Every morning, shortly after the rooster crows, the race is on. The three Smeraglia children hurry outside to the family’s backyard chicken coop. It’s a mad dash for Huck, Abigail and Paisley to garner as many eggs as they can muster, then dash back to the kitchen counter. Whoever arrives with the biggest collection wins. And boy, there are plenty to gather! The family’s flock typically lays up to 15 eggs per day. Naturally, the kids’ mom, Noel, then whips up a protein-packed breakfast of scrambled eggs.
Once the kiddos return home from school, the older siblings feed the chickens and check to make sure they have clean water, while the youngest pays a visit to her best friend. While many preschoolers would tote around blinking baby dolls, 4-year-old Paisley can usually be found with her favorite fowl, a buff orpington called Hei Hei, tucked underneath her arm. Named for the silly chicken character on the Disney movie, “Moana, ” the copper-colored hen has a special fondness for Paisley, too. When she notices the child is nearby, the bird plops down and sits very still, just waiting for Paisley to scoop her up and carry her around the yard. Such is the life for one pet chicken in Baldwin County.
Nowadays, raising chickens in a residential area is not all that rare. Flocks of families all over Mobile and Baldwin counties — in the country, suburbs and even in the middle of the city — are bringing in the birds. So, the question arises: Are backyard chickens an agricultural commodity and easy source for an organic breakfast, or are they quirky pets that offer amusing companionship and just so happen to earn their keep? It seems to be a mixture of both. Perhaps the more important question is, are they worth the hassle? MB shares the basics so you can decide if a backyard brood is all it’s cracked up to be.
Laws and Order
Before you even get started, be sure to learn your area’s backyard chicken guidelines. The city of Fairhope only recently voted to allow backyard chickens, but rooster ban remains on the books. A permit must be obtained to keep residential chickens within the Mobile city limits. There are stipulations as to the size and location of the coop and number of chickens per square foot, among other things, so review these guidelines before jumping in! The Mobile County Health Department sets and enforces all the regulations while working closely with the Mobile Bay Area Backyard Chicken Club (MBABYCC), an active community of locals who are raising chickens and educating others on the best practices.
Don’t Wing It
Talk to friends who keep chickens, visit their coops and ask lots of questions to get a feel for the routine. Before your itty bitties come home, it’s time to do a little nesting of your own. Gather your supplies and prepare their new home. Local expert Tracy McCarter, owner of St. Elmo Feed & Seed, shares the necessities for each phase of raising your chickens.
PHASE 1: Indoor Chicks
Baby chicks will need to stay indoors for the first six to eight weeks of life (especially on cool nights). A cage, large cardboard box or plastic container is a sufficient shelter. If desired, you may add shavings or hay to make their home extra cozy. You’ll also need a waterer, a feeder and starter feed. Finally, you’ll want a heat source, such as a lamp, to help the chicks maintain their body temperature. (Be extremely careful of fire hazards.) Baby chicks also require personal time. You’ll need to nurture and play with them so that they grow accustomed to human interaction. Also, expect to clean their home often. McCarter notes, “Most newbies don’t quite understand how much chicks poop!” Fortunately, fowl waste makes exceptional garden fertilizer.
PHASE 2: Outdoor Growers and Layers
When your girls are fully feathered and ready to move outside, they will need a forever home. A coop is a structure where chickens are kept at night. A good one should include roost poles (where they sleep), nesting boxes (where they lay eggs), insulation and bedding (such as pine shavings) and a run (or roaming area). Finally, you’ll certainly want an egg box, which provides easy access to the eggs. “New coops can run between $200 and $500; however, recycled materials often make the best ones, ” says McCarter. The website backyardchickens.com and Pinterest offer a multitude of ideas.
The size of your brood and whether or not they will be free-range will help you determine the square footage needed. (MBABYCC recommends at least 3 square feet of floor space per chicken.) You’ll also need to make sure the coop’s enclosure offers plenty of shade and is waterproof and well ventilated to minimize odor, mold and disease. The hen house should be secured with ample fencing (such as chicken wire) to provide protection from predators. In the Mobile Bay area, dogs are by far the largest threat; however, hawks, foxes, coyotes, cats, snakes and raccoons are also known to attack local backyard birds.
In addition to the feeder and waterer (set up so that the animals’ waste cannot contaminate it), hens will need grower or layer feed. As a “treat, ” they can be fed chicken scratch, such as cracked corn, but this should not exceed 10 percent of their diet.
ABOVE The three Smeraglia children attempt to catch a few hens in the family’s yard, which is fully enclosed to keep out predators. Their stylish coop has everything the hens need to stay dry and warm.
Next comes the fun part: Choosing your little ones. High-quality chicks can be purchased at area feed stores, online hatcheries or from reputable local breeders. You’ll want at least three since hens prefer to live in groups. “We recommend starting with four to six hens, depending on the amount of eggs wanted, ” says McCarter. Think of all the adorable names you’ll get to dole out to match each little one’s appearance and personality.
Note that when chicks are small, it is especially difficult to decipher their genders. It’s oftentimes the cluck of the draw! So, if you live in the city limits, you’ll want to buy chicks from a vendor that can guarantee them to be female. Roosters are a cock-a-doodle don’t in town! Rachel and Chris Holley of West Mobile got quite the surprise this summer when Cookie, a barred Plymouth Rock breed, let out a big, loud crow one morning.
New spring chicks, separated by both breed and gender, arrive at St. Elmo the first Friday of February and stay in stock through the end of April. “A lot of people get so excited about the chicks and buy them in February, ” says McCarter. “But, it’s usually better to wait until April once the nights are warmer.”
Best Breeds for Local Beginners
According to McCarter, these standard non-rare breeds tend to thrive and lay well in Lower Alabama.
- Barred Plymouth Rock
- Black Australorp
- Buff Orpington
- Rhode Island Red
- Red Sex Link
ABOVE LEFT The kids open the egg box to easily retrieve the morning’s bounty.
ABOVE RIGHT Little Paisley gives her pet buff orpington chicken, Hei Hei, her daily dose of love.
“Contrary to popular belief, a healthy hen does not lay an egg every day, ” says McCarter. Life expectancy is four to five years, but most chickens only actually lay for about three. “During normal times of non-stress and non-molting, a hen should lay three to four eggs per week.” Once collected, eggs may be dry-wiped and stored on the counter or wet-wiped and stored in the refrigerator for four to five weeks, or more.
Once you’re all set up, hens require minimal effort — simply feeding and watering daily, cleaning the coop and putting out fresh shavings weekly. Just be forewarned that many owners agree the hobby is quite addictive. In fact, one Saturday morning this fall, Paisley’s dad, Frank, took her along on his visit to the feed store. She brought along her piggy bank money — $5. That afternoon, 20 more baby chicks joined Hei Hei and the family! Turns out, backyard eggs really are all they’re cracked up to be.
Mobile Bay Area Backyard Chicken Club
Birds of a feather flock together! Consider joining the Mobile Bay Area Backyard Chicken Club. In their Facebook group, you’ll discover sound advice on everything from how to treat suspected chicken illnesses, get rats out of a coop or find a new home for a “surprise rooster.” All members who pay the $20 annual dues will also have access to the club’s events. New chicken parents should also refer to their regulations pamphlet, which is used directly by the permitting office and is chock-full of rules and information.