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!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Make it the People's Choice: The Story of an Egg

UPDATE: While it didn't win the People's Choice Award, The Story of an Egg was the most viewed film of the festival!

The 2013 PBS Online Film Festival is underway, and one of the films up for consideration for the People's Choice Award is The Story of an Egg. Now through March 22 is our chance to recognize it with a People's Choice Award at the festival.

In explaining what it means for chickens to be "pasture-raised," this short film does an excellent job of reminding us why it's so important to treat our hens well. At the same time, the film makes us smarter to be wary of the messaging that marketers employ to make us think industrial hens are being treated better than they actually are.

Longtime blog readers will remember my original post about this film when it first debuted online last Spring. For the benefit of newer readers or those who missed it the first time, the short film is viewable in its entirety below.

Please take a moment to vote for the film today, thank you! (The ballot page lists all films in alphabetical order, so scroll down to "S" to select the film)

Friday, February 22, 2013

4-H Chick Sale in San Jose

Passing along this Chick Sale announcement from the 4-H here in Silicon Valley. As I'm watching the usual online sources for mail-order chicks, it seems we're going into yet another high-demand spring for chickens in the backyard. Glad to see the 4-H kids helping to increase the population of urban chickens here in the Bay Area.

Have another 4-H chick sale you want to promote? Share your details in the comments below.

Flickr photo by ccarlstead
Saturday, March 9th
Saturday, April 27th
from 10am to 11:30am

Sam's Downtown Feed and Pet Supply Store
759 W San Carlos, San Jose

What breeds?
  • Buff Orpingtons
  • Rhode Island Reds
  • Americaunas
  • Golden-Laced Wyandottes
  • Black Austrolorps
  • Light Brahmas (March only)
  • White Leghorns (April only)
How much?
$5.00 per chick

To reserve chicks, you may contact us at 4hpoultryproject [at] gmail [dot] com. Pre-order forms also can be found at Sam's Feed. We strongly recommend doing so--they go pretty fast on sale day! The deadline for forms is Feb. 28th.

The chicks will be ten days old at the sale date. They are sexed at the hatchery and vaccinated for Merek's disease.

Any questions? 4hpoultryproject [at] gmail [dot] com

Thanks for supporting 4-H!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Backyard Chicken Survey by UC Davis

Happy Valentine's Day, dear readers.

I wanted to take a moment to request your assistance and inform you of some important work being done by the Center for Animal Welfare at UC Davis.

They are in the process of evaluation of the health and well being of our backyard chicken populations.  They're seeking your input on developing outreach materials for people who have backyard chickens.

If you have chickens, they would like you to spend 20 minutes taking the following survey (it took me about 12 minutes to practice completing it). The goal of this survey is to target the best types of outreach materials and understand what backyard chicken owners really need to know.

There is an opportunity for you to win one of twenty $50 gift cards if you are to share your contact information: instructions are on the last page of the survey.  Regardless, your survey will be kept confidential and your anonymity will be guaranteed at all times.

To take the survey, please go to

Your participation will help make the art of raising urban chickens better for all of us. Thanks, in advance, for your help!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Growing Your Own Urban Chicken Feed

Flickr photo credit: MrsEds
One of the benefits to raising urban chickens is their willingness to eat just about any food scraps tossed their way and turning that food into delicious eggs.

A quick "chicken feed" search of YouTube videos shows all kinds of variety in what we're feeding our backyard girls: Army Worms, redworms, herbs, special grain grasses, home-milled seeds and grains. Vegetable trash from the local coop grocery, brewery waste, and many others make the list, too.

While commercially produced feeds are available to us urban chicken farmers, the girls seem to do better when they're eating more than what comes from the bag. But is this really good for our chooks?

I've been talking with a formally trained Ag Professional named Jim Ehle who's doing research into how urban chicken farmers are supplementing commercial rations with other fed options. If you supplement commercially produced feed (or skip it altogether) for your urban chickens, Jim would like to hear from you via email. Specifically, what are you feeding them, and is it good for them?

Of course, I'm always happy to have folks share their wisdom here in the comments, and Jim offers to identify and make reference to all that respond if he uses their information in his report/white paper. Also, he will provide a link to your blog, business, or website as a way to say thanks for providing your experiences.

Thank you in advance for sharing your urban chicken feed experiences! 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Calling All Chicken Busters

Now Casting Chicken Hunters in Miami
Back in 2009, I posted about a select group of people in Miami charged with rounding up all the loose chickens in their city. These Chicken Busters had raised over $10,000 for charity at the time I wrote of them.

