Our First Eggs

13 Jan

It has been five and a half months since the baby chicks first arrived at our house and we finally got eggs. Coincidentally, two of the girls started laying a few days after we put plastic Easter eggs in the nesting areas so they would know where to lay.

At first we found a brown egg, but did not know from who. While Misses Clucksworth and Fifi are Barred Plymouths, thus breeds which lay brown eggs, Whiskers is an Easter Egger which could possibly lay an egg of multiple colors, one of the possibilities being brown.

Within a few days of the first eggs we found a green egg in the coop and knew that Whiskers had begun laying too. The first few eggs were either cracked or had soft shells (softies) so we didn’t eat the first five, but we saved up a few and Chad (roommate) was daring enough to cook them up and be our taste tester. The eggs were good, but you don’t have to take my word for it.


Hawk Attack

13 Jan

Today was the scariest hawk encounter we have had to date.

I was sitting in my room a few hours after I let the girls out in the morning when I saw Whisker’s running around frantically in the snow. Normally the girls don’t like to walk in the snow and tend to hang out under the plywood run we build for them. I figured something was up.

I opened my window to ask Whiskers what was going on figuring one of the girls got crazy and decided to jump the neighbor’s fence or something. All I heard was another chicken crying out for help so I ran outside to see what was going on.

Much to my chagrin, right there on the porch was a Cooper’s Hawk and Misses Clucksworth going at in a tussle I can only describe as looking like a rumble between a cartoon dog and cat. There was no telling where one of them ended and where there other one began. The startled hawk flew about ten feet away landing on the railing of the deck as I searched for something to throw at it while Misses Clucksworth came running towards me.

The hawk wisely flew another 50 feet into a neighbor’s tree as I yelled to my roommate to find his BB gun. I know killing a hawk is likely illegal, but I also understand that there would be no legal problems assuming I got rid of the body quickly. The hawk thought for a minute and left before I could eliminate it.

Misses Clucksworth seemed pretty shaken up and had a few ruffled feathers but other than that she seemed alright. There was a single large drop of blood on our porch, but I could not seem to find any coming from Misses Clucksworth.

Chickens 1, Hawk 0.


What I’ve Learned After Four Months of Chicken Farming

18 Dec


I have learned that pet chickens is a lot more work than not owning a pet. This being my first pet, I have certainly learned responsibility. Owning chickens means not sleeping late every day because you have to let them out of the coop to get to their food and water. This has become especially more important as the days are getting shorter and the girls are heading to bed earlier in the night and need to spend a long day feeding in order to keep warm overnight.

The girls also like to poop a lot which means I have to clean out the coop almost weekly…though I have been slacking a bit since the path to the coop has become snow and ice. The cleaning usually takes about a half hour and involves me using my chicken hoe (garden utensil designated by me for the chickens) to scrape all of the old straw and poop out into a plastic bag. The feces is actually illegal to discard in the trash in Madison so following this rule would probably cause me more work to start a compost…If I followed that rule of course.


At first I though baby chickens were not smart, but as they grew older I realized they just aren’t that bright of an animal. Perhaps it is their tiny brains.

Anyway, when I first moved the chickens outside to their coop I had to fence them in with chicken wire because a hawk was stalking my adolescent hens. The hens were perfectly capable of sneaking under the fence to get out, but completely clueless as to how to get back in. I often went out to the yard to find them freaking out and ramming their heads and bodies into the fencing trying to get back in.

Recently, I moved the coop closer to the house for winter. The hens have realized they can get up onto the porch, but cant seem to figure how to get off of the porch. The last two days I have had to help Fifi and Misses Clucksworth get into the coop because they were roosting on the porch instead of roosting safely inside with their sister Whiskers…and I thought Whiskers was the dumb one.


Okay, I feel like I am a smart man, and I do know what love is, but loving a pet was different.

