Chicken Guantanamo

So you want your own backyard hens? Some time ago Homegrown Revolution reader Toby asked about what it takes to keep chickens. While we’re far from being experts we thought we’d share what we’ve learned so far and welcome comments and suggestions from poultry keeping readers to add to and amend our advice. In our opinion the first step in keeping a backyard flock is to figure out where you’re going to house them.

We’ll get into more detail over the next few months, but for now we thought a few pictures might help explain what we’ve come up with. The two main purposes of chicken housing are to protect them from predators and to protect your garden from destruction by your chickens. The more room and foraging area your chickens have the happier they will be. Give them access to your whole yard however, and they will munch and scratch down every plant they find edible behaving, as the Petaluma Urban Homesteaders put it, “like a pack of delinquent teenagers”.

Our chicken housing consists of three zones. Zone one is the hen house–that aluminum structure on the right in the photo above. It contains a roost for the chickens to sleep on at night and a nesting box for the hens to lay their eggs in.

Zone two is a secure run covered in 1/2 inch hardware cloth–the area left of and below the aluminium sided hen house. We used hardware cloth because chicken wire will not prevent raccoons from reaching in and eating a chicken through the fence (we can’t help but admire the fact that chicken wire isn’t really good for keeping chickens). And as our doberman has been known to tree large families of raccoons, we took no chances and ran the hardware cloth across the entire bottom of the run buried a foot underground to keep these critters from burrowing underneath. The run also gives our hens access to dirt as well as a way for us not to have to be around to lock them up in the hen house when it gets dark.
Zone three is a mobile structure made of PVC pipe covered with bird netting and butted up against the coop and secure run so that the hens can move between all three zones. We used to let the hens free range around the yard, but a recent near miss with a hawk, the general devastation of our herb bed, and chicken poo all over the back porch where they took to roosting on lazy afternoons, convinced us to restrict their movements at least while unsupervised. This PVC structure can be shifted around a bit to let the hens work different parts of our small backyard. It will keep out hawks but it’s not raccoon proof, so the girls must be back in zone two’s more secure run (nicknamed “chicken Guantanamo”) when it starts to get dark or we’re not around.

The PVC structure replaces a more permanent enlarged run we built out of scrap wood we found under the 101 freeway. As you can see from the photo below, this structure was an aesthetic disaster, with all the appeal of a dirty mid-town mini mall. We took one look at it after it was complete and decided to demolish it the next day. If only all those mini mall developers in the 80s would have come to the same conclusion.
We’ll describe our hen house, run and “zone three” in more detail once we know everything works out. So far, we’ve got eggs and no raccoon, skunk, owl or hawk casualties. For those looking for detailed plans check out Judy Pangman’s book Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock. We loosely based our coop and run on one of the designs in Pangman’s book. Stay tuned for more details including our ongoing attempt to stay one step ahead of those bad-assed LA raccoons.

Breaking News

Today at approximately 11:50 AM, after a morning of god-awful screeching, our Rhode Island Red, Stewpot–who is in the foreground of the picture above–laid her first egg–that is, our very first homestead egg.

Go Stewpot!

Of course this event would happen when Mr. Homestead is out of town & in possession of the camera. The lay site was a difficult to access cranny behind the coop. It may not have been photograph-able anyway, but I will report that the egg was deposited quite attractively in a shallow bowl of yellow and brown leaves. I got it while it was still warm, having come out to see what this most recent and particularly loud round of screeching was all about. Stewpot walked away from her egg with nary a look back. The egg was amazing in the hand–warm and heavy and almost pulsing with life.

To mark this historic day, I did what I could to record the blessed egg: I scanned it alongside a Trader Joe’s grade A brown for comparison, which resulted in the mysterious, murky image you see below.

Stewpot’s egg is smaller than the commerical egg, but it is her first. Her egg looks the same color at first, but close up it is covered with tiny brown speckles, whereas the Joe’s egg is more monotone.

It Quacks Like a Duck


The Happy Ducks of the Petaluma Urban Homestead

It seems a new lifestyle is taking shape, in part born of the ashes of the World Trade Center, the aftermath of Katrina, and the endless resource wars our country feels the need to fight. There’s a great desire out there to “do something” and a refreshing DIY spirit of self-sufficiency is beginning to emerge. Two of the indicators of this new lifestyle seem to be the mixture of poultry and bicycles, a combo that we seem to share with a surprisingly diverse group of people, including our bike activist friends at C.I.C.L.E. and our bike safety instructor Chris Ziegler.

