This Rural Life: Raising backyard birds

They are cute and just a few weeks old. Pullets, or juvenile hens, will start laying eggs at about 6 months of age depending in the breed. Photo by Anita Sherman

By Kristin Erlitz

When asked the question “Why would you ever want to own poultry?” it’s tempting to start listing all the textbook benefits of backyard birds, but we know that’s not really why you start down the path of having your own flock. Fresh eggs are tasty, no one wants a yard full of pesky insects, their litter makes great fertilizer, lawn and garden aeration is now taken care of, they help keep us active and entertained, kids can learn responsibility, and they’re easy to keep in a small area…the list goes on. However, the best reason I could think of when acquiring my first hens was, “Look how cute they are!”  At that time, I knew nothing about brooding chicks, what breeds were beginner-safe, how many eggs I’d end up with, or how much fun I’d have along the way.

While standing in front of the selection of chicks at my local feed store, I was overwhelmed with their adorableness and thought nothing of what could possibly go wrong.  So, I bravely asked the clerk to box up three Australorps, three Buff Orpingtons, and three Fawn Runner ducklings, some bedding, starter feed, and away I went with all nine birds. The bathtub seemed the perfect place to keep them until they were old enough to go outside.  Wow, was I mistaken. A few hours, and a lot of research later, I was home again with a container to brood them in, a heat lamp and thermometer, a feeder, and a waterer.  Who knew that ducklings would water log themselves if allowed access to too much water on their first day?  Fortunately, I had selected all pullet (female) layer chicks, and the breeds I had chosen were very beginner friendly; the Buff Orpingtons were especially docile. The ducklings were “straight run (unsexed),” and that was fine with me, since they were meant to be pets rather than production birds. I remember the whole family playing with the ducklings every night in the living room and letting them swim in the bathroom sink as they started getting their feathers.

Six weeks later, I had successfully raised my first flock of laying hens and everyone was ready to go outside.  We had an old dog kennel run that I thought would make the perfect cage, and for a coop, we had an old run-in shelter my old pony used to use.  We put in shelves for them to roost on and set out our new, larger feeder and waterer.  This set-up had plenty of great ventilation, but a few construction flaws- the hens could scoot out in between the shelter and the cage, meaning that potential predators could also get in!  Also, the whole setup was too heavy to move around the yard, so the hens quickly ran out of good scratching ground.  The longer the setup stayed in one spot, the more mud and muck would start to build up around the coop. It was time to create a better solution.

My stepfather built a fully enclosed chicken tractor that could be moved around, opened at the back for easy cleaning, was predator-proof, and had a shallow pool for the ducks.  They were all so happy!  I could let them out to free range during the day and keep them safe and warm at night.  At their peak production, I was getting one duck egg and five to seven chicken eggs per day.  We did make the nesting boxes slightly too comfortable; the ladies did not want to get off the eggs for me to collect them. A bit less bedding helped a lot.  Throughout the years, I have continued to learn and experiment with different types of poultry; raising my own Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys one year, purchasing guinea hens for tick control another season, and adding a few new layers to the egg production flock as my original crew aged out of their laying days. It’s been a few years now since I’ve had my own birds, but I’ve greatly enjoyed sharing my knowledge, experience, and helping others start their own successful small flocks.  If you are looking for a little adventure and a lot of reward, backyard poultry might be for you.

Kristin Erlitz is the Retail Department Manager at CFC Farm and Home Center in Culpeper. You may reach her at 540-825-2200, ext. 302.

What’s the cluck?

Raising backyard fowl is growing in popularity. Virginia counties and towns have adopted different regulations. In Culpeper and neighboring Fauquier, the raising of chickens is allowed. But there are some restrictions. According to Culpeper county code, there shall be no building, structure or area of confinement for the commercial raising and/or housing of hogs and/or poultry, not free-ranging, within one hundred fifty (150) feet of any property line. The area of confinement for non-commercial raising or keeping of hogs or poultry shall be located no closer than fifty (50) feet to any side or rear property line and shall be located no closer to the road than any primary structure on the property. You can raise backyard fowl in the Town of Culpeper but, like animals, they are not allowed to run at large within the town. Any animal or fowl found at large in violation of the ordinance, will be impounded by the town police or other authorized person and notice will be given to the owner or person in charge of such animal or fowl. Structures for keeping fowl shall be kept clean and not create objectionable odors. No animals or fowl are allowed to make or cause frequent or long, continued and unreasonable noise that disturbs the comfort and repose of any person in its vicinity.

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