When I first met my friend Sophie, I quickly realized she wasn’t your typical chick. She knew things – about bees, about chickens, about all things pastoral really. Dubbed forevermore in my heart as Farm Girl, I love to spend an afternoon hanging with Sophie as she tends to her numerous chickens and kids, hearing the latest gossip from the coop, and egging her on to get some milking goats and build a duck pond. Today we chat about the joys and challenges of backyard chickens.
Backyard chickens seem to be in vogue right now. How did you get interested in having a flock?
I grew up on a farm in England where we had chickens, bantams and ducks. Ever since then I’ve wanted to have my own flock so when we bought our property in Topanga (California) four years ago, chickens followed shortly afterwards. I had no idea how ‘in vogue’ they were ’til after I started my flock. It was only then that I realised there were thousands of slightly nutty people with chickens in their backyards.
Currently I have 18 ladies and 2 immature roosters; I’m looking for a home for one of the roosters (a beautiful black copper marans). I’m more interested in pretty eggs than pretty chickens so I choose my breeds according to the color of eggs they lay. My ladies lay dark brown, pink, white, greeny/blue and olive green eggs. I am not going to bore your readers with the list, but yes, all my chickens have names.
No one wants to admit to having a favorite child, but who’s your favorite chicken and why?
Her name is Olive. She was donated to me by a friend as the rest of her flock had been munched by coyotes and raccoons leaving her all alone. Chickens are flock animals and can get very depressed on their own. Olive is smart, friendly, and lays wonderful huge, khaki-coloured eggs. She also likes to fly onto my shoulder – like a parrot.
What’s a day in the life of your backyard chickens?
They are given breakfast around 8am and after that are let out of their pen to roam the hillside and graze on the grass. We fortunately have a lot of space [for the outskirts of Los Angeles]. They like to spend their day scratching around for bugs, pecking in the dirt, fluffing about in dust baths, preening themselves, and generally having a lovely life. Once every 25 hours they lay an egg. Unless they are broody or molting or not in the mood…. I tend to put them back in their pen around 4pm – any later and I’m risking a coyote or raccoon attack. As the sun sets, they take themselves to bed in their coop.
What do your backyard chickens eat?
I usually feed my ladies organic layer pellets, scratch corn, and all our kitchen scraps (though I draw the line at chicken and fish). They love beet and carrot tops, spinach, and corn on the cob. When its very hot I might treat them to a watermelon. But the best nutrition comes from the grass, chemical free plants, and insects they find when they are free ranging in the garden. They will eat almost anything – I’ve even seen them eat lizards and a tarantuala.
What are your top tips for an aspiring backyard chicken farmer?
Be careful where you buy your chickens; chickens bought from dubious sources can introduce disease to your flock.
If possible hatch your own chicks, and use a broody hen rather than an incubator. You’ll get a far higher number of successful hatches.
Let them roam. I like to say a free range backyard chicken isn’t truly free range unless it can wander into your kitchen. It makes me sad that many people have backyard flocks but keep them cooped up in small pens. Eggs produced by chickens that don’t roam freely are not much better than store bought eggs. If you have to keep them enclosed all the time, build the largest pen possible and section off areas so you can rotate the flock allowing the grass grow again.
What are your biggest challenges with having backyard chickens?
Predators. To have truly free range chickens is hard when you live in an area with coyotes, raccoons, hawks, dogs and the odd mountain lion. For two years I let my girls free range all over the hillside without a problem, but then I had two daytime coyote attacks in as many weeks. So I’ve had to put up a fence at the top of the yard to discourage coyotes. At certain times of the year, daytime attacks seem more common so I have to keep an eye on the girls and be ready to rush out to protect them. A few weeks ago I saw a coyote sauntering past the kitchen door with Maisy the bantam in his jaws. I shrieked which startled the coyote, and he dropped Maisy. (Maisy was fine by the way). If I am out for the day, I have to leave the flock inside their pen. Fortunately their enclosure is large, so they do not get too bored.
What has been your happiest chicken moment?
Emily, every moment with chickens is a joy.