Monday, May 20, 2013

Chickens: An Overview

In early April, my boyfriend and I decided to act on our dream of raising their own chickens.  Well... mostly it was my dream, but he is very supportive of it, and I think he's pretty excited about it now. To get ready for chickens, we spent the last two months building our chicken coop and run from scratch, using tools from the Phinney Neighborhood Association.  

Rewind a little.

A lot of people in Austin had backyard chickens, and I was delighted that the same was true of Seattle. I'd seen them while I was walking my dog, poking their little beaks around houses and trees as we passed. Wouldn't it be nice to have some as pets, and get delicious fresh eggs to boot? It sounded ideal, but I didn't really know much about the practicalities of raising them. I had all kinds of questions like - How do you hold a chicken? How long do they live? How fast do they grow? What do they like to do for fun? What do I have to buy for them?

Turns out, the Seattle Tilth Association has a couple of chicken-rearing classes, including "City Chickens 101", which I decided to take to get myself some answers, and thankfully, the answers were mostly "It's not too hard!"

Daily requirements are to check to ensure food and water are available, to let the hens out of the coop in the morning, and to lock them the coop in night.  That... sounded do-able.

During the daylight hours, most chickens in the city are kept within or have access to a ‘run’.  A run is a simple wood frame with walls and a roof of chicken wire, and a bottom open to the ground.  Runs usually attach to the coop, but don't have to be. Some runs are even mobile, so the chickens can peck different parts of the yard (getting more worms, and fertilizing more area). Some people let their chickens roam a little wider on the property (but if you're considering this, keep in mind that chickens are ‘nature’s bulldozer’ and will eat anything in their path, including neighboring gardens, so unless the chicken yard is well-fenced or the chickens are reasonably attended by humans, they may need to stay in the run for the safety of fowl and flora). I look forward to letting them roam in the summer evenings, while I relax after work with a beer and a book...

Their coop should be secure, capable of keeping chickens in and predators out at night, as well offering protection from the various elements.  They should be well-ventilated, and cleaned of droppings at least once per week (probably the least exciting part... of any pet ownership. But not impossible).  The better the ventilation, and more often the coops are cleaned and their bedding refreshed or replaced, the less they will give off odors and attract rodents.  Since chickens can carry salmonella on their bodies, it is advised to avoid contacting the chicken with the face, and to wash hands carefully after handling the birds, their nests, and their eggs.  So, don't rub your chicken on your nose, and if you do, wash it shortly after.

So. Sounded easy enough. Which brings me back to the beginning of April, when it was time to start the hardest part - constructing their living quarters.  Local libraries and stores carry many books on the ever-popular hobby, including the book we used, “Chicken Coops: 45 Building Ideas for Housing Your Flock.” It contains rough outlines of coops to house as few as 3 to as many as several dozen chickens.  A residence in Seattle city limits is permitted to have up to 8 hens per lot (no roosters) in addition to the other animals allowed, and each chicken requires a minimum of four square feet of indoor space and eight square feet of outdoor space (plus 12” of roost space per bird, and one nest box for every 3-4 ladies).  Chickens are social creatures who require the company of other chickens, but do not appreciate having members added to their flock later.  A good minimum number of hens to start is three, allowing a buffer of social company in case something happened to one of the chickens. So, that's what we decided on. Three chickens. And I picked a coop design that would be comfortable for them (as well as tall enough for us to stand up in, to facilitate the aforementioned cleaning).

We moved to Seattle from Austin in 2012 and didn't bring that many tools with us. The tools we had weren't the 'power' variety. Also, neither of us had built anything like this - or anything that needed to even be nominally structurally sound beyond a bookshelf.  The coop design in the book is good and clear, but general. It provided a design, but not a schematic, tool lists, or wood supply lists. I set out to translate the coop photos into a more specific plot. It was... interesting. Then I had to obtain the appropriate wood, and the appropriate tools.

Fortunately, ‪residents of north-central Seattle have access to the resources available at the Phinney Neighborhood Association Tool Library. Located in the Phinney Neighborhood Center’s brick building, it has hundreds of tools that members may borrow for a small suggested weekly maintenance fee.  Joining the PNA is a simple process and the fee to joining is on a sliding scale.  The Tool Library is open Wednesdays 3-6:30pm and Fridays 5-7pm. The volunteers who staff the Tool Library provide a weatlh of personal experience to help novices figure out how to achieve their projects. There is also a great lumber store nearby, called Dunn Lumber, whose employees were able to help me price supplies and determine which ones I'd need.  Do you know how many types of 2x4's there are?  Lots.  I did not know.  I could not have built the coop without the help of the people at these two places.

The other big bonus of the PNA and Dunne is economic.  Coop building isn't really expensive, but its not like coops grow on trees.  I mean, other than the wood, which does grow on trees, but you still have to buy.  Unless you're the type of person who can use Craig's List or found wood to fill your needs (which... I'm jealous of your skills).  Dunn helped us chose wood and screws that would last, but weren't overly fancy for the purpose.  We borrowed the ‪Tool Library’s cordless drill, circular saw, chop saw and jig saw, which saved anywhere from $200-$500 on tools that I then didn't have to go buy for a single project.  We were even able to check out saw horses and C clamps.

Here's the thing: Chickens are cool and you can learn a lot from the Tilth Association Classes, which I highly recommend.  I also recommend the book, the lumber store, and the tool library, especially if you don't have a garage to store a bunch of tools in or if you're the kind of person who does maybe (maybe) one project per year and doesn't really want to invest in their own tool supply.

Here's the other thing: it was an interesting challenge to build this coop, and I want to translate how I did it into this blog, so you can figure out how you can too.  You can buy a pre-fab coop if you want, or buy some schematics.  And those are great.  But I believe in you, and if you want a fun experience that's tailored to your space and design aesthetic, I'll help you avoid the mistakes I made as you go about your way.  So keep your eyes peeled on this site and I'll provide updates leading to one master  coop DIY.  I think the next posts will be how I did these things and how you can do them too: drawing a schematic from a concept, choosing supplies and tools, cutting pieces, construction, details.  And lastly, chicken ordering and arrival. 

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