Q&A: Lesley Kelly on the do's and don'ts of raising backyard chickens

eggs-306-istock.jpgMuch has been written about the backyard chicken debate in recent weeks, with supporters and critics actively debating the pros and cons.

Readers weighed in on the debate in the comments section of a recent feature we posted and discussed issues including cleanliness, noise and co-ops.

We raised some of these concerns with Lesley Kelly, author of The Little Chicken Book, in an email interview. Kelly moved to Toronto 10 years ago and raises chickens and ducks. She says she decided to raise backyard chickens in part because she wanted her daughter to know where her food comes from. Kelly shares her tips on raising backyard chickens and also discusses some curious characteristics of chickens in the interview below: 

Where do you stand on the backyard chicken debate?

In the 10 years that I have been raising chickens, I have not come across any reason why they could not as easily be raised in the city as in the country with a few constraints:

1) No roosters. Roosters are only necessary if you want to produce more chickens. All roosters crow to some degree depending on the breed and the individual bird (although there are some that have a slightly less annoying crow than others!). Hens are quiet and only cluck loudly if there is a threat or if there is a rooster around to make them compete against each other and behave silly (funny how that applies to people too!).

2) Cap the number of chickens. Since the average chicken during her peak laying age lays about one egg every 25 to 26 hours, two chickens would lay about a dozen eggs a week. So you could keep the number of chickens allowed down to say...five or less (I'm just pulling that number out of thin air as a minimum - more would still be very doable) - that would still give you 30 eggs a week! Even when egg production drops or is not yet up to peak (a hen starts laying when she is five months old and peaks at around a year and a half), you would still probably get a good two dozen a week - more than enough for most families.

How much work goes into keeping your own chickens? Who should NOT consider raising chickens in their backyards?

As with any animal, they have to be kept clean and fed and watered. Also, they have to be kept safe because they are susceptible to being preyed upon, a fenced-in coop area is necessary. However the area doesn't have to be large - about six square feet per chicken. If you can't provide a safe home for them, then don't get them.

As to the poop issue - well, my dogs generate more poop than a couple of chickens would. The average chicken generates anywhere from 1.5 to 4 ounces of poop per day (depending on who you listen to). So say you have 4 chickens and they produced the full 4 ounces each day (and I really think that that is the maximum for a really large bird), that means you would have seven pounds of poop per week. The average 15-pound cat generates about 15 pounds of kitty litter/poop per week!

Also, because chicken poop is compostable (ie. it's NOT the same as carnivore poo from dogs and cats), you can put it out in the green bin. If you have your own compost pile in your backyard, it can go on it directly and it encourages compost activity. Chickens produce most of their poop (80 per cent) at night when they roost so it's easy to scoop it up (it's all in a little pile underneath them). Very convenient.

There are also folks who use the old salmonella bacteria as an argument against having chickens. As with ANY animal, the feces contain dangerous bacteria. Dog and cat feces contain campylobacteria which can cause similar symptoms to salmonella. Chickens have salmonella. But as with ANY animal, if you wash your hands after cleaning up the poop, you'll be safe. Chickens do not have salmonella floating around on the outside of them (it's in the intestinal tract), so as with ANY animal, unless you touch their bum area where the poop comes out, you won't pick up anything. Proper hygiene keeps you safe.

Many of our readers have raised concerns about chicken coops attracting rats - is this a valid concern? How can people who keep chickens protect against this threat?

Chickens are no more apt to attract rats than rabbits in outdoor hutches, or domestic pigeons in coops. As with rabbits and pigeons, chickens are food for a lot of things (cats, dogs, raccoons, rats, or any other predatory omnivore). The most important thing to keeping chickens (or any other outdoor animal) is to have a "varmint-proof"' coop - that means having a door that locks tightly enough to prevent predators from working their way in and a floor that they can't dig into from outside. There are tons of plans for effective coops on websites around the world.

Backyard chickens are the norm in just about every country in the world except Canada and the U.S. so there is no reason to not be able to keep your household and your chickens safe from intrusive predators. If you feed your chickens chicken food, then you must keep it locked up in a safe place too. You wouldn't put your dog or cat food outside for raccoons and rats to get into, so why would you do that with your chicken food? I know people who buy bulk birdseed for their bird feeders and they have to keep it locked up for the same reason. Rats are not an issue as far as I'm concerned.

Some of our readers have raised the suggestion of having a chicken co-op - like a community garden to meet the needs of people who don't have much space. Have you ever heard of such an arrangement?

There are chicken co-ops all over the place!! They've been around in the UK and Australia for years, and I know they are fairly prevalent in some states as well. Just do a search on the web and you'll find a ton of listings.

You describe chickens as having "delightful" and "loyal" temperaments in your book - two qualities some people may find surprising. In what way are the animals delightful and loyal? Are there any other remarkable characteristics of chickens? What surprising information did you come across while researching your book?

yard-chickens-inside.jpgDifferent breeds have different temperaments, just like dog breeds. A couple of the more "delightful" breeds are Silkies and Brahmas. They are gentle, and even young children can handle them easily. As with most animals, the more you handle them, and pay attention to them, the more they will respond to you and accept and enjoy your company.

Most "loyalty" in chickens comes from the fact that they are very food-based. If you provide the food then they will follow you anywhere. However, they can also be timid, so they do get to know their owners and trust them rather than just anybody with food. And there are many stories of people who have single chickens as pets. Those birds become very attached to their owners and prefer to be with them. I don't know if this is just flocking instinct, but the end result is that a chicken raised as a pet will behave as a pet.

I'm not sure what would be considered a "remarkable" characteristic. Chickens are birds, first and foremost. But they can't really fly very well, so they can run like heck! I think they used a running chicken as the model for the running dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. If you hold a chicken upside down, it will become very docile and happy. I don't know why.

Chickens can't move in the dark (it's some sort of weird survival mechanism), so when darkness falls they are stuck wherever they happen to be. That's why they will always "put themselves to bed" by roosting up high just before dusk. I had one rooster who would spend 15 minutes every evening working his way branch by branch up into the top of our walnut tree. In the morning he would swoop down (they are excellent gliders) in one jump. His instincts were too strong for him to accept the chicken coop as a reasonable place to sleep. Some breeds are incredible moms (that's where the phrase "mother hen" comes from). I had one Silkie hen who even raised a duckling. She was a bit upset when it kept trying to swim, though (chickens don't swim)!