Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Eleanor & the rest of the girls love to forage for bugs.

Providing chickens with plenty of space to munch on grass and forage for insects is a great way to supplement their diet.  It's better for the chickens, and, according to some studies, better for the eggs they produce (there is still plenty of debate regarding the issue, of course).  According to Mother Earth News, hens raised on pasture produce eggs with:
  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene
Free-range hens still need a base diet of chicken feed to be as healthy as possible.  We currently use an organic crumble purchased from GardenSphere in Tacoma, and our girls love the stuff.  We haven't had to use any other supplements.  (Crushed oyster shells can come in handy to provide extra calcium...it's mostly an issue if you find that your hens' eggs have thin shells).

A reader recently alerted us to Scratch and Peck Feed, based out of Bellingham, WA.  They produce high quality chicken feed (as well as goat, sheep, and pig feed) with locally-sourced grains, and they now have a pick-up point in Tacoma!  We're looking forward to trying out their chicken crumble.

More reading:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chickens in the Snow

We had an early snowfall in Western Washington this year.  It started snowing yesterday, while the hens were out pecking for bugs, and they were not very amused by the whole ordeal - this was their first experience with snow.  They don't seem to mind the rain that much, but the snow made them pretty nervous.

There was a fair amount of snow accumulation overnight, and the snow is continuing to build up during the day.  When I opened up the girls' henhouse door this morning, Penny popped her head out briefly to assess the situation and decided that it was a good day to stay indoors. 

Their water had frozen, so I filled the jug with warm water and placed it and their feeder inside the henhouse.  I also put a tarp over their yard to help trap heat and keep the snow from building up in their pen.

Chickens can do just fine in a snowy climate, as long as they have a dry shelter where they can get out of the wind and the snow.  The bedding inside the coop provides some extra insulation, and the snow that piles up on the roof also helps to keep heat from escaping.  If the weather gets too far below freezing, we might bring them inside the garage to keep them warm.

The biggest issue is the water situation.  Their waterer should be checked periodically to make sure that it hasn't frozen.  As I mentioned, we fill our jug with warm water to deal with that problem.  You can also purchase water heaters; GardenSphere, on N. Proctor in Tacoma, sells an electric heater base.  A variety of heated waterers are also available at shopthecoop.com.

It's also important to keep an eye on their wattles and combs, as these areas are likely to be affected by frostbite.  Rubbing petroleum jelly on the wattles and combs can help.

More reading:


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Egg Recipe: Feta & Spinach Quiche (with Homemade Pie Crust)

 We've had a surplus of eggs lately, despite giving plenty away, so I thought it would be a good time to make a quiche.  It required a whopping 7 eggs.

Feta & Spinach Quiche (6 servings)

HOMEMADE PIE CRUST (makes 2 crusts for 9 inch pans):
  • 1 1/2 cup vegetable shortening (Crisco)
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 whole egg
  • 5 T cold water
  • 1 T distilled white vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
Using a pastry cutter, mix the shortening into the flour and salt.  Do this for about 5 minutes, until the mixture looks like a pile of small pebbles. 

In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg with a fork, then add it to the flour mixture.  Add cold water and white vinegar.  Stir ingredients together.

Once they're well-incorporated, separate the dough into two halves.  Place one half in a Ziploc bag and put in the freezer for later.  Let the other half cool in the fridge.

Remove the chilled dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface.  The rolled dough should be a bit larger in diameter than the pie pan.  Once the dough is ready, place it in the pie pan and carefully press it to conform to the shape of the pan.  Tuck dough hanging over the edge underneath itself, then pinch the edge to make it a bit prettier.

  • 1 homemade pie crust for 9 in. pan
  • 7 whole eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp salt & pepper
  • 1 T Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup caramelized onions
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar
  • 1 cup wilted spinach
  • 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese

First, caramelize the onion.  Heat 1-2 T vegetable oil (or olive oil) on a frying pan over medium heat.  Peel and slice one yellow onion and place in the pan and stir to coat the slices in the oil.  Once they start to brown, reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to stir periodically.  After about 30 minutes, they should reach a deep brown color.

