-Does it smell?
-So I can compost my chicken poop?
-How much waste does a hen produce as compared to a dog?
-But many houses don’t own just one pet! How much waste would an average dog household produce, as compared to a household with hens?
-I have cockroaches. Will chickens eat cockroaches and other pests?
-What about bird flu?
-Do chickens carry diseases?
-So eating eggs from a backyard flock reduces my risk for Salmonella?
Yes it is true! Hens lay just fine without a rooster present – most eggs sold in supermarkets are actually unfertilized. And since hens never crow, an urban flock will not bother neighbors. Hens only make noise briefly when they lay an egg, never at night.
What if I accidentally buy a rooster for my flock?
If you are buying a chicken older than four weeks, accidentally purchasing a rooster won’t be a problem. Once a chicken is four-six weeks old it will have developed secondary sex characteristics and its gender can be easily identified. If you decide to raise day-old chicks, make sure you buy from a reputable vendor. There are a variety of ways to ascertain if it’s a she or a he at a young age, such as vent sexing, feather sexing, or color sexing.
But what if, despite best efforts, you have a rooster on your hands? Those already raising chickens in Houston attest that most feed stores will accept unwanted roosters. There is also a Rooster Rescue program which for a small fee, will make sure your rooster lives a long life… outside of the city limits.
Does it smell?
Large quantities of any type of animal waste allowed to build up will have a unpleasant odor. Most hen owners find that a once-weekly cleaning of the coop area is more than adequate to keep the pen free of smells and keep the hens healthy. What’s more, unlike dog or cat waste, chicken manure can safely and easily be made into excellent compost. At no point during the composting process should any offensive odors be detectible.
So I can compost my chicken poop?
Absolutely! Chicken manure is one of the best fertilizers; so much so that many garden centers sell it by the bag as the best thing for your garden and veggies. The bedding and waste removed during cleaning can be added directly to a compost pile and will be ready for use in just a few months. Commercially, chicken manure retails at $1/pound!
The University of Florida says the following about chicken manure as fertilizer:
Poultry manure has long been recognized as perhaps the most desirable of these natural fertilizers because of its high nitrogen content. In addition, manures supply other essential plant nutrients and serve as a soil amendment by adding organic matter… Organic matter in soil improves moisture and nutrient retention. The utilization of manure is an integral part of sustainable agriculture. (Poultry Manure as a Fertilizer by D.R. Sloan, G. Kidder and R.D. Jacobs)
Just make sure you don’t apply it directly to your garden; because of chicken manure’s high nitrogen content, it can damage or “burn” plants.
The EPA estimates that the average dog produces 274 pounds of waste a year, waste that due to its extremely high parasite and fecal coliform counts can not be composted. It is such a contaminant that the EPA also estimates that two to three days of waste from just 100 dogs would contribute enough bacteria to close a bay, and all watershed areas within 20 miles of it, to swimming and shellfishing.
According to OSU, regular laying chickens produce an average of 0.28 pounds of waste per bird, per day, or 115% of the weight of their feed intake. This means about 102 pounds/bird/year. This varies depending on size of bird, whether it is laying, and will be much less for a bantam hen.
But many houses don’t own just one pet! How much waste would an average dog household produce, as compared to a household with hens?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2007, the average dog-owning household had 1.7 dogs. That would be 466 pounds of feces per dog-owning household per year.
Many cities allow 3-6 hens per property. Four non-bantum laying hens would therefore produce 408 pounds a year, five hens would produce 510 pounds, comparable to the dog scenario.
Except unlike dog waste, the chicken manure makes valuable fertilizer, and will never be found on the neighbor’s sidewalk for someone to step in. Chicken manure commercially retails at $1/pound, or $100/chicken/year!
I have cockroaches. Will chickens each cockroaches and other pests?
Chickens love to eat bugs! Cockroaches, worms, ticks, spiders, baby mice, small reptiles, all will eagerly be devoured by a chicken. (This extra protein increases the quality of eggs). As opposed to cats and dogs, which attract pests, chickens can actually keep your yard healthier!
