They're heeeeere! At the feed stores. Peeping under heat lamps. Little motherless chicks, small enough to nap in the palm of your hand, just waiting for someone to take them home and love them. And oh, the names of the breeds: One feed store is bringing in Danish brown leghorns, Jersey black giants, gold sex links and silver-laced wyandottes. I want them just so I can say their names.
If you've been thinking about getting chickens, this is the season to do it. Baby chicks will be in feed stores through mid-May. My hens are now three years old, and I've never once regretted the decision to take on a backyard flock. They're a bigger responsibility than, say, a cat, but they're also more productive: My hens provide fresh eggs and fabulous manure for the compost pile, and they also eat snails and scratch weeds right out of the ground. In case you're wondering what the neighbors will think, I can assure you that they are quieter than that dog next door that barks all night. Roosters can crow non-stop, but you don't need a rooster. Hens just cackle when they lay an egg (wouldn't you?) and they don't make a peep after dark, which is part of their strategy for staying safe from predators.
The real challenge in bringing home baby chicks from the feed store is raising them for eight weeks or so until they are big enough to live outside. We raised ours in a cardboard box that sat in our bathtub. A heat lamp suspended over the tub kept them warm, and they hopped around on bedding made of paper towels (they graduated to pine shavings once we were sure they wouldn't eat the shavings) and ate chick feed and generally acted charming. We found it hard to spend more than an hour or so away from them; we fussed over them constantly and they grew up to be very comfortable around humans. One of them even flies up on the shoulders of visitors, which is startling to even our most good-natured guests.
So the first thing you need to raise baby chicks: time. I don't know how anyone who works long hours away from home or travels a lot could handle an eight-week indoor chicken operation. If raising chicks is absolutely out of the question for you, feed stores often know about adult hens in need of a good home. No matter how you get your chickens, however, the real question is what to do with them once they're ready to live outside.
We converted half of an old shed into a chicken coop and added an enclosed run to the side of the shed. A solid floor underneath the coop and hardware cloth buried around the perimeter keeps critters (raccoons, skunks and possums) from burrowing under, and chicken wire and hardware cloth around the sides and top of the run help ensure that predators can't climb over or swoop down from above. Feed stores also sell small, semi-portable chicken coops with enclosed runs that you can move around on grassy areas or dormant garden beds, allowing chickens some freedom to scratch in the dirt but still preventing them from wandering too much.
At first, we only allowed our small flock to roam around the garden when we were outside with them, so we could watch for hawks, neighborhood dogs or any other creature that might somehow get into the backyard and go after the birds. But over time we've gradually allowed them to free range unsupervised. The biggest threat they have faced is an ambitious neighborhood cat. The chickens squawk and flap their wings and generally humiliate the cat until it slinks away.
And what about the garden? The hens have made gardening much easier for me. They eat snails and slugs — when they were young, I used to gather up baby snails and slugs and offer them up as little delicacies to encourage this behavior — so that dahlias, hostas and all kinds of other plants vulnerable to snails now thrive in my garden. They scratch constantly, making it hard for weeds to grow. That means that self-sowing annuals also don't do well, so I've just relocated those to the parts of the garden the chickens don't have access to. In their place, I've planted Shasta daisies, hardy geranium, catmint, sages, oregano and an assortment of perennial shrubs.
Oh, and the manure. The floor of the chicken coop is covered in pine shavings. I sprinkle a new layer on once a week or so, and about once a month I rake enough of the pine-shavings-and-manure mixture out of the coop to top off the compost pile. The nitrogen in chicken manure is too 'hot' to apply directly to plants, but by letting it age in the compost pile along with the pine shavings, I get a rich, crumbly compost that I apply to the garden once or twice a year.
Nobody knows for sure how long backyard hens might live. Most books on chickens assume that you're going to wring their necks after a year or two. As pets, they might live 10 years or more, with egg production gradually declining from about 200 per year (more in summer, less in winter) to — well, whatever they feel like. Who am I to demand that an elderly hen lay an egg for my breakfast every day?
Now the only difficulty is resisting those baby chicks. Four hens is enough for us, but I cruise the feed stores anyway. I walk up to their wire cage and make a little chicken sound at them; they come running over and peep at me as if to say that their bags are packed and they're ready to begin their new lives in the bathtub. Help!