Chickens & Eggs Both Come First in Backyards Across Town
Take a peek into a surprising number of backyards and you'll discover the cluck-cluck here and cluck-cluck there of chickens pecking around. And laying eggs that all agree are superior to anything you can buy in the store.
That's not all that has led to a recent Austin boom in keeping chickens. "They've become really popular," says Michelle Hernandez, who is the organizer of the Austin Backyard Poultry Meetup Group, the second largest such group on Meetup.com (after Atlanta) with some 1,600 members. "There's definitely been a renaissance going on in the last seven to eight years, and it's reached a crescendo in the last few years. You can talk to people now and there are less raised eyebrows when you say 'I keep chickens.' Ten years ago you would have been the oddball."
Austin even has an annual Funky Chicken Coop Tour that will be held on March 30 this year, which was started by Hernandez in 2009. By all indications the feathers are flying on the chicken keeping front in this area (even if the birds themselves can't take to the wing).
The Austin City Code allows residents to have chickens on their property as long as the coop for two or more is 50 feet from a neighboring residence or business. And even if it's hard to quantify just how many locals have feathered fowl behind and sometimes even in front of their homes, this city's backyard chicken farmers easily number into the thousands.
The appeal of having chickens goes beyond just the eggs. "I'm a very pragmatic person, so we got them for functional reasons: They help us get compost for the garden, they'll help us by eating bugs, and we get fresh eggs," explains Hernandez. Others also raise the chickens themselves for food.
And then there's another delightful benefit. "They're really funny and entertaining to watch," notes Merrit Spencer, who keeps six hens at her home in South Austin.
"I like having little buddies back there," adds Robin Cosgrove of Round Rock, a recent convert to the movement.
The Chicken Bug Spreads from Friend to Friend
The chicken trend mostly seems to spread via friends and neighbors who already keep them. "I've always known people with chickens here in Austin," says Hyde Park homeowner Bill Bailey. "I'm a do-it-yourself kind of person and have made my own pepper sauces and beer. I had it on my to-do list for a while, and finally saw the opportunity last spring."
Hernandez has five chickens, two guineas and 10 ducks on the five acres where she and her husband live not far south of the city limits, and was initially prompted to check out poultry when she saw guinea fowl run through her backyard. "I wanted to find out what kind of odd creature that was." She later attended a yearly talk on keeping chickens by Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek Farm at The Natural Gardener, and then started her flocks.
Cosgrove was looking at homes to buy and found one she liked had a coop and chickens in the backyard. "I asked, can I have them? And the sellers said, really? That's perfect, because we don't want to take them with us."
When she moved in last October, Cosgrove inherited a flock of seven egg-laying hens. "My friend was doing it too, and it just seemed interesting. And I've always been interested in a self-sustaining lifestyle with a garden. It just seemed like a perfect fit."
Hatching the Home Henhouse
"The ongoing costs are nothing," adds Bailey. "A sack of feed lasts for months. But the initial costs were more than I thought." His investment "came to north of $600," but he admits he could have done it more cheaply with further research and planning.
Resources to help in the process are plentiful. The Meetup group not only has its many members to call on with questions but posts three pages of online files on a variety of chicken keeping lore plus health information and notices of chicken-related events. The Funky Chicken Coop Tour offers a resources page. And it's obviously not too hard to find a friend or neighbor to share experiences. Both Callahan's and the other local source for chickens and supplies, Buck Moore Feed & Pet Supply, are ready and willing to assist and answer questions.
First the Chickens, Then the Eggs
"A lot of people feel like there's nothing better than a backyard farm-raised egg as opposed to a grocery store egg," notes Young. "There's nothing wrong with a grocery store egg. But they don't have quite the golden yolk you have with a backyard egg, because a backyard bird is going to be pulling green grass and eating bugs, so they're going to be getting all that good stuff, for lack of a better term. The yolks are firmer and more golden colored and have a lot more taste to them, and the whites are firmer."
As well, "If you don't wash them, the eggs will keep for months," says Dave Coufal, who currently keeps six chickens in his Travis Heights backyard.
And of course, the chickens themselves can be eaten. "The stock is fantastic," enthuses Coufal, who kills his chickens to cook and eat when they reach two years old. "It makes for a real rich protein broth. And the chicken meat I get from them makes for absolutely fantastic tamales."
As well, he adds, "They're good for trading and good will. Everyone likes getting fresh eggs." When his hens are laying at full rate in the warmer months, he trades a dozen a week with a friend for mate tea in return.
"Whenever I go over to somebody's house I always have something to take to them," says Spencer. "It's really nice to take a bottle of wine, but it's also really cool to take them a dozen fresh eggs."