There are many types of Avian Influenza, but only a few strains have ever infected humans, and never in North America. “Bird flu” is the common name for H5N1, the strain responsible for cases in Asia, Africa and Europe. This type has not been found in North America. (1)
There is some debate on how bird flu is spread. Most sources say bird flu is spread by contact with the contaminated feces of wild birds, primarily migratory waterfowl. (2) Other evidence points to contaminated materials from factory farms as the main vector for the spread of bird flu. (3) But either route holds little danger for urban backyard flocks.
Unlike rural farm birds, which might co-mingle with migratory birds or could drink from a shared pond, “backyard chickens” will be kept in an enclosed pen where contact from migratory birds is unlikely. Dr. Emilio DeBess, Oregon’s Public Health Veterinarian, states “People are not at risk of developing influenza by having a domesticated bird at home.” Backyard flocks also should have no contact with factory farmed animals, places where bird flu developed in the first place. (4)
Do chickens carry diseases?
Compared to dogs and cats, Chickens are less likely to spread diseases to humans (PDF). Chickens are no more likely to carry diseases than dogs, cats, or any other kind of pet. Just as Newcastle, Marek’s disease, and bronchitis can affect our pet fowl, dogs and cats can suffer from rabies, ringworm, and intestinal parasites. Because of the reduced transmission risk, small flock chickens do not require vaccinations like many other common household pets. Providing clean and adequate space, food and water to your chickens, as well as taking simple preventative measures will help ensure your flock stays happy, healthy and producing.
So eating eggs from a backyard flock reduces my risk for Salmonella?
Yes! Eggs from backyard flocks are less likely to be contaminated with Salmonella, since these flocks are small and not raised in cages. In most cases a rub with a dry cloth is sufficient. (1)
Leading poultry and public health expert Dr. Michael Gregor says:
“Raising poultry in smaller flocks … would also be expected to reduce rates of increasingly antibiotic-resistant pathogens such as Salmonella, the number-one food-borne killer in the United States.” (2)
In May 2011, a survey of all sixteen scientific studies published in the last five years comparing Salmonella contamination between caged and cage-free operations found that those confining hens in cages had higher rates of Salmonella. (3)
Hens need food, water, and shelter (a coop). A chicken coop should be roomy enough for all of the hens (4-6 sqft per bird, depending on breed), and enclosed to protect the hens from roaming dogs and cats, especially at night when the birds are roosting. Most hens enjoy scratching for bugs outside the coop as well. Most owners provide bedding such as hay, leaves, or pine straw, which should be cleaned out once a week. Hens need a regular supply of water, and food, which can be any combination of chicken feed, table scraps, and bugs. Given these three things; hens will be happy!
This is really a question of how little can you spend on your hens. Most of us pamper our pets, although the majority won’t spend thousands on our pooches, it’s important to know what the minimum amount we’d expect to invest in our chickens. Using the University of Maryland’s manual “Raising Your Home Chicken Flock”, we’ve put together a spreadsheet estimating the costs raising a few production hens. Spoiler: you could be eating eggs for a $1/dozen if you only had a backyard flock!
How much time does raising hens require?
Like any pet, there is no upper limit as to how much time you could spend with your chickens. However, the University of Maryland calculates that the bare minimum amount of time needed to care for chickens is 15 minutes/day.
Who will watch my hens when I go on vacation?
The beautiful thing about raising any pet, is that you become connected to a network of people who are also interested in that pet. Chickens, like any cat or dog, require food and water each day, and a secure pen to protect them from predators. These daily needs, however, are easily achievable by another friend, or hen-aficionado in the event you need to be out of town.
Houstonians currently raising chickens report little trouble finding friends, neighbors, or roomates to keep an eye on things when they leave town!
What happens if I can no longer keep my chickens?
Hens for Houston is compiling a network of hen owners who are willing and able to adopt hens. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to either make use of or be a part of this network. One tip for introducing your beloved chicken into her new flock include placing her in the new coop at night, when the other chickens are all in their established location and she will not displace one who already lives there. In addition, chickens integrate better in groups of two or more, but a one-hen addition is still possible.
In the Houston area there are groups that will take chickens, such as the SPCA, Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary, and feed stores like Quality Feed, which relocate the birds to rural customers. Further away, the Society for Animal Rescue and Adoption (SARA) in Seguin, and Sunny Day Farms Animal Sanctuary in La Coste accept chickens.