The Fine Art of Raising Chickens

Blame Martha Stewart and her oh-so-chic “palais des poulets.”

Or perhaps it has something to do with what’s been called “their stress-reducing properties.” Whatever the exact reason, keeping chickens is suddenly hip.

And not just in the rural backwaters of Coos County — no, you can find Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rocks strutting their stuff in suburban neighborhoods throughout New Hampshire. In fact, Tina Savage, UNH Cooperative Extension’s poultry specialist, says, “There are more chickens in the Granite State today than people.”

The state currently estimates that there are 2.3 million members of the poultry persuasion — and counting. “Without a doubt, the number one type of call we get about ‘livestock’ these days is about keeping chickens,” says Savage. “And from what we hear, it’s the same all over New England.” And many of these people aren’t just keeping a flock for food. Many of them consider their fowl as friends, not unlike their cats and dogs.

So move over Paris Hilton: Who needs a bug-eyed Chihuahua when you can have a bug-eating chicken?

Bio-security: doing their patriotic duty

While the number of people keeping chickens has doubled in the past 10 years, New Hampshire does have a long history of chicken farming. Small towns like Goffstown, for example, once specialized in providing eggs for swanky Boston hotels at the turn of the last century. During World War II, nearly every Granite State home had a chicken coop parked beside its Victory Garden. Of course, back then people raised poultry for supper, not just solace. It could be that today’s “War on Terror,” however, is one of the key factors that’s helping to revive the backyard flock. “We saw interest in raising chickens really take off after the events of 9/11,” says Savage.

“I think people became more concerned about where their food was coming from.”
Indeed, one of the most-often touted benefits of having hens is the eggs they so freely provide. Most chicken enthusiasts swear they’ll never go back to store-bought eggs after tasting one just laid that morning. Not only do they taste better and perform better in recipes, fresh eggs are considered healthier, too. “More and more, people want to know what goes into the food they eat,” says Savage. “And there’s no better way to know for sure than to raise it yourself.”

Your own poultry posse

The other type of bio-security that chickens provide falls into the “peace of mind” category. “There’s something just so soothing about watching hens scratch and peck around,” says Jeanne Ann Whittington, a Concord-based chicken enthusiast. “Maybe their clucks and purrs invoke some sort of memory of our own mothers cooing over us when we were babies — it just instantly relaxes you to hear it.”

Every chicken owner eventually comments on the ability of their flock to calm and delight them. “We’ve enjoyed them so much more than we ever imagined,” says Erica Walker, a brand-new chicken hobbyist. “They have so much personality and they’re sweet and gentle. I really just love watching them.” Walker says she originally started her flock as a way to obtain healthier eggs, but notes, “I had no idea how much in love with them I’d be. They’re more like pets than anything now.”

While a Buff Orpington may never fetch your slippers, it can learn to come when called — often much more reliably than any Black Lab. And therein lies another one of the charms of chickens: These birds are just plain good for your ego. “Everything I do, everywhere I go, they’ll follow me around,” says Walker. Others liken it to having your own fan club. Just walk into any henhouse and the resident flock will come running — often with wings aflutter, jumping and leaping to be the first one to arrive at your feet. While their motivation (like that Black Lab’s) is often inspired by the possibility of free food, the overall effect is nevertheless gratifying. While people tend to think of chickens as being dumb, we may be underestimating them. They sure seem to know what appeals to most of us stressed-out, disconnected humans — and it’s not just fluffier omelets.

“Cheeper” by the dozen?

Raising chickens doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking. They cost a few dollars each and literally survive on chicken feed — which at $12 to 14 for a 50-pound bag really is a bargain. “It’s very easy to keep a half-dozen hens,” says Savage. The main criterion is to make sure that you are legally allowed to by law.

Nearly every town in New Hampshire allows backyard chickens but not in every zone. City Hall is likely to frown on you raising poultry just off Main Street, but the outskirts may be OK. It’s easy to check the zoning ordinances and in some cases, be granted a special exemption.

Your best bet, however, if you do live where neighbors are nearby, is to skip the rooster. Contrary to popular belief, hens do quite well without one and you’ll spare yourself the crowing and any potential rowdiness roosters can bring. Those girls have been bred to lay eggs whether a male is around or not. They won’t ever result in more chickens, of course, as the eggs won’t be fertilized. But 99 percent of the eggs you already consume aren’t either.

Some folks have gone as far as to keep their chickens in the house, but it’s not a common practice. For good reason: Chickens aren’t normally potty-trained. The best place for them is outside in some sort of coop. You can buy pre-made hen houses from your local feed store, convert an existing structure or build your own. “When we first got our chickens, my husband decided to build the best coop ever — by hand,” recalls Walker. “He wanted a post-and-beam structure with recycled barn boards, hand-hewn timbers and everything.” It turned out beautifully, although Walker admits that towards the end her husband did break down and use power tools.

While the neighbors might appreciate how your poultry palace helps keep up property values, chickens have been raised successfully in everything from broken-down school buses to the back corner of a garage. Above all, you must keep your chickens fed, watered and safe from predators (see sidebar).

Most of the hardy breeds, like Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks and Araucanas, handle New Hampshire winters without ruffling a feather. You will need to provide a straw-lined nest-box where your hens can lay their eggs and sturdy perches for roosting at night. And that’s really it. Chickens are surprisingly tough and not prone to sickness — unless they aren’t being properly cared for. “In most cases,” says Savage, “proper feed and housing keeps the birds healthy.” Which is a good thing because most vets don’t take on chickens as patients. The state veterinarian’s office, however, will help out when needed.

If you do decide to pick up a half-dozen chicks from the hardware store, be sure you have a place to keep them — they need to be kept extra warm until they have a full set of feathers. Most folks keep them in a box with a heat lamp in a back room or basement. It can be a little messy but the payoff is worth it. The more time you spend with those fluffy little chicks, the tamer they’ll be as adults.

Think of it as the beginning of a beautiful friendship — these are, after all, your new peeps. NH