The chicken lady’s four ‘girls’ provide compost, eggs and amusement

  • Debra Smith Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, August 20, 2008 5:11pm
  • Life

At Billie Noe’s place, the girls do some weeding, help with pest control and make breakfast.

They also produce the fertilizer.

But what Noe loves best about her girls — that’s what she calls her four hens — are their distinct personalities.

“They’re funny, cute and naughty,” she said.

Noe lives in a 1910 cottage near downtown Edmonds, and if she didn’t invite you into the backyard, you’d never guess she had chickens.

Her laying hens spend their nights in a tidy covered pen on the side of the yard. They don’t crow — only roosters do. In case you were curious, they also don’t stink.

On nice days she lets them out and they softly cluck and rustle around her cottage-style garden like squat little ladies wearing Victorian bustles. She calls them “moveable art.”

Noe is far from the only suburban gardener who has learned a few chickens can be a boon to the garden. Let them loose in the garden bed to clean up the bugs and vegetables scraps. Their droppings can be composted into nitrogen-rich fertilizer. And the eggs of a home-raised hen are simply divine.

By early afternoon, Noe’s hens usually finish laying. She keeps a basket hung near the coop to collect the eggs. Each of the girls usually produces one firm and bright golden-yolked eggs per day during the warmer months. Chickens stop laying in the winter. One of the girls hasn’t been producing.

“There’s a slacker, but I don’t know who it is.”

She bought the first of her current gaggle of girls five years ago at a farmers market. She used to keep more animals, including chickens, when her children were young. Now four is enough.

Don’t expect to have a perfect garden if you keep chickens, Noe said. Her garden is a rowdy mix of perennials, fruit trees, raised vegetable beds and shrubs. She hasn’t had too many problems, other than a few stolen cherry tomatoes. But it’s nearly impossible to predict what a chicken will do. Since a chicken in a naughty mood could tear up a garden bed — or a neighbor’s — she doesn’t let hers wander the fenced backyard without supervision.

Chickens can scratch in flower beds and eat tender young plants.

“You can see here they’ve had some drive by snacks,” she said, pointing to a tear in the leaf of Swiss chard.

Established plants are less likely to be damaged, she said. She keeps chickens out of some beds by laying down bird netting or chicken wire. They don’t like stepping on it.

“If you really don’t want them some place, put up a barrier,” she said.

She cleans out the coop about once a week, and the bedding and manure get composted. All that nitrogen-rich compost has left her garden lush and green. Fresh manure can burn the garden and it must be composted or aged before spreading.

Chickens need fresh water and feed. The addition of crushed oyster shells to their diet helps make strong egg shells and aids digestion.

Sometimes it’s hard to convince the girls it’s time to go back to the pen.

The trick, Noe said, is to shake some cracked corn in a can. It brings them running, heads waggling, back to the pen.

“They’re real suckers every time.”

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com. Visit her blog at www.heraldnet.com.

Don’t balk: Chicken are easy

Joan DeVries, who coordinates the WSU Livestock Advisor Program, keeps six Cuckoo Marans, a rare French breed that produces deep chocolate-colored eggs. She shared the basics.

Shelter

Chickens need to be kept dry and out of the wind. They need secure fencing. They also need to be kept safe from predators, especially at night. Their feet can’t be mucking around in the mud. There is no “right” coop. You can buy a $1,500 designer coop or make one for virtually nothing from PVC pipe, chicken wire and salvaged wood. She has seen old dog kennels used for fencing. The livestock program has plans and hundreds of different types can be found online, including so-called “chicken tractors” or chicken tillers on wheels.

Inside the coop, hens need a roost — an old broom handle works well — and a separate nesting box. Count on one box for about every 10 hens. It’s nice if a separate hinged door allows you to collect the eggs. Choose a coop design that allows you to reach in and easily clean the inside.

Food and water

Feed stores offer poultry layer mixes. Chickens need fresh water and crushed oyster shell to help them digest food and strengthen egg shells. Chicks need a special grower mix. Self-feeders with a few days’ food work fine because chickens don’t seem to gorge themselves. Chickens can eat unspoiled vegetable scraps from the kitchen but never feed them meat or dairy.

Buying chickens

Good breeds that are good layers and relatively tame include Rhode Island Red, Sex Link, Barred Rock and White Leghorn. You can buy chicks from a reputable hatcher or a feed store in the spring. Chickens come sexed (meaning they’ve been sorted by sex) or in a straight-run, which means they aren’t. If you want only hens, choose sexed chickens, but keep in mind that the people who sort the chickens are wrong a small percentage of the time. It’s possible to buy full-grown hens, but they’re more expensive and difficult to find. Chickens have a strong social structure so buy at least two or three.

Raising chicks

Chicks need to be kept under a heat lamp, available at feed stores, along with shavings for bedding. Chicks can be kept in a box in the garage under the heat lamp until fully feathered. After a few weeks, begin turning off the heat lamp during the day.

Eggs

The number of eggs a hen lays depends on a number of factors, including its diet, the breed and the age of the hen. Hens laying patterns are determined by exposure to light, either natural or light bulbs, and they will go through a molt in the winter which gets them ready to produce in spring. A hen doesn’t need a rooster to produce eggs. Egg production begins tapering off at age 3.

Got questions about raising chickens? The Washington State University Livestock Advisor program set up a toll-free number to answer questions about chickens and other livestock. Leave a recorded message and a livestock advisor will call you back: 877-563-6789.

Can you keep chickens in your backyard?

Depends on your address. Chickens occupy a no man’s land between livestock and pets, and municipalities have vastly different stances on whether you can keep them. Some cities ban chickens entirely. Most, including Seattle, allow hens with restrictions.

It’s a good idea to contact the zoning and land use department and read the regulations.

If you live in unincorporated Snohomish County, you can keep chickens as long as they’re for noncommercial use. However, some private developments may have covenants restricting chickens.

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