A surprise phone call we received this week, after some musings of our appeared in Ripples Magazine, added one more bike/poultry fetishist to the list. The voice at the other end of the line was an old comrade of ours, one of the proprietors of Petaluma Urban Homestead, who we know from Mr. Homegrown Revolution’s post grad school sojourn in the dull city of San Diego. In the ten years since we lost contact it turns out that our lives have taken similar paths, including the appreciation of Xtracycles and poultry.

Except that the folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead have had the brilliance of exploring the world of ducks in addition to chickens. The Petalumans correctly describe the garden destroying power of chickens as “like having teenagers around”. As much as we enjoy our chickens we can confirm this. On their blog the Petalumans describe some of the virtues of the less destructive duck:

Bill Mollison once said something like, “You don’t have a snail problem. You have a dearth of ducks”. Well, he’s certainly correct. Our neighbors are now bringing us their snails and asking if they can borrow our ducks for a day. Even the kids at the local elementary school garden collect snails for us. It’s a family event to come through our back gate and feed the ducks what they’ve gathered.

We’ve added the Petalumans to our comrade list to the right so that you can keep up with their activities, which include a recent honey harvest from their backyard beehive. In the meantime we’ll get around to describing our theories of chicken housing and the construction of what we call “Chicken Guantanamo” soon.

An open letter to Trader Joes

Dear Trader Joes,

First off we’re not an animal rights activists, nor are we even vegetarians. We’re just people who like honesty in packaging. So let’s take a look at the carton for your Grade AA Cage Free eggs and assess the truthfulness of the illustration on its cover. Now conventional wisdom says that you are to be congratulated for selling only cage free eggs in contrast to many other food retailers who continue to sell eggs produced by hens living in cramped “battery cages“. Battery caged chickens do not have the ability to stretch their legs, run around, or roost–activities that come naturally to all poultry. But what exactly does “cage free” mean? Unfortunately the USDA does not regulate the term cage free so its definition in terms of the actual living conditions of the hens who laid the eggs is uncertain. Perhaps you could redesign your packaging to give us an actual representation of where these eggs came from to clarify a few issues for us.

To save your marketing folks some time we’ve done it for you:

First off we removed the chickens grazing in the open pasture since it’s highly unlikely that these eggs came from chickens freely wandering outdoors and feeding on vegetation and insects. This might be called “pasture raised”, though this is also a term not defined or regulated by the USDA (largely because the huge companies that control poultry farming in this country and whose political influence puts the USDA in their back pocket don’t want to acknowledge that pasture raised eggs are superior to factory farmed eggs). It’s a shame that your eggs aren’t pasture raised especially since, according to a study conducted by Mother Earth News, pasture raised eggs contain 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E and 7 times more beta carotene. It’s too bad that the “all natural feed” that your package advertises does not provide the nutrients of a real pasture. And FYI–we also removed the rooster since that would signify that these eggs are fertilized, making us think that your package design folks were snoozing during their high school biology classes.

We replaced the picturesque barn with a windowless industrial shed to show the most prevalent housing for poultry and, more than likely, where these cage free eggs came from. The family poultry farm alluded to in your cover art has long since been replaced by huge industrial operations housing thousands of chickens in enormous sheds. Our relatives, living on a nearly century old family farm in Missouri, can no longer make a living from raising livestock and must supplement their incomes with construction work.

While we’re happy these eggs do not come from hens dosed with antibiotics, when you pack that many chickens so close to each other you have to practice extreme bio-security. This is why we’ve added the image of the man in the clean suit which has replaced overalls as the modern poultry worker’s garment of choice. Ironically this worker (probably an underpaid immigrant) must be extremely careful since these hens don’t get antibiotics.

Here’s a picture of one of our four backyard hens. When she starts laying in a few months we will no longer be customers for your eggs. To use an old Italian expression, we like to “know our chickens”. We suspect many of your customers share our concerns and will soon be joining our homegrown poultry revolution.

Perhaps we’re wrong in our speculation about the conditions that produced these eggs. If so please send us a photo of the farm and we’ll post a correction.

Regards,

Homegrown Revolution