To wilt the spinach, place about 2 cups of washed spinach into a pan with a few T water over high heat.  Stir the spinach around until it has wilted.  (You'll be using 1 cup of wilted spinach for the recipe).

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the filling layer-by-layer into the pie crust (with the feta on top). 

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, mustard, pepper, and salt together.  Pour the egg mixture into the pie crust.

Bake for about 45 minutes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Backyard Predators

Dorothy's recovering rump.

As cities keep expanding throughout the US, wild animals continue to adapt to city life.

A backyard flock of chickens can be a jackpot for these wild predators.  Having encountered no problems with Tacoma's wildlife population for the first 6 months of urban chicken farming, we had assumed that our chicken coop was virtually impenetrable.  We built a sturdy henhouse and covered our chicken run with wire - both for side and top fencing.

Several weeks ago, we discovered that our comfort was misplaced.  Around midnight, we were woken up by the squawking of our hens.  We ran to their coop with a flashlight and saw that three of the four girls were out of their house and huddling against the fence of their run.  We opened up their house via an access panel, and inside was possibly the largest possum I've ever encountered.  It was frozen in the beam of the flashlight, and all we could see around it were black feathers from Dorothy - but Dorothy was nowhere to be found.

We let the remaining 3 hens out of their enclosure, and they all went and hid throughout the yard.  It looked as if the possum had gotten in through the egg boxes by prying the lid open, which was askew.  We took the lid off and scared the possum out, then began searching for Dorothy.  We looked in our yard, in the alley, peeked into our neighbor's yard...but there was no sign of her.

The other three chickens were in panic-mode, so we put them in kennels inside the garage for the night.  We didn't want to put them back in the coop until we had time to clean it out and secure it properly.

Early the next morning, we received a call from our neighbor that one of our hens was sitting next to him on his front porch stoop.  We ran over, and there was poor Dorothy - delirious from fear and lack of sleep.  We picked her up and checked her for wounds, discovering some blood on her rump.  Fortunately, the wound was only superficial.

It looked like the possum had bitten her tail but got only a mouthful of feathers, pulling all of them out.  In the ensuing madness, it looks as if Dorothy flew out of the open egg box and all the way to our neighbors' yard, where she must have wandered around aimlessly until seeing his porch light go on.

We've since enhanced the security of our coop, and Dorothy is doing great - her wound has healed, and, as you can see in the photo, she has some fresh feathers growing in.

This event served as a reminder, though, that we live side-by-side with wild animals that are always on the look-out for an easy meal.  Raccoons, possums, coyotes, and foxes are the biggest danger in Tacoma.  Cats could potentially be a threat, but we've never encountered any problems with them.  There are numerous feral cats that roam our neighborhood, and while we've had the chickens out in our garden scratching and stretching their wings, we've seen the birds chase these cats away.

More reading:

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Not For Profit!

A selection of Penny & Dorothy's eggs.  Our two other hens, who lay blue eggs, have stopped laying since daylight has been decreasing in these fall/winter months.

Sometimes when I mention that I have a backyard chicken flock people will comment, “You must save a lot of money on eggs!” While that statement is true, it is also misleading. Yes, I never have to buy eggs, but the eggs are hardly free.

You can buy a dozen of eggs at the supermarket for about $1.50. You might spend as much at $4 if you buy a dozen of the free range, organic eggs. But even $4 is relatively inexpensive. If you buy a dozen eggs a week for a year, the most you will spend is $224. Owning chickens seems like an easy way to bring down that cost.

The coop I built cost roughly $200 to build, plus the time I put into it. If you want a dozen eggs a week, you will need three hens. Hens can be purchased at the pullet age (when they are beginning to lay) for around $25. If you try to save money by buying chicks, you end up spending comparable money on food. Also, chicks are more fragile, so they have a higher percentage of mortality. Three laying hens, if allowed free range, and if you augment their food with table scraps, should cost about $10 a month in feed. You also need a watering device ($15) and most likely buy a feeder ($15) so that grain is not wasted on the ground. For the first year, you end up spending roughly $425 on your flock, nearly twice of what you would spend on eggs.