The Downsides: Predators, Poop & Decimated Yards
Once up and running, chicken flocks are largely self-sustaining. "They're really easy to take care of. They're tough. If you feed them and make sure they have water and keep their coop clean, it's no big deal," explains Spencer. When the coop door is opened in the morning they head out into the yard and return to it by sunset.
Once a coop is secure, however, the chickens are safe. "I back up to a park that has a nature preserve, so we do have raccoons, possums and foxes around," says Spencer. "But I built my coop to be predator-proof so we haven't had a problem."
Then there's the fact that "wherever they have access to they are going to shit all over the place," notes Coufal. But their poop is also "black gold," as Hernandez calls it.
"It composts real well and keeps your compost running really well," says Coufal.
"I do an old way of keeping chickens called the deep litter method," explains Spencer. "You build your coop on the ground and you keep adding wood shavings or leaves or whatever on the floor until it builds up real high and it just composts on the ground. You only have to clean your coop out once or twice a year. And then the stuff you shovel out is already composted so you can put it pretty much onto your garden. The plants love it and it's just a real easy way to keep them."
"To get them farther away from the coop I've come up with what I call a chicken tube, which is tomato cages on their side wrapped with plastic chicken fencing. So I move them from the coop area some 20 or 30 feet over to another corner of the yard and drop them in a fenced in area there. They take to it pretty well. Once they've made their way through they're happy to move through the tube."
Not Only Food, But Fun Too
"They're really funny and entertaining to watch," says Spencer of her flock. "They have different personalities like everyone says."
"I actually enjoy the things," Young asserts. "People used to really put down the lowly chicken. They're so stupid that they turn their head to one side and they forget what they were doing on the other side. But actually I find it pleasant to sit out there and watch them plucking along and hit the ground with their head. And how they move their heads when they walk. And how they communicate."
"Having them around is amusing," agrees Bailey. "For the most part they just cluck and mutter. My next door neighbor told me, 'I enjoy hearing them muttering over there.'
Hernandez reports that her chickens, guineas and ducks all get along fine. "The guineas like to court the female chickens, and they like to try to raid the chicken coop to see what feed they might have over there. I guess the grass is always greener...."
"We also have a rabbit who lives in the coop with them," says Spencer. "She sleeps with them. They all hang out."
And Bailey has found that chickens put on a grand show when he offers them something special from a rather common pest problem – roaches. "What I've discovered is that they're the ultimate treat for your chicken. So whenever I see a roach now, I grab any cup I can and immediately trap it. Then I slip something under the cup and carry it out to the chicken yard.
"You throw it down, and the chickens go freaking crazy. They move faster than I have ever seen them move. They have another gear – the get the bug gear. They have their usual 'come trotting when Bill has food.' But this is a whole different speed. And then when they get ahold of the roach, they can't eat it in their beaks, they have to set it down and crush it. And the other chickens will chase it and try to snatch it out of their beaks. And they do this little game where they run around just berserk and make a noise they don't normally make.
For some, the chickens are like pets. To others, not so much.
"I don't want to get attached to them. If you name them, it's a bit harder to kill them," Coufal says. "I treat them really well, but I would rather not treat them as individuals but instead as a flock of animals."
"I'd never owned birds and been drawn to them as a pet," Hernandez observes. "But what I've found is that they all have personalities and they are truly like pets. I really enjoy watching them. They're very industrious, they scratch, they interact, they sprawl for maybe an hour or so in the middle of the afternoon in the sun to get their Vitamin D, they all get excited and play keep-away when one of them finds a dead grub. It's a lot of entertainment and they're very relaxing to watch." However, "I found if you're going to eat them it's best not to name them."
Spencer says that her eight-year-old daughter 'loves them." So does Cosgrove's three-year-old daughter. Plus if they do decide to eat them, Cosgrove notes, "it's a way to teach her where our food comes from."
And if one does treat the yard birds as pets, naming them can add to the fun. "I have one that's really kinda dingy. My daughter calls her Nimrod," reports Spencer. "She's really spacy and I've seen her trip as she walks, which is really funny. I laughed for a long time after that. I have one named after my grandmother because she looks like her."
Cosgrove found the "pecking order" - which really is an order of dominance determined by who pecks whom - to be an inspiration for a name. "We call the head chicken A-Hole."
The Backyard Chicken Trend Keeps Crossing Local Roads
As the slow food movement and shift to natural diets grows alongside sustainability and concerns about the products of industrial farms, backyard chickens become an ever more appealing prospect. "It's one of those things where one person begets the next," Coufal observes. "It becomes a very approachable thing when you see someone else doing it."
For Hernandez it's not just the birds but the people as well. "One of the things I really like about having chickens is the aspect of community. Chickens draw people together. I've met so many great people from across the board. Some are artists, you have your carpenters, realtors, musicians and marketers... you never know just who's going to be in the group.
"Chickens can be a portal into green and sustainable living. But they also bring a huge variety of people together."