When I got the four baby chicks I really liked them. They were cute and fuzzy and they generally seemed happy to be living in the cardboard box in my basement. When I moved them outside, they got a bit more skiddish and more distant. It was almost like when a daughter grows up and doesn’t want her dad around all the time. But literally, chickens aren’t fit to live on their own in the wild. So I accepted that they weren’t my little girls anymore and just played the role of “guy who puts food on the table” and scares off boys (in this case hawks) when necessary.

And then McNugget got sick and died. I had spent the last 80 days raising McNugget from the time she was one day old until the time she suddenly got ill and passed away. It was at that point I realized how much I loved her. I thought I would be able to hold back the tears until my neighbor Chris (who also owns chickens) asked me how McNugget was doing. I lost it. McNugget had died with me petting her only moments before and was still just lying there on the ground. It was then I knew I truly loved the bird. She was my first pet and I was supposed to protect her, but I couldn’t protect her from what I didn’t understand.


As with a lot of things I have done in my life, I got overly involved in the chicken endeavor. What started as a funny idea at the bar turned into me being a full fledged chicken owner. Since I began raising my own chickens I have written two news articles about chickens, started this chicken blog, met founders of Mad City Chickens and met those responsible for legalizing city chickens. I have learned what it takes to build a winter proof chicken coop as well as what chickens like to eat and also what they should eat at different stages in their lives. I have learned how to treat and diagnose certain chicken related illnesses and also how to trim their wings so they don’t fly over the neighbor’s fence and get eaten by their dog. I have learned responsibility as a pet owner and also that it is easy to get attached to an animal you spend part of every day with.


This experience has given me an insider’s prospective to pet ownership, sustainable living, farming, and to an entire community of people who are doing something I never realized was happening…much less legal. I am thankful for this opportunity to learn, to love, and live in a different way that I was before. Below is a picture of me and Misses Clucksworth (I am in my Halloween costume, Misses didn’t dress up).

Organic Chicken Farming On a Larger Scale – Pecatonica Valley Farm’s Todd and Amy Carr

30 Nov

Todd and Amy Carr are chicken folk.

They are also beef folk, pork folk, and in general, farm folk. But mainly, they are chicken folk. In fact, Todd has “always had some kind of chicken running around” as long as he can remember and he has been caring for the animals for more than 30 years.

To the Carr’s, raising organic animals isn’t about trying to capitalize on a niche market (thought there surely is one) or making millions of dollars (which they certainly don’t), but it is about a traditional way of living and a traditional way of doing things.

Todd raises chickens just as his parents did. They are not stuffed full of supplements and hormones, but they are fed a balanced diet and encouraged to exercise, thus living healthy (and possibly happy) lives. At least until it is time for the slaughter.

The Carr’s raise two types of chickens: The “roasters” are chickens specifically bred for, well…roasting. The roasters are only a few months old when the Carr’s send them to the butcher. The Carr’s butcher between 2,500 and 3,000 roasters each year.

The laying hens (a Rhode Island Red variation) are what Todd refers to as cheap, but efficient, brown egg layers. In fact these cheap efficient brown egg layers, along with the roasters, are the most profitable portion of the Carr’s business.

While other animals take long periods of time to reach the age of slaughter and require costly butchering fees, chickens grow fast and produce eggs with little to no maintenance required. The doors to the coops get opened in the morning and they are fed in the yard.

Even though Wisconsin winters can be cold, the Carr’s always feed the birds in the yard to encourage them to come outside and get exercise. Todd assures me that the chickens who stay warm in the non-heated coops throughout the winter through their body make-up and because they “know how to cuddle” can handle, and indeed get health benefits from going outside as opposed to being caged all day. One can only imagine an animal living a healthy life will produce leaner and tastier food; at least that is what the Carr’s are banking on.

The organic/free-range crowd swears by the notion that the food they buy is not only healthier for them, but that it tastes better as well. Indeed it must. Ideals alone are not enough for this chicken writer to spend an extra $2.50 on top of the $.99 I usually spend on eggs.

