Everything you ever wanted to know about keeping chickens in your backyard
Expert Carson Arthur helps us create a guide for freshest-ever-egg enthusiasts everywhere
Fresh eggs every morning, straight from your very own backyard? Super enticing. But just because you own your home, that doesn't mean you can keep whatever you want in your yard, like your own flock of chickens. Rules regarding keeping chickens are determined by local governments across Canada, and it's not just cities that have specific laws (although backyard chickens has been a contentious issue in Toronto since the 1980s); rural locales may have restrictions, too, based on zoning. Canadian landscape designer and all-things-outdoor expert Carson Arthur has been back and forth across the country talking about backyard chickens, and he advises homeowners always begin by looking into their local bylaws to see how chickens are being approached as backyard pets.
Yes, pets. After all, they're more than just livestock, says Arthur. He writes about playing parent to a whole flock in his new book, Vegetables, Chickens & Bees: An Honest Guide to Growing Your Own Food Anywhere. For many, including Arthur, acquiring and caring for a coop of chickens is backyard bliss. But taking on your very own flock is a lot of work (no surprise!) and should start with a lot of careful consideration and research. What do chickens eat? How does one outfit a coop? And what does being a good chicken parent even look like? Here are some of Arthur's top tips for bringing chickens into your backyard and into your life (specifically egg-layers because, according to Arthur, meat chickens in the backyard just don't work).
What should everyone know before getting themselves some backyard chickens?
The biggest surprise for me was learning that chickens are at the absolute bottom of the food chain. And the reason I say that is because everything wants to eat your chickens. There are obvious predators that you think about, especially living in cities, like raccoons. But it's the animals that you don't think about that surprise you, like your neighbour's dog and birds of prey such as owls. Even some aggressive cats will go after the smaller breeds of chickens. Because you're the primary caregiver for your chickens, you have to be aware that everything wants your chickens. So if you're going to take on this responsibility, making sure that your environment is safe for them is an absolute priority.
Do you recommend starting your flock with eggs or chicks?
The stage of life that you get your chickens is a big consideration. The first round of chickens my family and I got were three-day-old chicks. They're absolutely adorable, but there are all kinds of things that you need to be aware of in order to raise them properly in a healthy environment. They fall in their water dish and their food dish, and unfortunately we ended up with two of them that had a condition called pasty bum, where the vent flaps allowing them to defecate are sealed shut and they can't go to the washroom. So we were washing butts every hour, all night long, around the clock, for about a week. It's like having an infant: you are mom and dad, and you are on the hook for every single thing your chick needs.
For the second round of chicks, we got eggs, and we went with an incubator. I actually got my chicken to raise the babies, and that's a way better experience. Mom does all the work! So if you can get an adult chicken to raise your baby chicks, it's hands down the best experience ever. You just get to enjoy them while they're cute, and raising them is someone else's responsibility.
How much space is required to raise happy chickens?
That's one of those loaded questions. We know that chickens can survive in small, confined spaces — it's an unfortunate reality of the poultry industry. But you said happy chickens, which I'm 100 per cent for. Chickens like to roam, so the bigger your backyard is, the more they will actually take advantage of that space and roam around. That said, chickens always stay within eyesight of the coop, so they always know where their safe zone is. In a backyard, I found that chickens will travel the backyard but always be in sight of that spot — very rarely do they go past or away from that.
Let's say you've acquired a coop. What needs to be added to it before letting chickens move in?
There are all kinds of products available that work for chickens, even down to wood shavings from a pet store that you would use for guinea pigs. When it comes to bedding, chickens are not that high maintenance. I know of some farmers who will use grass clippings, and the chickens eat the grass but they will sleep in it, too. The truth is, in a coop, the chickens only sit in the nesting boxes when they want to lay an egg. So the rest of the time they're actually on a perch, just like a parrot.
When they're not inside their coop, how can the girls be protected from predators?
That is the million-dollar question! There really is no way to do it, and that's the hardest part. So what most backyard chicken owners do is provide a confined coop for them or a "chicken run." It's not specifically in the coop, but it's an area that's fenced off with flexible fencing that you can move around the yard. It gives the chickens a different area to run for a little while, and then you can move it and change the configuration.
In your opinion, why is it important to keep chickens active?
It sounds so weird to say, but chicken boredom is a legit thing, especially in the winter. I have a heated coop so my chickens have a warm space, but in the winter when it's not nice out, they just sit there all day long. You can just see they're not happy. So I do things like hang a head of lettuce from the roof. They chase it around and play tetherball with it because they all love lettuce. Or I'll throw a cob of corn in the coop and they'll spend an hour working at picking off the kernels. Activities like this provide mental stimulation for them during the months that they don't get outdoor activity.
I really like the idea of tetherball for chickens.
Seriously, they all just stand in a circle and when the head of lettuce comes to them, they all just take their shot at it to get a piece.
Having a backyard flock could become pricey. In your opinion, is it worth it for fresh eggs?
In the first year, I got a dozen hens. I purchased a nice coop, I did a caged environment for them, I made a safe run for them with fencing and fed them high-quality, organic chicken feed. I got a heated roost for them and a heated water feeder so they were safe in the winter. I invested in my chickens. I didn't realize that chickens don't start to lay eggs until 10 months of age. So in the first year I spent about $4,000, and I got about four dozen eggs. That's a pricey egg! So it didn't really work out in my favour.
In the second year — because I had all of the gear and the chickens were now laying eggs — I did get a lot of eggs. Chickens are very prolific producers. But when you calculate how much I spend on feed for my chickens — because I always give them nice lettuce and some tasty tidbits — the price per egg is probably still double what you would pay at a store. That said, I wouldn't change it for the world. The chickens are part of our family, and all of them have names.
