Thinking about a pet bird? Try chickens

What image pops into your mind when you think of a pet bird? A large blue-and-gold macaw, perhaps, that has a vocabulary equivalent to a small human? A super-smart gray Amazon? Maybe a sweet, colorful parakeet?

Or how about a chicken? Chickens are quickly becoming popular pets because they are easy to keep and a source of fresh eggs. Even in a city, chickens can be kept in a secured backyard (although most municipalities have restrictions on ownership of roosters). Many different breeds exist, including breeds of bantam chickens that are smaller and fancy chickens with colorful or silky feathers. Your choice depends on why you want to have chickens as pets – people choose certain breeds for their personalities, for their egg productivity, or even for showing.

Chickens, which can live at least 10 years, can be fed table scraps (supplement with commercial organic chicken feed to be sure they get a balanced diet) and can live on a balcony or in a backyard pen. They are extremely susceptible to predators, which can range from hawks and raccoons to the neighbor?s dog, so a secure enclosure is essential.

You really need to have at least two chickens, as one will get lonely. Two hens is fine – females don’t need a rooster around in order to lay eggs. They can produce as often as one egg every day, although most breeds will stop or taper off well before their life ends. As you can imagine, female chicks are usually more expensive than male chicks, but if you want to have chickens in the city or have egg layers you will need females.

Another plus related to keeping pet chickens is that they like to eat bugs. That means you can let them into your organic garden and they’ll help you with pest control. (Be sure to supervise them in the garden if there is any risk from a predator and to make sure they don’t destroy the plants in the garden.) The chicken manure can also be used on vegetable and flower gardens to improve plant growth.

When raised with plenty of human contact, chickens can be affectionate and some will respond to their names. If you have treated them kindly and fed them well, chickens will develop a great deal of trust. Chickens tend to display love by grooming each other, so you may see your chickens try to pull at your hair if given the chance. They may also come to you for a pat or back rub.

Chicken behavior can be extremely interesting to study, but many sources on raising chickens are designed for commercial enterprises with different requirements than the pet chicken owner has. Remember that the behavior of a free-range chicken will be very different than one kept in a confined area with many other chickens. Although it can be tough to keep chickens together that were not raised together, it is possible. Sometimes you’ll need to introduce two new chickens at a time or a group of new chicks in order to make it happen, but you can do it. You can gather a lot of information on how chickens behave by simply watching them and interacting with them.

Although chickens can’t truly fly, they can gain enough height and air time to get over an average fence. Keep your chickens in a pen with an enclosed top or keep their wings clipped (a fairly easy and painless procedure that you can learn from your veterinarian or from a book) if you plan to allow them out in the yard. Even though the top should be enclosed, the bottom should not be, so you can place the pen on the dirt and allow the chickens access to scratch at the soil. Enclosures like this are known as “chicken tractors” and are relatively easy to build with some wood and wire. Each chicken should have about 10 square feet depending on its size – the larger, the better for the health of your chickens.

Coops need some sort of bedding that is easy to change. While you can pile fresh bedding on top of new at least a couple of times, you’ll want to keep your small backyard coop as clean as possible. If you use straw or wood shavings, you can easily compost much of the bedding.

For more information about backyard chickens, view growing-gardens.org’s resources page, which takes you to the files of a group promoting Portland and western Oregon chicken ownership. Information on coop design is especially useful for this area. Backyardchickens.com is also a great source of information on the various breeds available and how to care for them.