Despite its urban setting, the Bay Area can be the perfect place to connect with your inner farmer while still finding time to study for qualifying exams. From container gardening to raised beds, there are many ways to grow your own food in graduate school. For this post, I caught up with Berkeley post-doc Tana Wood who has been raising chickens in the backyard of her East Bay apartment. Here’s what she had to say about life as an urban chicken owner.
While it may be possible to purchase older chickens, most people start out with chicks. Tana’s first chicks, who arrived still small enough to fit side-by-side in the palm of her hand, initially lived indoors. As their feathers start to grow, chicks can go outside during the day and when they’re fully feathered, they can move outdoors full time. For Tana, this meant sharing her apartment with a set of chicks, kept warm in a brooder, for four to six weeks.
When I asked Tana what she did to prepare for chickens, she said she did some research online and then she just went for it. But if you’re worried about winging it, there are several classes on backyard chickens available locally. It’s also a good idea to check out your city’s chicken-related ordinances. In Oakland, for instance, roosters are prohibited within the city limits. And Tana contacted all her neighbors, giving them a letter with contact information in case they should find an escaped chicken wandering through their yard or had a problem with the noise. So far no complaints!
For those considering chickens, Tana recommends getting as much ready as possible beforehand or while they’re still young and living in the house. This is the time to purchase or build the coop, buy their feeder, water dispenser, and locate a place to buy feed and other supplies. It’s essential to make sure your coop is reinforced and secure. As Tana found out the hard way, “There are raccoons in Berkeley. And they do eat chickens.” One night a raccoon forced its way into the coop and ate Flo. Chickens are flocking animals and they get lonely on their own. So, Tana added two more chicks to her flock after the unfortunate raccoon incident. Because they’re social creatures, it’s important to buy chickens in pairs (and some places won’t sell them solo).
It’s also a good idea to get your yard ready. Tana’s chickens are free range, roaming around her fenced backyard. If your backyard isn’t fenced or you’re concerned about the damage chickens might do, you may still be able to raise chickens with a chicken run, which is a cage that you can move around. For Tana, the chickens fit naturally with the garden and compost pile she already had. If you have a garden, they will wander, scratch, and snack in there. Tana’s found that they don’t damage plants that are already well established, but that you would want to protect your baby lettuces and the like. Chickens also like a little loose dirt, so they can take dirt baths, which is how they clean themselves.
One final consideration is who can chicken-sit when you’re away or staying out late. It’s a good idea to identify roommates, neighbors, or friends who are willing to let your chickens out in the morning and lock them up at night when you can’t do it. You don’t want to come home from an exciting night at the grad social to find the neighborhood raccoons feasting on your flock. Another thing to keep in mind is that chickens live 6 to 8 years, but they only lay eggs for the first three or so. Some people eat their chickens when they stop producing, but for Tana they already feel too much like pets.
Once you’ve got everything set up, caring for your chickens is surprisingly easy, says Tana. Since they don’t overeat, their food gets left out in a feeder, which Tana estimates she refills once a week. Chickens need fresh, clean water every day. Tana’s chickens have a big water container, but she cleans out the dish at the bottom daily since stuff tends to get in it. Most importantly, you need to lock them up at night so they don’t get eaten.
Last but certainly not least, what does it take to clean up after your feathered friends? Tana has lined her coop with paper and pine chips. This gets cleaned out whenever it’s dirty, and since the chickens only use it at night, it doesn’t get dirty too quickly. Tana estimates she cleans it about once every other week. As a final consideration, Tana does sweep off the backyard patio before guests come over. Fortunately, sun-dried chicken poop cleans up quickly. And the pine-chip and paper lining from the coop goes straight into the compost pile. Rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, it can’t be applied directly to a garden, but it does make excellent compost.
In Tana’s experience, raising her own chickens has been easy. They’re low maintenance, they amuse themselves, and they’ll amuse you. And after a few months they’ll start producing your very own free-range eggs. Tana’s oldest chicken, Betty, should lay her first egg any day now.
Resources for raising your own backyard chickens:
Ranch Hag Hens, Petaluma, CA, has coops, supplies, organic feed, and a large selection of chicken breeds.
The Biofuel Oasis, Berkeley, CA, offers chicken classes and organic chicken feed.
The Institute for Urban Homesteading, Oakland, CA, also gives classes on raising backyard chickens.
Lucky Dog Pet Store, Berkeley, CA, carries chickens.
You can read about Tana’s most recent assessment of her chicken raising experience here.
Editor’s Note: As this blog develops we’ll be introducing regular features, one of which will focus on interesting do-it-yourself projects.This post is the first in that series. Please contact the blog administrators if you have an idea for a project you’d like to see featured here.