Backyard chickens: What to know before you buy

Everything you ever wanted to know about raising backyard poultry but were afraid to ask.

'You will find yourself naming each one and knowing who they are'

Heritage breeds of poultry are best, believes Rebecca Cowans. (Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry/Facebook)

Think you might want to get a few chickens to produce fresh eggs from your own back yard?

You can find out everything you need to know Saturday at a backyard poultry seminar from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Farm Centre in Charlottetown — they'll have birds you can meet and even chicks for purchase. Also find out about caring for geese, ducks and quail.

They have a huge amount of personality, they're very entertaining and they're very beautiful.— Rebecca Cowans

Willow Creek Poultry, Down By The Bay Backyard Poultry, Barnyard Organics, Rent the Chicken and other businesses and organizations will be offering their advice.

Can't make it? No worries! CBC got a preview and has these tips to share on what to know before you get started. 

1. Check the bylaws

The first thing you'll want to do before you even consider becoming your own personal poultry producer is check whether you're allowed to have birds outdoors.

Last fall the City of Charlottetown tightened its prohibitions and notified the handful of chicken owners they'd have to get rid of their flocks. In Cornwall, chickens and other livestock aren't allowed in urban areas but are allowed in areas zoned agricultural reserve and rural residential. In Summerside you have to apply for a permit under the city's Animal Control Bylaw, and while Stratford does allow bona fide farms to operate, chickens, goats, horses and the like are forbidden in residential areas under its Animal Control Bylaw

2. Anyone can do it

Rebecca Cowans from Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry in Rustico, P.E.I., has had a flock of about 30 chickens for about four years, and believes anyone can easily keep a few chickens. 

Poultry that is hand-raised from chicks become pets, says Cowans, cuddling a goose. (Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry)

"And it's great for kids," she said, allowing them to spend time outdoors, in touch with agriculture and conscious of where their food comes from. 

Not sure you're going to enjoy it? You can try it first, through P.E.I.'s Rent the Chicken

3. Ideal size

The best number of chickens to provide eggs for a family of four is three hens, depending on what breed you buy and how many eggs you want.

Commercial breeds will usually lay every day while heritage breeds may lay every other day, Cowans said. 

4. Best breeds

Heritage breeds are chickens that have been on farms for decades, even hundreds of years — like Rhode Island Red, Marans, Faverolles and Plymouth Rock. 

You can find chicken coop designs online and coops are often available on resale sites like Kijiji, Cowans says. (Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry)

Commercial breeds were developed in the latter part of the 1900s to feed an increasing demand for meat and eggs. 

"If you're going to have a backyard setting and it's going to be something enjoyable, why not have heritage birds so we can preserve them?" Cowans said. 

Heritage breeds live much longer and are usually versatile for eggs and meat. They're also more interesting to look at and can lay coloured eggs in shades of brown, green and blue.

5. Not really cheaper

It's not really cheaper to raise your own chickens, Cowans says. The big investment is up front to buy a coop and birds. Then there's the ongoing expense of feed, which is about $20 per 18 kilogram a bag, which will last a small flock a few weeks. 

Chickens enjoy table scraps — and watermelon on a hot day! (Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry/Facebook)

"You're doing it because you want to see where your food comes from," she said. 

You can spend a little bit of money to build or buy a coop or you can spend thousands, she said. 

There's also the time you will spend — time to feed and water them a couple of times per day and a once-a-day cleanup, she said.  Her flock of 30 takes up about two hours per day. 

If you want to interact with your chickens you will need to spend more time with them, she adds.

6. Better taste 

Eggs from your backyard flock are 100 per cent better than any you'll buy at a grocery store, Cowans said, "and that's the appeal."

"It's a completely different taste — what you feed your chicken adds to the taste of your egg," she said. 

Chickens are omnivores so you can feed them everything — including their own eggshells. Cowan enjoys feeding her chickens dandelion greens, which makes their yolks a deeper shade of yellow and more delicious. 

7. Size matters

Cowans recommends giving each chicken at least two square feet of space in a coop and four square feet for its outside run space. 

An adorable chick at Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry. (Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry/Facebook)

It's not always necessary to insulate your coop — chickens generate their own heat — but you need the right size coop for an appropriate number of hens. 

She recommends a website called Backyard Chickens to check out coop designs and advice for new farmers. 

8. They will become pets

Your chickens will become beloved pets, Cowans said. 

"You will find yourself naming each one and knowing who they are," she said. 

"You will be surprised by how interesting they are, and find yourself enjoying your morning coffee outside with your chickens taking in their silly antics," she said. 

9. Rooster recommended

Cowans highly recommends keeping a rooster, if you are not in an area where its crowing will bother your neighbours. 

Cowans recommends keeping a rooster if possible because they will help keep the pecking order in the flock and have big personalities. (Down by the Bay Backyard Poultry/Facebook)

"The roosters are actually my favourite in the flock," Cowans said. "They have a huge amount of personality, they're very entertaining and they're very beautiful."

Roosters will not only fertilize eggs if you want to raise chicks, they will also keep order in the flock and alert the flock to danger, she said. 

"A rooster will fight to the death to protect his hens," she said. "Roosters are absolutely amazing!" 

Some breeds are more aggressive than others, she said. Roosters raised by hand from chicks, like any pet, will be more docile. 

10. You may become a hobby farmer

Chickens are known to be the gateway animal to hobby farming — Cowans says you may find you also want ducks and geese, then goats, then pigs and so on.

Cowans and a friend recently started a Facebook site, PEI Homesteading & Animal Husbandry, to offer advice to hobby farmers.

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About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a bachelor of journalism (honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email