So do the eggs taste any different? Barbara Stiefvater from Madison thinks so. She has been shopping at the Dane County Farmers Market on and off for 25 years and says at least half of her groceries come from the Dane County Farmers Market (one of three markets the Carr’s sell their meats and eggs).

“They are real eggs,” said Stiefvater. “If you go to a chain place for breakfast they (other eggs) taste like rubber by comparison. These have a fresher taste, the yolk has a heartier taste…there is just more flavor to it.”

Stiefvater says it is worth paying a higher price. She pays for groceries knowing that her money goes into the local economy and it stays in her local economy. While Stiefvater does not necessarily buy 100% organic products, she says that she is committed to clean and local producers. Apparently ideals can go a long way into influencing our food buying habits.

The laying hens, unlike the roasters, live to the ripe old age of about two years old (chickens on average live to be about seven years). This is the age, Todd says, when the chickens start laying eggs at a slower pace. Since laying hens do not generally provide the tastiest or most tender meat, they will likely become stew.

The methods the Carr’s practice are not new, they are doing what their forefathers did; they are raising a reasonable number of animals on a small, yet sustainable, family farm. They don’t see a future where they will succumb industrial farms, but one where they will continue to produce food like the generations before them; a future where they will continue to be chicken folk.

Preparing For Wisconsin Winter

24 Nov

So, you are like me and this is your first winter having chickens. You are kind of nervous, because these hens are going to have to live outside in a cold Wisconsin winter while you are curled up in front of the fireplace with your favorite Snuggie sipping your favorite brand of instant hot cocoa. Since they aren’t making Snuggies for chickens yet, there are a few important tips you should probably be aware of if you want your girls to be comfortable this winter.


1. Provide a Dry and Draft-Free Environment

Chickens are built to be outdoors. Some would say they were designed that way and others would argue they evolved that way. The important thing to remember is that they are able to handle cold temperatures, but the coop should be relatively draft-free and the chickens should always have shelter from rain and snow. You know the expression, “Madder than a wet hen?” There is a reason for it.

2. The Coop Must be Ventilated

I know that sounds like the opposite of tip number 1, but hear me out. While the coop needs to be draft free, there still needs to be some ventilation. The ammonia in the chicken’s feces can be harmful to the chickens’ lungs if they is no ventilation to reduce the ammonia content in the coop’s atmosphere. Additionally, feces and the chickens breathing can cause quite a bit of humidity in the coop which can lead to frostbite on the chickens’ feet as well as their combs. Below is a video of me installing a vent in my coop:

3. Provide Plenty of Food

Chickens stay warm in the winter by burning food. They generally consume more food during the winter to compensate for the energy burned keeping warm. In addition to providing enough food, some people give their chickens corn which their bodies will burn at a warmer temperature.

4. Water

I know you always give your chickens water, but in winter water does this crazy thing called freezing. I was lazy and purchased a heated waterer from Ebay. you can find a similar waterer on ChickenCoopSource.com. If you don’t want to spend the money on a heated waterer, the general recommendation is to provide the chickens with fresh (non-frozen) water twice a day.

5. Provide a Run

You should be feeding your chickens outside of the coop to encourage exercise. An additional way to get the chickens to get exercise is to provide a covered “run” for them. Chickens are not big fans of walking in the snow so if you can provide a coop-adjacent area for them to walk and forage, they will likely get more exercise and be healthier than they would have been following the long cold winter.

6. Should I Heat the Coop?

The general consensus is no. Heating the coop makes the chickens less likely to go outside the coop and exercise and makes it more likely they will go into shock if they wander too far from the coop or if there is a power outage. If you do provide heat, do so safely and minimally if possible. A hot light bulb in a small room full of straw can be dangerous.

For more winter tips check out Robert Plamondon’s Poultry Pages.

