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Urban farmers start to check out chickens

Posted: April 23, 2011 - 5:47pm
A collection of chickens clucks around Swampy Acres in Juneau. Swampy Acres is one place people who would like to know more about raising chickens can go.   Sarah Lewis
Sarah Lewis
A collection of chickens clucks around Swampy Acres in Juneau. Swampy Acres is one place people who would like to know more about raising chickens can go.

Editor’s note: This is the second piece in a three-part series on raising urban farm animals.

I do a mean chicken-cluck impersonation.

It’s one of my defining talents, really.

In high school, a friend and I staged a joke where I softly clucked throughout chemistry class, baffling the teacher, while my friend left eggs in odd places around the room. We got a big “Ba-GAWK!” out of that one.

So, I’ve always had a soft-boiled interest in chickens. And though I may be an (overly) practical pet owner, I will never understand how it’s acceptable to cage an animal so closely that it’s no longer an animal. Which we all know is the questionable state of the chicken industry. But how can I condemn it and cut my link in this consumer chain when eggs and chicken are a favorite and healthy part of my family’s diet? We live in Juneau — our poultry options are limited to what the stores stock.

Or they were until recently. As is happening across the country and Alaska, neighborhood chicken owners in Juneau can now cast their feed in the light of day. Thanks to a recent grassroots effort from local chicken enthusiasts, and dedicated work by city planners, all but four Juneau zoning districts allow up to six hens (no roosters) without permits.

Now the bad news: in those districts not included (D-15, D-18, MU, and MU2), a conditional use hearing and permit (running $300) are still required if the coop or run are closer than 100 feet to the nearest neighboring residence. An important note — disappointing to many — is that most of the neighborhoods around the downtown core are either D-15 or D-18, where even 20 feet of open space is rare. This includes, ironically, Chicken Ridge and Starr Hill, home of the Chicken Yard Park. Those neighborhoods have some lobbying to do if they’d like fresh eggs for breakfast.

But for the rest, if you’re interested in sharing your backyard with chickens, here’s how to get started:

Step one: visit or call Juneau Community Development (586-0770) to learn if your zone will welcome a clucking neighbor. And if it won’t? You have a few options. From the wee-bit-crazy end, there are little chicken diapers for indoor chickens. Yes, it’s true. I’ve even read a magazine article about a chicken owner who reuses the newly outlawed baby cribs (the universally used ones with the drop sides that can only be unloaded at the dump now!) as indoor chicken runs (anyone want ours?).

Another interesting option, though, is raising quail indoors. They’re small, relatively quiet, and lay as many eggs as chickens ... though you’ll need about three times as many for that omelet. Many families already enjoy birds as pets and maybe quail aren’t a big flight from there.

Step two: consider your lifestyle. Hens require a similar time commitment from owners as cats and dogs. But until mature, chicks need slightly different care, and more of your time. The key for both is daily consistency, and a reliable back-up urban farmer if you travel (this is Juneau — it’s “when,” not if, you travel I bet — so plan ahead).

Some particulars: their water supply needs always to be full (automatic waterers can help), and they’ll need food once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. (Again, there are feeders, but see the warning below about bears.) Every evening they need to be cooped for a safe night. There are daily cleaning and egg-gathering tasks to be done, as well as just spending some pleasant time with your friendly flock.

Step three: consider your goals. Fresh eggs for your family? Enough to give away or sell? A few chicken dinners each year? Fun and education for your kids? Probably a mixture of the above will be your answer. Before you start researching the best breeds for you, list these goals in order of priority.

Step four: do your research, with goals in hand. You can find helpful info on the internet, and many great books, but if you’re interested in poultry in Juneau, once again, Swampy Acres is the hot spot.

Owned and run by JoAnn Sidney, the third generation on this land, when you drive into Swampy Acres the birds abound. Friendly chickens come to see who’s arrived, peacocks strut around, geese gaggle, and a gorgeous turkey shows off for visitors. No matter how much web searchin’ and book learnin’ you’ve done, you know immediately that this is the place to be if you want to get a good start with poultry.

Swampy Acres has a flock of more than 100 chickens, with several different breeds. JoAnn can make recommendations about breeds to match your goals, and can offer hatching eggs or chicks from her own flock or ordered from Outside. Three recommended laying breeds are Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, and Barred Rocks, but JoAnn will work with you to find the best breed for your needs and conditions.

Step five: complete all the preparations necessary to keep your flock happy and healthy in your yard. A helpful and experienced local chicken owner, stocking up on supplies at Swampy Acres, emphasized that you need to be completely ready for their arrival. Because you’ll likely bring home chicks, their survival depends on your care. Have the following ready:

• A warm, insulated, secure coop with good ventilation, electric light, roosts and nesting boxes. The size will depend on how many and what type of hens you will have and how much outdoor area you have for them. Dry shelter is critically important. JoAnn cautions against the purchase of kits or ready-made coops because they typically don’t do well in Juneau’s climate. (Though I’m still intrigued by the molded plastic, insulated Eglu systems by Omlet, www.omlet.us, for homes with very limited outdoor space).

• A well-drained, fenced outdoor run. A local chicken owner recommended eight by ten feet for a flock of six, if confined to the run. With regular access to a fenced yard the run can be smaller. Fences should be at least six feet high. Chain link or other strong metal fences are best for runs; they allow views and sunlight in, but stop most predators (again, see the warning about bears, below). Locate the run with as much sunny exposure as possible. A roof of net or fencing material will keep out predator birds and keep in lighter breeds that fly a bit.

• Other needs include: watering and feeding equipment, feed suited to the age of the chickens, toys, and as much information as you can get from local chicken owners.

Bears are a risk if you’re not careful with your flock. According to JoAnn, the main attraction for bears is not the chickens, but their food. For this reason, be conscious of your feeding methods and storage. Though it’s easier to fill a feeder once a day, a lot of food will attract bears. Treat chicken feed like human food; keep it safe inside your house. But JoAnn’s final two words on the subject are “electrified fence.”

Also, nothing turns a neighborhood off chickens like a bad smell. The chickens don’t like it either. Keep coops and runs clean. Start that compost system, if you haven’t already, and compost chicken droppings with household food waste.

A yard of chickens blurs the line between urban home and urban farm. They enliven any family, offering entertainment, education, and eggs all around. It’s spring, it’s time to get your kids into a 4-H club and get your coops and runs built!

• Lewis is an Architect and member of the Juneau Commission on Sustainability. She hopes soon to have a thriving covey of quail living among her greenhouse tomatoes ... so she can add to her poultry impersonation repertoire, of course!

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