Talking Poultry - Raising Backyard Birds In Berkeley

Our North Berkeley neighborhood is a haven for chicken fanciers. I've counted at least six coops within a three-block radius of our house!

And we're fortunate enough to live right next to one of them. Our lovely back neighbors, Fran and Chip, have three young hens in their backyard. In addition to entertaining Will, who now says "buck, buck" and heads for the back door whenever we say "chicken", we also receive delicious eggs with brilliant orange yolks from the girls next door sometimes.

Will meets a chicken

After seeing how much Will enjoys watching the girls scratch, peck and flap their wings, I started thinking about maybe getting some chickens of our own. But how to begin?

Fran was kind enough to answer some questions about her experience raising the birds. I've included our little "poultry talk" below in case you're thinking about starting your own little backyard flock.

Fran with one of the ladies

How long have you been raising chickens?

We got our first chicken about 20 years ago. The daughter of our neighbors across the street had received a chick for Easter. Once the chick became a chicken, they realized that this was not what they’d signed up for, so we took it. We’ve had at least one chicken and, sometimes as many as four, though I prefer to have just two or three at a time, ever since.

What kind of birds are these?

These three are Rhode Island Reds, they’re known for being reliable layers. We got them in early January and they just started laying their first eggs a month or so ago. I’ve also had success with Araucanas (they lay beautifully colored eggs) and have had a lot of different breeds, including the fancy ones with the fluffy feet.

Rhode Island Reds in their coop by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog

How many eggs do they lay?

They lay roughly one egg a day -- I usually collect 2-3 each evening – about 18 eggs a week.

Where did you get them from?

I got these from Lucky Dog pet shop on San Pablo Avenue. I used to get them from Mike’s Feed & Pets in Hayward until Lucky Dog changed hands and the new owner started selling chickens about 5 or 6 years ago.

What do you feed them? Is there special feed that makes for better eggs?

Yes, there is. They eat a mix of things:  I give them two commercial products – chicken scratch which is a mix of whole grains, and laying mash which is a more protein-rich feed that helps them produce good eggs. I also give them lots of vegetable scraps from our house and our neighbors’ and I will also stop by Monterey Market when they’re getting rid of greens that are too wilted to sell. The chickens love whole grains, especially, although they’re not interested in bread.

But their favorite things to eat are worms. I spoil them sometimes by digging in the compost bins to turn up the worms for them. They get right in there -- they’re so enthusiastic that they are literally under the shovel so I have to be very careful. They come running when they see me pick up the shovel -- they’ve developed a Pavlovian response to the shovel; to them, it means worms.

Chickens eating and turning up worms in the compost bin

Do they also need a source of calcium?

Yes, I give them ground oyster shells and we also crush up the shells of any eggs we eat for them – that is the best source for them – their own eggs! Funny, isn’t it? The commercial feed usually contains oyster shells or other sources of calcium for them.

Can you tell me a little bit about your coop design?

Oh sure, there is a square footage requirement – a coop should be at least 4 square feet for each chicken to make sure they won’t be stressed by being too on top of each other. The funny thing about this batch is that they all huddle together in one small box every night – three of them trying to fit in there is pretty tight but that is what they like.
Fran's chicken coop
And then they use the other small box to lay in – they take turns. They never poop in the same place as they lay – very smart!  But none of them use the big box at all.
One box for laying, one box for pooping by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog
The other important factor for a coop is to make sure it is secure. We’ve had chickens just decimated by possums. Now the floor of our coop is made of brick lined underneath with wire since possums and raccoons can and do burrow under the ground to get in – they’re very determined. And you must remember to lock the door once they’re all in at night, of course.

We also have a light in the coop that we use during the winter months to extend the daylight hours for them a bit since they lay fewer eggs when there is less daylight.

It looks like you use shredded paper to line the boxes?

Yes, though I will also use hay when I have access to it. The only downside to hay is that they tend to eat it so you need to replace it more often – they don’t eat the paper.
Freshly laid egg in a nest of shredded paper by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog

How often do you have to clean out the coop?

I clean it out about once a month. I could do it more often, of course. I put their droppings right into the compost – it makes great fertilizer.

How much time do they spend out of the coop?

They are out twice a day for a while, which gives them time to scratch and peck and find bugs and eat greens and other yummy things from the compost bins. I let them out for about an hour in the morning before I leave for work, and then again when I get home.
Scratching outside the fenced garden beds

What sort of hours do they keep?

