By Penny DePaola
As a city girl, I knew little about chickens, but in 1980 I was given a few Bantam (miniature) hens and purchased a box-full of Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock, and White Leghorn chicks. The chicks were raised by the hens in our California backyard, eventually dwarfing their surrogate mothers.
Thirteen years later we moved to Monona and put chicken-raising behind us. But when we moved to Blooming Grove four years ago, I began thinking about chickens again.
Northern California is perfect for raising chickens, but Dane County’s frigid winters and hot summers required figuring out how to care for chickens in such a climate.
Chickens, like all domesticated animals, require food, water, and shelter. Food consists of chicken feed, chicken scratch, kitchen scraps, and fresh produce. Lots of clean water should be provided in a container above the floor level to keep debris out of it. The container should be cleaned and sanitized regularly.
Providing shelter is more complicated. First and foremost, the coop must be dry and draft-free. A cold, wet chicken will die quickly. Equally dangerous to a chicken’s health is a hot, unventilated coop.
Chickens thrive in seventy-degree temperatures, yet they will tolerate cold, even down to freezing, much better than heat. Providing a double-walled, insulated home will help moderate temperatures year round. In winter, a heat source may be necessary, controlled by a thermostat. Certain types of light bulbs or a ceramic reptile heater, which does not emit light, are effective.
Ventilating the space prevents moisture buildup and releases hot air. The building needs at least one window for ventilation and natural light. The window opening should be covered with heavy screen to prevent predator access.
Predators such as raccoons, foxes, and opossums are attracted to chickens and must not be allowed access. A properly constructed chicken coop with a solid floor and tightly closing doors will deter predators, as well as rodents.
The floor of the chicken coop can be covered with straw or shavings. Bedding absorbs the moisture from the droppings, helps to insulate the floor and also gives the chickens something to scratch in. It should be completely removed at least twice a year and disposed of by composting.
The coop size is determined by the number and size of the chickens. Bantams need two square feet per bird; mid-sized chickens, three; and large chickens, four. Chicken coops also need nest boxes, roosts, and a roost pit. One nest box is needed for every four chickens. The roost should be long enough to provide eight to ten inches per bird. A roost pit is a wire-covered frame placed under the roost to allow droppings to fall through into the bedding. The wire keeps the chickens from walking in the droppings and the frame is easily removed to clean the pit once per week.
Chickens love to be outside, even in the winter. A run adjacent to the chicken coop should resist predators and restrict access from wild birds. Chicken wire, stapled to a wood frame, works well. This run should also be covered, if at all possible, to keep chickens safe from hawks, shade the space to reduce heat, and keep out rain so the ground doesn’t become muddy.
With dry ground, the chickens will be able to dust in any weather. Dusting is how chickens bathe. They scratch the soil with their strong feet and then work the dust through their feathers.
In winter, heavy plastic stapled to the wood frame keeps out snow and wind. A thick layer of straw can be added, to help insulate. The chickens will scratch through this, down to the dirt, to dust themselves.
The chicken run will not have any vegetation in it. Chickens scratch the soil and eat all the grass and weeds that attempt to grow. For this reason, a portable pen is recommended. It allows chickens to eat grass, weeds, and bugs before being moved to another spot. The pen should be sturdy and covered with chicken wire to keep predators out, but light enough to move around the yard.
I have barely “scratched the surface” about chickens. If you think chickens are for you, I would suggest reading Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, and looking at chicken coop plans and pictures online. Let your city leaders know that you want ordinances that allow chickens where you live. And be sure to attend the Green Tuesdays showing of the film Mad City Chickens on March 10 at the Monona Public Library.