo credit: Microbe World

Sunday, March 24, 2013

When to expect that first egg

Photo credit Eric Rice
Chickens, as a species, reach maturity to start laying eggs anywhere between 17 and 26 weeks, depending on the specific breed. This age is referred to as a chickens "point of lay."

Calculating a chicken's point of lay is akin to looking on the back of a seed pack and seeing how many days it takes to harvest the vegetable you're thinking of planting. Some chicken breeds mature earlier than others, so you can take that into account as you're planning your flock.

Aspiring, but impatient, backyard egg farmers can buy pullets at "point of lay" which means they'll be enjoying fresh eggs within a week or so of bringing their hens home. But there's a cost to buying pullets at point of lay, and that's the cost of missing out on watching chicks grow up to be pullets and the imprinting of these chicks on you as their "mother hen."

So there's a bit more planning involved for those of us who are interested in raising our hens from the time they are day-old chicks. The 17-to-26 week guidance is a spread of a full 2 months, in other words, the difference between enjoying your first eggs on Labor Day or on Halloween(!).

Now, as you make plans to start raising chicks, remember to circle a date 4 and a half months after you bring them home as the day to start expecting eggs. Our Plymouth Rock chicks took 20 weeks to lay their first egg, and I have to admit those last three weeks of waiting (from week 17 to week 20) were excruciating!


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