They are right in sync with daylight, they wake when it’s light and they go to sleep when it gets dark.

After they’ve laid an egg, do they sit on it or do they get up and go about their business?

These hens don’t sit, I don’t think. When I come to collect the eggs in the early evening, they’re never sitting on them and the eggs are also cold by that time which makes me think they’re not sitting on them.

What are their relationships like with each other?

They’ve got a clear social hierarchy. Although I’ve tried, I’ve found that it’s basically impossible to introduce new birds to a flock because their pecking order has already been established. The new birds just get pecked mercilessly.
Outside the coop
But this batch is fairly harmonious – they don’t have a scapegoat. They follow the leader, who is the smartest one of the three.  She’s also the most assertive. One of them is clearly dumb - she’s named Moe, the other two are named Meeny and Miny. I had two birds before these who were named Pooh and Lay (“Poulet”) because that is all they do.

How long will they lay for?

Once they’re mature they’ll lay all year round, though they lay less in the winter – it’s all tied to the number of daylight hours. They need roughly 8 or more hours of daylight to lay – that is why we have the light in their coop. They will lay eggs for 2-3 years.

Attention! Tails UP! Rhode Island Reds eating from the compost bins by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog

What do you do with them once their laying days are over?

I’m not interested in killing them so I give them away either to people who will keep them as pets or who want to use them for the soup pot. Every once in a while if I have a particularly ornery bunch, I’ll take them up to Tilden park and release them – I figure they’ll either survive or make a great meal for a coyote.

I used to feel guilty about this but I have gotten over it. I figure they have a very nice life while they’re with me – they’re happy and well-fed and cared for, which is more than you can say of what they’d experience in a commercial environment or in the wild. And then they either become pets or come to a quick end.

Do you have any advice for people interested in starting their own flock of chickens?

I’d caution people to be aware that chickens are destructive to yards – they’re designed to scratch and turn up earth and eat greens so you have to fence them out of anything you want to keep safe – your garden, your lawn, etc.
Scratching outside the fenced garden beds

And it’s something you should only do if you really want chickens, of course! But I love it. I find them interesting and entertaining to watch. They’re also a great conversation starter. I get wonderful fertilizer for my garden. And, of course, delicious fresh eggs all year round. Store-bought eggs really don’t taste that good, in comparison. You should do a blind taste-test – it’s impressive.

12 comments:

peter said...

We're thinking about getting some, but I need to wrangle some other stuff first. Where exactly to put them is another matter. Food for thought.

Eve Fox said...

yeah, a good point. You'd have to fence in all your garden beds, basically. Does the town of Woodstock allow poultry in the village lines?

peter said...

I think so. It's on my list to find out.

Kirsten Lindquist said...

Fun post! Thanks for sharing.

AS said...

Great post, Eve. I want chickens!

AS said...

This is a great post, Eve. I want chickens!

beyondriceandtofu.com said...

I love my chickens! We have 5 hens. Backyardchickens.com is a great resource, esp the forum.

6512 and growing said...

I grew up in Berkeley (many years in North Berkeley) and am thrilled that people are keeping chickens in Berkeley.
I live in Colorado now and have chickens too, such good times.

Roger said...

I live down the hill from you in Berkeley and have looked into chickens because I'd love the fresh eggs. However, the law says that the chickens must be 25 feet away from any dwelling except yours. So, the coop has to be 25 feet away from your neighbors' houses, and I don't have that kind of room, so it's the farmer's market for me until/unless I move.
I ran into one person whose neighbor had a coop on the side of the house -- clearly too close to the neighbor's. They solved that problem by giving eggs to the affected neighbor in exchange for their acquiescence.
There's even a coop in someone's front yard on Sacramento directly across from the North Berkeley BART station!

Eve Fox said...

I just saw that coop on Sacramento St for the first time - it's kinda cute how it just sticks out of their house like that. I guess the city is not too strict about enforcing their regulations?

Robert said...

Eve,

Great Article. I actually found it on twitter as Michael Pollan tweeted the civil eats post. We have come up with a special type of composter that raises grubs for chickens.

As your article mentions, chickens love to eat live insects (worms, grubs). Traditionally chickens should eat about 30-50% live insects and this becomes hard to do in a backyard setting (like Berkley). Therefore we developed a special composter that allows for the grubs to autoharvest themselves. It’s called a BioPod Plus and it uses a native species of NON-PEST grubs called the “black soldier fly”.

