The practical details about keeping chickens

The practical details about keeping chickens

 I'm all for local food. I love the idea of eating items that haven't been shipped across the country, and have superior nutrition to what you find on supermarket shelves. And obviously, I'm into do-it-yourself projects.

But I confess, I just don't understand raising chickens in town. Champaign residents have been asking the city council to allow keeping them within city limits, and it's become a much-discussed topic.

Excuse my blunt language, but they poop, right? What do you do with it? And they eat and drink water, right? What happens if you want to go on vacation? You can't exactly schlep them to your sister's.

I mentioned my curiosities on Twitter, and several people suggested I needed to contact someone who keeps chickens.

 N-G staff writer Pat Wade (who blogged about chickens yesterday) connected me with Spencer Schaffner, and a Twitter follower suggested I e-mail Ed Schell. They both keep chickens; both live in Urbana. I asked them both the same questions, and you can see their answers below:

 Q: Do you live in town or out in the country? How many chickens do you raise and how many eggs do you get a week?

Ed: We live in town and have 7 chickens. During the season when they lay, March through November, we get about 30 eggs a week.

Spencer: I used to live in Champaign, but moved to Urbana in part because of the acceptance of backyard chickens. I should say that I first started raising chickens in Seattle. We have five birds (the flock fluctuates in size from time-to-time, as I like to give birds away to help people start new flocks). We get about three eggs a day from our hens.

Q: What do you do with their waste?

Ed: We use the chicken run as a working compost bin. We put all yard waste and kitchen waste in the run. They eat most of it and work what they don't eat into the floor of the run, scratching along with their own waste. This makes great compost. We use it in our garden. I've also had quite a few friends take away wheelbarrows of it for their gardens too.

Spencer: Compost it and till it into our garden.

Q: What if you go on vacation?

Ed: I have friends that come over and feed them and take the eggs.

Spencer: Good question. We have a chicken sitter. Well, actually, he's a dog sitter ... but he looks in on the chickens too. Chickens take remarkably little attention: as long as you have feeders and waterers, they just do their own thing.

Q: Is it expensive to feed them?

Ed: Not really. A bag of feed costs about $10 and lasts about two weeks (and) sometimes more during the summer, since we supplement with weeds and garden waste.

Spencer: It depends on how you feed them. Some people make food; others buy feed from local farmers. In the summer, they eat less "food" and more bugs. But I digress. I'd estimate that five birds cost about $4 a week to feed if you buy the more expensive, vegetarian crumble. That number comes way down if you buy inexpensive food.

Q: Where do you keep them? Is it an issue to keep them safe?

Ed: They are in an enclosed run around 5 feet by 16 feet. We've had possums and raccoons try and get at them. We have a local red tail hawk that likes to sit on fence in the yard and just freak the birds out.

Spencer: Raptors can take chickens during the day (if the chickens are free ranging); possums and raccoons can get them at night. But we've been pretty lucky. Losing a chicken is nothing to worry about, though; it's just part of the deal.

Q: Do they make a lot of noise?

Ed: Not really. We don't have a rooster; they do make noise. Once it's dark, they will only make noise if there is danger,a possum, raccoon, etc. We have dogs in the yard and the birds are used to them, so that's not an issue. Sometimes they will get set off by something in the yard and they will squawk quite a bit, but the neighborhood dogs make more noise than the chickens.

Spencer: Nope. Just gentle cooing that mixes in with the many other bird sounds in our backyard. Some chickens squawk some after they lay an egg, which is funny, but otherwise they're pretty quiet. Roosters are the noisy ones, of course, but I don't know of anyone who keeps a rooster in town.

Q: And of course, is there anything important I'm not thinking to ask you?

Ed: We find that the eggs taste different than the ones you buy in the store. The yolks are so yellow that they will actually change the color of things you make with them sometimes.

Spencer: That about covers it. Your questions seem pretty oriented toward the practical, so I should add that it's not all about the eggs and free manure for the garden. Chickens have interesting personalities, and add a whole new dimension to "backyard bird watching." Part of the reason we have chickens is because they're lovely to tend to, to feed with things like fresh corn ... and to hang out with. That may sound silly, but that's my perspective.

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So, there you go - a look at how people keep chickens. I'm not sure it's for me, but at least I have a better understanding of how it's done. What about you - do you think chickens should be legalized in Champaign? Could you ever keep your own flock?

 And speaking of eggs, Lisa Morgan of Champaign Taste tweeted yesterday about this recipe for spinach salad. It calls for hard-boiled eggs and looks delicious. I can't wait to try it.

 Photo is courtesy of Spencer Schaffner.

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