How Backyard Chicken Farming Became Legal In Madison

16 Nov

When Alicia Rheal moved from Dodgeville to Madison she brought her chickens with her, but little did she know that raising chickens in Madison was illegal.

Rheal says most of the neighbors knew about the “handful of hens” that she brought with her didn’t mind the backyard pets. After more than a year of raising the chickens without issue, Rheal found out that someone had called animal control and that they were concerned that the couple was planning on eating the chickens.

Rheal says an animal control guy came to her and her boyfriend Bryan Whiting’s home and said he really didn’t know what was legal and what wasn’t. He said if they didn’t hear anything in the next few weeks then just to carry on with what they are doing.

“At the end of three weeks we got a visit from the zoning guy, and he said nope,” said Rheal. “You cannot have chickens outside, you can have chickens inside…And you can’t have a coop.”

The “zoning guy” told the couple that he kind of thought the law was stupid too, and that perhaps the couple ought to try to change the laws. Additionally, he told them that they had 20 days to get their birds and coop off of the property.

Rheal and Whiting decided that they would, indeed, head up the initiative to legalize chickens in Madison. Since they knew they were going to be the spokespeople for the campaign, they decided they didn’t want to hurt their cause by breaking the law and knew they had to get rid of their hens.

“Our illegal chickens became our neighbor’s illegal chickens,” said Rheal about giving her hens to the neighbor across the street. They also gave their coop away to a friend who lived on the east side of Madison where chicken raising was also still illegal.

Rheal and Whiting started attending community meetings and talking to their alderman in attempts to get the Madison chicken laws changed. As word spread of the couple’s campaign, the couple found more and more people who had illegally been keeping chickens in the city and they formed an unofficial group known as “The Chicken Underground.”

After more than a year, the Chicken Underground was able to convince legislators to change the chicken laws and allow backyard chicken farming in Madison. The Chicken Underground became Mad City Chickens and the group is now a resource for other urban chicken farmers.


Keeping of up to four chickens is legal on lots with up to four dwelling units, provided that:

i. No person shall keep any rooster.
ii. No person shall slaughter any chickens.
iii. The chickens shall be provided with a covered enclosure and must be kept in the covered enclosure or a fenced enclosure at all times.
iv. No enclosure shall be located closer than twenty-five (25) feet to any residential structure on an adjacent lot.

Resources for Chicken Owners

9 Nov

Dennis Noonan (a.k.a. the Isthmus Handiman) has been a leader in the Madison backyard chicken community for years. He is both the designer of a very popular chicken coop (the plans to which he sells online), and the Mad City Chicken Chat Google group which has provided advice and information to chicken owners in Madison and beyond.

The Coops

When Noonan got into backyard chickens, the idea was still new to Madisonians and most people did not want to have a chicken coop in their backyard, or even their neighbors’ backyards. Owning chickens was associated with poverty and there were fears that chickens in certain areas would lower property values.

Noonan set out to build a coop that was not only functional (protecting against predators and harsh Wisconsin winters), but one which also added to the aesthetics of one’s yard. He said he tried to impress his neighbors who certainly were not interested in having chickens next door.

“Basically you want something that keeps animals safe and healthy, and keeps your neighbors happy too,” said Noonan.

Noonan certainly succeeded as he has now build about eight coops with his design for other people and sells the plans online.

“Is has been wildly profitable for me,” said Noonan. “It put my son through collage.”

Mad City Chickens Chat – Google Group

As an early leader in the Madison backyard chicken community, Noonan found himself overwhelmed with questions about raising chickens in the city. To alleviate some of the pressure from himself, he started a Google group called Mad City Chickens Chat.

According to Noonan, the chat group started with around 30 members and has since blossomed to more than 200 members.

He says the group is fairly active and not only features advice from Noonan and other veteran chicken owners, but there are also experts like UW’s Ron Kean. Kean is the Poultry Specialist for the UW Extension.

Noonan says that people usually get responses pretty quick and that the group is a great resource for those who are new to raising chickens.