The Ladies (here in dallas it’s illegal to have roosters) go nuts over them and it has been a real success. People can take their leftover food waste that the chickens can’t eat and throw it in this closed composter designed for food waste. The grubs decompose the waste faster then in a traditional compost pile would and the grubs fall into a collection bucket. All you have to do is empty the bucket when you go feed your chickens.

Grubs are a great resource of not only insect protein, but there exoskeleton is rich in calcium. A second benefit that your article touches upon.

I’ve been eating eggs that are grown on chickens that have been eating the grubs raised on my leftover food waste and THEY TASTE GREAT.

Also, we have xeriscaped in natural grains on the side of the yard that are also grown for the chickens. Therefore we believe it’s practical to grow your own chicken feed within the parameters of your backyard.

All it takes is some food waste, grubs, and ecstatically pleasing grains.

great blog and I hope this is interesting.

Robert said...

Eve,

Great Article. I actually found it on twitter as Michael Pollan tweeted the civil eats post. We have come up with a special type of composter that raises grubs for chickens.

As your article mentions, chickens love to eat live insects (worms, grubs). Traditionally chickens should eat about 30-50% live insects and this becomes hard to do in a backyard setting (like Berkley). Therefore we developed a special composter that allows for the grubs to autoharvest themselves. It’s called a BioPod Plus and it uses a native species of NON-PEST grubs called the “black soldier fly”.

The Ladies (here in dallas it’s illegal to have roosters) go nuts over them and it has been a real success. People can take their leftover food waste that the chickens can’t eat and throw it in this closed composter designed for food waste. The grubs decompose the waste faster then in a traditional compost pile would and the grubs fall into a collection bucket. All you have to do is empty the bucket when you go feed your chickens.

Grubs are a great resource of not only insect protein, but there exoskeleton is rich in calcium. A second benefit that your article touches upon.

I’ve been eating eggs that are grown on chickens that have been eating the grubs raised on my leftover food waste and THEY TASTE GREAT.

Also, we have xeriscaped in natural grains on the side of the yard that are also grown for the chickens. Therefore we believe it’s practical to grow your own chicken feed within the parameters of your backyard.

All it takes is some food waste, grubs, and ecstatically pleasing grains.

great blog and I hope this is interesting.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Talking Poultry - Raising Backyard Birds In Berkeley

Our North Berkeley neighborhood is a haven for chicken fanciers. I've counted at least six coops within a three-block radius of our house!

And we're fortunate enough to live right next to one of them. Our lovely back neighbors, Fran and Chip, have three young hens in their backyard. In addition to entertaining Will, who now says "buck, buck" and heads for the back door whenever we say "chicken", we also receive delicious eggs with brilliant orange yolks from the girls next door sometimes.

Will meets a chicken

After seeing how much Will enjoys watching the girls scratch, peck and flap their wings, I started thinking about maybe getting some chickens of our own. But how to begin?

Fran was kind enough to answer some questions about her experience raising the birds. I've included our little "poultry talk" below in case you're thinking about starting your own little backyard flock.

Fran with one of the ladies

How long have you been raising chickens?

We got our first chicken about 20 years ago. The daughter of our neighbors across the street had received a chick for Easter. Once the chick became a chicken, they realized that this was not what they’d signed up for, so we took it. We’ve had at least one chicken and, sometimes as many as four, though I prefer to have just two or three at a time, ever since.

What kind of birds are these?

These three are Rhode Island Reds, they’re known for being reliable layers. We got them in early January and they just started laying their first eggs a month or so ago. I’ve also had success with Araucanas (they lay beautifully colored eggs) and have had a lot of different breeds, including the fancy ones with the fluffy feet.

Rhode Island Reds in their coop by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog

How many eggs do they lay?

They lay roughly one egg a day -- I usually collect 2-3 each evening – about 18 eggs a week.

Where did you get them from?

I got these from Lucky Dog pet shop on San Pablo Avenue. I used to get them from Mike’s Feed & Pets in Hayward until Lucky Dog changed hands and the new owner started selling chickens about 5 or 6 years ago.

What do you feed them? Is there special feed that makes for better eggs?

Yes, there is. They eat a mix of things:  I give them two commercial products – chicken scratch which is a mix of whole grains, and laying mash which is a more protein-rich feed that helps them produce good eggs. I also give them lots of vegetable scraps from our house and our neighbors’ and I will also stop by Monterey Market when they’re getting rid of greens that are too wilted to sell. The chickens love whole grains, especially, although they’re not interested in bread.