In your experience, what's the average lifespan of a chicken?
On average, chickens live about eight to 10 years, depending on the breed. But they only lay eggs regularly until about four to five years of age. So there are going to be lots of years where my chickens are just going to be ornamentation, living as retired chickens for chicken therapy — I'm just going to pet them after a rough Friday!
What are your favourite breeds? Which do you recommend for the Canadian climate?
There are two. Buff Orpingtons are the classic. They're the easiest chicken to look after in a backyard. They are like the golden retriever of chickens: super low maintenance, happy to do whatever, and they're always the first ones to come out and see me in the morning. They're just happy chickens!
There are other varieties, like Brahma, that are feather-footed. Feather-footed varieties do better in colder climates, so they do really well in Canada in the winter months because they don't get frostbite the same way. Brahma chickens also happen to be really healthy, big birds and big egg layers, which is why I'm partial to them as well.
What do chickens even eat?
I use an organic craft corn feed. It has corn and other grains in it that chickens like to eat, like wheat. I went the organic route because I want my birds to be as healthy as possible, but there are less expensive options on the market. As far as treats, my chickens like heads of lettuce. They like the scraps of what I grow in my vegetable garden, such as spinach leaves. They also love blueberries. Each chicken has its own tasty treat that it gravitates toward. My birds are spoiled rotten!
Is having a rooster in your flock necessary?
I started out with a rooster. Roosters' jobs in nature are twofold. First, they protect the flock, but they're very, very dominant, and they can be very aggressive. And as part of their nature, they will go after something that they deem unacceptable for the flock. So unfortunately, my rooster went after my mother-in-law. They're very strong birds. Don't be fooled! So the rooster didn't last very long with the chickens.
The other role that roosters have is to fertilize the eggs. Chickens will happily lay eggs whether there is a rooster or not. But you will not get chicks from those eggs.
What about when hens attack one another; how do you mitigate chicken feuds?
The saying "pecking order" totally refers to chickens and hens. They have a hierarchy, and the more that we, as flock-keepers, try to get in there to mitigate it, the worse the situation gets. So you literally just have to let your hens sort it out. When chickens are going after each other, that's a sign that they're bored. So that's when I increase the activities so that they have things to do, like tetherball with the lettuce, or moving the coop or the run. If they are in one space all the time that's when more of the incidents happen.
Let's talk about chicken poop … which is not something I thought I'd ever hear myself say! Any hacks for handling or minimizing the smell associated with keeping chickens in your own backyard?
I wish there were a hack for it or something that you could just spray so it didn't smell as bad. There are pros to chicken manure though. Chicken manure is so high in nitrogen that if you compost it — which means creating a pile and letting it sit for at least one year — you can put it in the garden, and it is amazing stuff. One of the biggest downsides of having chickens is making sure everything is clean, even down to the eggs, which will sometimes get dirty, and you need to clean them off before you use them. Unfortunately, chicken poop does get salmonella on it. So when you come into contact with it, if you're not cleaning up afterward or your coop is not clean, you can contract it.
How do you avoid contracting salmonella? Do you wear gloves?
I don't wear gloves, but I'm cognizant of handling the chickens and making sure that I'm cleaning up afterward. I don't want anybody to think that every time you touch your chicken, you are at risk of getting salmonella. You need to be cautious in the same way as if you were handling raw products in the kitchen. You don't not handle them — you just wash up. It's the exact same when you have backyard chickens.
A quick online search suggests that washing eggs is a very hot topic! Care to share your opinion?
When you wash an egg you remove the protective coating called "bloom." Bloom is actually what really keeps the bad stuff from getting inside the shell. In my personal practice, I don't actually wash the eggs until just before I use them, and I wash them at that point just in case anything happens to end up in the actual egg, and then nobody's at risk. This seems fine because you're avoiding the absorption of potentially harmful bacteria, which is the big concern about washing the eggs and then letting them sit in the fridge for a while.
How long do fresh eggs stay fresh?
It all depends on whether you remove the bloom. I don't remove the bloom, and I keep my eggs in a cool, dark spot in the garage and we've never, ever had a problem. We go through eggs fairly often, so they don't last very long in my house, but keeping them for two to three weeks has never been an issue.
Can you share any mistakes or learning moments from your backyard chicken journey?
If you go on Google right now and look up "what ate my backyard chickens," there are millions of responses. And, unfortunately, I have personally contributed six of them. Now that I know that predators come in all shapes and sizes, and the way to protect your flock is as varied as each neighborhood and each home that's in it, I probably would have done a lot more research on that aspect — on "what is in my neighborhood that will go after my chickens." I feel bad because you feel responsible for these amazing birds that you brought in, and you didn't create a safe environment, and that's on me as far as I'm concerned. To be honest, everything else has been great. I have no complaints except for predators.
Besides having eggs at the ready, what is your favourite thing about having a flock of your own?
This is going to sound odd, but chickens are just such cool animals. The moment you hold one and you feel it relax is just very, very amazing. They are a very rewarding backyard pet, and they are affectionate. We generally don't think of them that way — a lot of people don't love birds — but chickens are very affectionate. They love the attention, and they like to spend time with us. So if you can get to the point where you have a friendship with a chicken, it's a cool thing.
Do chickens have any other backyard benefits?
I have cats and dogs, and chickens in the backyard absolutely take care of the insects that will go after your other household pets. Ticks are a big one. Just recently we've invested in backyard alpaca. The chickens are fantastic at controlling insects that are around the herd. And the chickens and the alpaca get along; everyone is happy in the space.
Sounds like a great backyard!
It's a lot of work, but I love every minute of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Brittany is a Toronto-based writer and digital producer. You can follow her (mostly her dogs) on Instagram.