One thing's for sure: Chicken-keeping isn't for bird-brains. It takes a lot of research, time and work, says Elizabeth Bee Ayer, who runs City Chicken Institute workshops at the New York Restoration Project's Schenectady Avenue Community Garden in Brooklyn. "If people are interested in raising birds they should really make sure they learn about chicken keeping first," she tells Metro. "Coming to workshops put on by Just Food and the New York Restoration Project, or going to other workshops, reading books, taking an apprenticeship or going through a training program is important."
Ayer told us that the best time to start raising hens (which are female chickens -- roosters, which are male chickens, are illegal in NYC) is in the spring, which means you have all year to plan your 2013 foray into chicken-keeping. For now, arm yourself with this guide.
1. Ask yourself why you want to raise hens: "Some people keep birds as pets, some people raise them for eggs, some people raise them for meat, some people for companionship,"
2. Honestly assess if you have enough time: "Like any pet, they need daily attention, 365 days a year," she says. Expect to spend about an hour per day, two or three hours per week and then five extra hours per month doing chicken chores.
3. Choose your breed: This decision depends on your purpose for raising chickens, Ayer says. "If you want a bird as a pet, you'd probably want to choose an heirloom variety -- some of the older breeds that will live a lot longer and be healthier, but they don't produce as many eggs. If you want birds for eggs, you'd probably want to choose some of the birds that produce more eggs but don't live as long."
Because our winters can get cold, you also want to make sure your birds can handle the chill. "Choose breeds that are winter-hardy," she says. "They're bigger birds, [with] smaller combs, so they're less likely to have frostbite. When you order your birds, the company has this information."
4. Set up your space: Whether you buy or build your own coop -- the indoor area where chickens nest and rest -- it needs to comply with New York laws. You'll need four square feet per bird, and 10 if they're not going to be roaming free in your yard. "A lot of people keep birds in smaller areas and I don't think it's a good idea," Ayer says. "You wouldn't keep a dog in a 10-foot pen its whole life."
Your structure needs to have a slanted roof so the rain and snow can run off it, and cross ventilation so fresh air can enter while ammonia exits.
"Chickens breathe really fast and so they're constantly giving off moisture," she adds. "If there's too much moisture you're gonna have an anaerobic decomposition of the bedding and feces, which gives off a lot of ammonia. Cross ventilation allows the ammonia out and fresh air in. They have very sensitive tracheal chords, so you really need to make sure they have clean, fresh air."
If you choose to build your own coop, "there's a lot of great plans online," Ayer says. "You just want to make sure that they're complete plans that are big enough for the number of birds [you'll have]."
5. Order your birds: Here, you have a lot of options. "You can order them in the mail as one-day-old chicks, you can purchase fertilized eggs and hatch them yourself, or you can purchase pullets, which are young birds from someone who's raised them. It just really depends on your preference."
Each has its pros and cons. "Raising birds from chicks allows them to imprint on you, so that they are more friendly, they know you better and you have more of a connection with them. But then you have to take all the time and expense of raising a bird from a chick to the time that they're starting to lay." With eggs, "they send them to you in the mail and they tell you how far along they are. You need to keep them incubated someplace warm and turn them twice a day, and then they hatch. The real issue with buying fertilized eggs is half of your birds could be roosters, and roosters are illegal in New York City."
Whichever you choose, buy more than one.
"The smallest number of chickens you should ever have is three, but I recommend five, because they are flock animals -- they need family and friends to be happy. If you have the space, you can have as many as you want."
How expensive is it to raise chickens here?
"It is a fairly costly venture. You have to buy the birds, you have to build the coop, you have to buy a feeder and water. It's so expensive to raise chickens that most people lose money. You would have to sell your eggs at, like, $15 a dozen if you're gonna pay your labor costs."
Once your coop is in place, it'll need the following:
Food: "Chickens eat about a third of a pound a day and unless you really understand nutrition and chemistry, it's pretty hard to mix your own chicken food. Buy a commercial feed. Our feeders are free-feeding so they can eat whenever they want. You can feed them once a day but it doesn't make them very happy. Naturally, chickens eat all day long -- they're constantly pecking, so they're constantly eating."
A vermin-proof container for your food: Ayer uses a trash can.
Roosts: This is where your chickens will sleep.
Nesting boxes: This is where the chickens will lay eggs.
Entertainment: "Hens are very sensitive creatures," she says. "They very quickly go mentally crazy if they're bored. They're like little kids: If you keep them confined, they will go crazy. So to have entertainment is a really important thing. Especially the smaller space you have, the more entertainment options you need. Sometimes people will take a cabbage and put it on a string for them. Things that they can jump on or around, like branches, are very useful. You basically want to build a jungle gym for your chickens. And it's good to have a mix of sunlight and shade."
An area for them to scratch: "Naturally, the chickens would be scratching and pecking in the ground all day, so you need to have places for them to do that because you're trying to emulate what they would have in the wild," Ayer says.
An area for a dustbath: This is an area of loose dirt, soil or sand that the chickens can clean themselves off on.
Run: This is recommended if you don't plan on giving your chickens free run of the property.
Flooring: It's necessary for the bottom of your coop and run. Ayer says straw and hay are the most popular materials to use. "In the coop you never just want to have wood floor because as they jump off the roof they need something soft to land on." They also need something to absorb all the moisture that results from their constant breathing.
Where not to raise birds
"It's not a good idea to keep birds on a roof unless it's a green roof and it's very protected from the wind," Ayer says. "Chickens need soil to be healthy. They need to be able to scratch in the ground. And they need to be protected from the wind and the cold, so you need a high roof wall. Unless you're gonna invest in a green roof and really sturdy structures and wind barriers for them, putting them on a roof is not good."
How to raise urban chickens