But their favorite things to eat are worms. I spoil them sometimes by digging in the compost bins to turn up the worms for them. They get right in there -- they’re so enthusiastic that they are literally under the shovel so I have to be very careful. They come running when they see me pick up the shovel -- they’ve developed a Pavlovian response to the shovel; to them, it means worms.

Chickens eating and turning up worms in the compost bin

Do they also need a source of calcium?

Yes, I give them ground oyster shells and we also crush up the shells of any eggs we eat for them – that is the best source for them – their own eggs! Funny, isn’t it? The commercial feed usually contains oyster shells or other sources of calcium for them.

Can you tell me a little bit about your coop design?

Oh sure, there is a square footage requirement – a coop should be at least 4 square feet for each chicken to make sure they won’t be stressed by being too on top of each other. The funny thing about this batch is that they all huddle together in one small box every night – three of them trying to fit in there is pretty tight but that is what they like.
Fran's chicken coop
And then they use the other small box to lay in – they take turns. They never poop in the same place as they lay – very smart!  But none of them use the big box at all.
One box for laying, one box for pooping by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog
The other important factor for a coop is to make sure it is secure. We’ve had chickens just decimated by possums. Now the floor of our coop is made of brick lined underneath with wire since possums and raccoons can and do burrow under the ground to get in – they’re very determined. And you must remember to lock the door once they’re all in at night, of course.

We also have a light in the coop that we use during the winter months to extend the daylight hours for them a bit since they lay fewer eggs when there is less daylight.

It looks like you use shredded paper to line the boxes?

Yes, though I will also use hay when I have access to it. The only downside to hay is that they tend to eat it so you need to replace it more often – they don’t eat the paper.
Freshly laid egg in a nest of shredded paper by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog

How often do you have to clean out the coop?

I clean it out about once a month. I could do it more often, of course. I put their droppings right into the compost – it makes great fertilizer.

How much time do they spend out of the coop?

They are out twice a day for a while, which gives them time to scratch and peck and find bugs and eat greens and other yummy things from the compost bins. I let them out for about an hour in the morning before I leave for work, and then again when I get home.
Scratching outside the fenced garden beds

What sort of hours do they keep?

They are right in sync with daylight, they wake when it’s light and they go to sleep when it gets dark.

After they’ve laid an egg, do they sit on it or do they get up and go about their business?

These hens don’t sit, I don’t think. When I come to collect the eggs in the early evening, they’re never sitting on them and the eggs are also cold by that time which makes me think they’re not sitting on them.

What are their relationships like with each other?

They’ve got a clear social hierarchy. Although I’ve tried, I’ve found that it’s basically impossible to introduce new birds to a flock because their pecking order has already been established. The new birds just get pecked mercilessly.
Outside the coop
But this batch is fairly harmonious – they don’t have a scapegoat. They follow the leader, who is the smartest one of the three.  She’s also the most assertive. One of them is clearly dumb - she’s named Moe, the other two are named Meeny and Miny. I had two birds before these who were named Pooh and Lay (“Poulet”) because that is all they do.

How long will they lay for?

Once they’re mature they’ll lay all year round, though they lay less in the winter – it’s all tied to the number of daylight hours. They need roughly 8 or more hours of daylight to lay – that is why we have the light in their coop. They will lay eggs for 2-3 years.

Attention! Tails UP! Rhode Island Reds eating from the compost bins by Eve Fox, Garden of Eating blog

What do you do with them once their laying days are over?

I’m not interested in killing them so I give them away either to people who will keep them as pets or who want to use them for the soup pot. Every once in a while if I have a particularly ornery bunch, I’ll take them up to Tilden park and release them – I figure they’ll either survive or make a great meal for a coyote.

I used to feel guilty about this but I have gotten over it. I figure they have a very nice life while they’re with me – they’re happy and well-fed and cared for, which is more than you can say of what they’d experience in a commercial environment or in the wild. And then they either become pets or come to a quick end.

Do you have any advice for people interested in starting their own flock of chickens?

I’d caution people to be aware that chickens are destructive to yards – they’re designed to scratch and turn up earth and eat greens so you have to fence them out of anything you want to keep safe – your garden, your lawn, etc.
Scratching outside the fenced garden beds

And it’s something you should only do if you really want chickens, of course! But I love it. I find them interesting and entertaining to watch. They’re also a great conversation starter. I get wonderful fertilizer for my garden. And, of course, delicious fresh eggs all year round. Store-bought eggs really don’t taste that good, in comparison. You should do a blind taste-test – it’s impressive.