Now, the folks at TwoFour productions are looking for their own set of Chicken Busters for a major television channel. I had a chance to chat with the producers and this is what they shared:

The TV channel is seeking competitive, outgoing and skilled hunters and trappers of chickens, pigeons and ducks.

This documentary series will follow the lives and adventures of skilled chicken hunters with big personalities as they search the streets of Miami and South Florida catching feral chickens and other problem pests to make serious cash.

If you feel you have what it takes, the producers want to hear from you! Send an email to that includes:
  • your name
  • your email
  • your cell number
  • a recent photo
  • a brief explanation of why you would be great to follow for this tv series.
And if you don't think this role is right for you, but you know someone who'd fit the bill, please share this post with them!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Finding Medical Help for Urban Chickens

Medical Station sign
Flickr photo courtesy Bruce Tuten
Not so long ago, it was nigh-well impossible to find a local veterinarian to care for a chicken in distress.

In 2008, vets might have had some experience with house birds (think: parakeets, parrots, etc), but those specializing in ailments relating to poultry were decidedly not setting up shop in an urban setting. Those vets were out by the farms where they had millions of potential patients.

But one of the signs that urban chickens are approaching mainstream is the urban ecosystem that has formed around the care and feeding of pet chickens. This ecosystem is still in its infancy, as finding a veterinarian who knows a thing or three about chickens is still a task best suited for email lists that light up with "HELP! anyone know a vet...?" requests when a hen is in distress.

Here in the Bay Area, a recent email chain on the Silicon Valley Chickens Yahoo! group ferreted out the following vets as being knowledgeable and chicken-friendly:
If you're not here in the Bay Area, how do you go about finding help for your girls?

NOTE: If you know of any others that should be added to the list above, don't hesitate to let me know and I'll update this post.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Would You Go to Chicken Training Camp?

Flickr photo credit: jcolman
Did you know you could go to chicken training camp this summer? Yes, you read that right: chicken training camp.

While the idea sounds a tad eccentric, a bit of digging reveals that training chickens is a no-nonsense endeavor, especially for those that are training themselves to handle other animals.

Legacy Canine (a dog training school) is running a series of chicken training camps this year, and here's how they got into the chicken business:

Legacy has been hosting dog training camps since the 1980’s.  In the old days the camps had 120 participants, many from overseas.  Terry decided that a convenient on-site training model should be provided for people flying in and unable to bring their dogs.  For several years Legacy campers trained rats in Skinner boxes.  In the early 90’s Ingrid Kang Shallenberger (Sea Life Park) and Terry Ryan, began using bantam chickens as training models at Legacy camps... In 1994 Terry asked Marian Breland-Bailey and Bob Bailey to share their years of animal training experience with Legacy campers.  For several years Marian and Bob taught the chicken unit at Legacy Camps.  Terry has included chickens in her current instructor’s courses “Coaching People to Train Their Dogs” and conducts one-day “Poultry in Motion” chicken training workshops.  Bob Bailey retired in 2008 from teaching his continuing education series of U.S. based chicken training workshops.
Now, we urban chicken farmers know our chickens to be intelligent creatures, but I have to admit even I was taken aback at finding out hens are used by click-trainers to hone their skills for use on other non-poultry species.

And hey, what could match the joy of adding "certified Chicken Trainer" to one's CV underneath the heading "Urban Chicken Farmer"?

BONUS reading for those of you already intrigued by animal training, here's an insightful white paper entitled "The Misbehavior of Organisms?"

Thursday, January 31, 2013

GMOs: Knowing what's in your food, and mine

I've just finished watching the film Genetic Roulette, and I'll never look at the food on store shelves the same way again.

I've also voted for the film to receive the AwareGuide Top Transformational Film of 2012. It's that good.

As an urban chickens fan, I hope you'll join me in doing the same, and for your convenience, the film is embedded below:

Now, one of the many benefits of raising urban chickens is our ability to control exactly what our hens eat as they produce the eggs we then eat ourselves.  This kind of food sourcing control gives us the power to decide to take the time and effort to produce organic eggs from free range hens. Whether we go through that effort is ultimately up to us, but at the very least, we're well aware of what our hens are eating. We know where our food is coming from.

Would that this knowing were true of all the food we eat here in the United States. There's significant pressure from the food industry, via Monsanto, et al, to keep us consumers from knowing whether there are GMOs in the food we buy at market. The Europeans are ahead of us in labeling all the GMO food produced over there. We've got to do the same here, especially after the millions of dollars that were spent by the food industry defeating Prop 37 here in California last fall.

Please take a moment now to visit this AwareGuide page and vote for Genetic Roulette to receive the AwareGuide Top Transformational Film, 2012 award.


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