12 comments:

peter said...

We're thinking about getting some, but I need to wrangle some other stuff first. Where exactly to put them is another matter. Food for thought.

Eve Fox said...

yeah, a good point. You'd have to fence in all your garden beds, basically. Does the town of Woodstock allow poultry in the village lines?

peter said...

I think so. It's on my list to find out.

Kirsten Lindquist said...

Fun post! Thanks for sharing.

AS said...

Great post, Eve. I want chickens!

AS said...

This is a great post, Eve. I want chickens!

beyondriceandtofu.com said...

I love my chickens! We have 5 hens. Backyardchickens.com is a great resource, esp the forum.

6512 and growing said...

I grew up in Berkeley (many years in North Berkeley) and am thrilled that people are keeping chickens in Berkeley.
I live in Colorado now and have chickens too, such good times.

Roger said...

I live down the hill from you in Berkeley and have looked into chickens because I'd love the fresh eggs. However, the law says that the chickens must be 25 feet away from any dwelling except yours. So, the coop has to be 25 feet away from your neighbors' houses, and I don't have that kind of room, so it's the farmer's market for me until/unless I move.
I ran into one person whose neighbor had a coop on the side of the house -- clearly too close to the neighbor's. They solved that problem by giving eggs to the affected neighbor in exchange for their acquiescence.
There's even a coop in someone's front yard on Sacramento directly across from the North Berkeley BART station!

Eve Fox said...

I just saw that coop on Sacramento St for the first time - it's kinda cute how it just sticks out of their house like that. I guess the city is not too strict about enforcing their regulations?

Robert said...

Eve,

Great Article. I actually found it on twitter as Michael Pollan tweeted the civil eats post. We have come up with a special type of composter that raises grubs for chickens.

As your article mentions, chickens love to eat live insects (worms, grubs). Traditionally chickens should eat about 30-50% live insects and this becomes hard to do in a backyard setting (like Berkley). Therefore we developed a special composter that allows for the grubs to autoharvest themselves. It’s called a BioPod Plus and it uses a native species of NON-PEST grubs called the “black soldier fly”.

The Ladies (here in dallas it’s illegal to have roosters) go nuts over them and it has been a real success. People can take their leftover food waste that the chickens can’t eat and throw it in this closed composter designed for food waste. The grubs decompose the waste faster then in a traditional compost pile would and the grubs fall into a collection bucket. All you have to do is empty the bucket when you go feed your chickens.

Grubs are a great resource of not only insect protein, but there exoskeleton is rich in calcium. A second benefit that your article touches upon.

I’ve been eating eggs that are grown on chickens that have been eating the grubs raised on my leftover food waste and THEY TASTE GREAT.

Also, we have xeriscaped in natural grains on the side of the yard that are also grown for the chickens. Therefore we believe it’s practical to grow your own chicken feed within the parameters of your backyard.

All it takes is some food waste, grubs, and ecstatically pleasing grains.

great blog and I hope this is interesting.

Robert said...

Eve,

Great Article. I actually found it on twitter as Michael Pollan tweeted the civil eats post. We have come up with a special type of composter that raises grubs for chickens.

As your article mentions, chickens love to eat live insects (worms, grubs). Traditionally chickens should eat about 30-50% live insects and this becomes hard to do in a backyard setting (like Berkley). Therefore we developed a special composter that allows for the grubs to autoharvest themselves. It’s called a BioPod Plus and it uses a native species of NON-PEST grubs called the “black soldier fly”.

The Ladies (here in dallas it’s illegal to have roosters) go nuts over them and it has been a real success. People can take their leftover food waste that the chickens can’t eat and throw it in this closed composter designed for food waste. The grubs decompose the waste faster then in a traditional compost pile would and the grubs fall into a collection bucket. All you have to do is empty the bucket when you go feed your chickens.

Grubs are a great resource of not only insect protein, but there exoskeleton is rich in calcium. A second benefit that your article touches upon.

I’ve been eating eggs that are grown on chickens that have been eating the grubs raised on my leftover food waste and THEY TASTE GREAT.

Also, we have xeriscaped in natural grains on the side of the yard that are also grown for the chickens. Therefore we believe it’s practical to grow your own chicken feed within the parameters of your backyard.

All it takes is some food waste, grubs, and ecstatically pleasing grains.

great blog and I hope this is interesting.