Of course the second year is much cheaper, because the starts up costs have already been paid, but it takes a few years to recoup your expenses. It is important to remember that hens do not live a long time and that their productivity starts to dip in their second year. So after a few years, you may find yourself once again on the market for new hens.

I am not writing this to discourage you from raising a backyard flock. And it is likely true that, in the long term, you will be fiscally rewarded by your hens. However, it is important to go into urban homesteading with realistic monetary expectations.

There are many other benefits of urban chicken farming that I see as being far more valuable than saving a few bucks on the grocery bill. I enjoy taking action to become more sustainable and less dependent on distant people and policies. I take pleasure in watching our hens meander through the backyard and hunt for bugs. And they help me make a firm connection to nature. Nature sustains us all, and our dependence upon nature demands respect and reverence: I find those things in my backyard flock.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Up close and personal.

Backyard chickens came under fire a few years ago, when the Tacoma City Council was considering a ban on all domestic poultry in the city (if you're interested in catching up on the details of that, there's a very informative blog that followed the whole ordeal, starting back in 2006: Up to Our Wattles).

Our feathery friends made the cut, though, and Tacoma residents have kept the right to own hens within city limits (no roosters, though!).

Besides acquainting oneself with the legal code, it's important to maintain friendly relationships with our neighbors - it might be a good idea to talk to yours if you're planning on acquiring a flock.

Here's the breakdown of Tacoma's Municipal Code regarding Domestic Fowl (Chapter 5.30):

5.30.010 Keeping – Prohibited places.
It shall be unlawful for any person to keep chickens, geese, ducks, pigeons or other domestic fowl in any chicken house or building within a distance of 50 feet from the nearest portion of any residence, dwelling, hotel, apartment house or rooming house in the City of Tacoma; and the keeping of chickens, geese, ducks, pigeons or other domestic fowl as aforesaid is hereby declared to be a public nuisance; provided that this chapter shall not apply in areas in which abattoirs or stockyards are permitted by appropriate ordinances.
(Ord. 22212 § 17; passed Sept. 30, 1980: Ord. 16586 § 1; passed Jun. 14, 1960)

Nonetheless, your chicken run can be closer than 50 feet to your neighbor's residence, provided that your neighbor consents in writing and that this agreement is provided to the City Clerk (Municipal Code: 5.30.030: Exception under consent of surrounding owners).  It's also a good idea to familiarize yourself with general Animal Control codes.

Roosters are prohibited within Tacoma city limits (Municipal Code: 17.02.041).  If you're planning on getting your birds as chicks, try to buy sexed ones.  GardenSphere, located on N. Proctor in Tacoma, is a great place to acquire sexed chicks (when chicks are available).  They also sell pullets and hens, so if you're nervous about ending up with a rooster in your batch of chicks, you might think about getting a pullet.

As always, it's important to ask questions...so if you're unsure about the municipal code, contact the City of Tacoma.

More reading:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Increasing Sustainability

Backyard chickens are a great way to increase your personal sustainability and the sustainability of your community. When I look at my hometown of Tacoma, I can see that we are not yet a sustainable community. We have a lot of sustainable practices, particularly in the legal and political fields, but not in the environmental or food department.

Our current system relies on diminishing supplies of fossil fuels to keep us fed. Because this can’t continue forever, we must find a way to transfer to a more sustainable method of living. Urban chicken farming is a step in the right direction. By producing eggs or meat in your backyard, you are cutting out the distance that the eggs or meat need to travel to get to your plate. This is a great step toward sustainability.

But how can we increase our sustainability if we already have a backyard flock? While chickens are very efficient at producing consumable energy (eggs and meat) they don’t produce in a vacuum. Chickens require food and water if we expect them to produce food for us.

I purchase X-Cel Chicken Crumble, a chicken feed produced here in Tacoma, and I have used that to feed my flock, but a tremendous amount of energy is nonetheless used to grow the grains, ship the grains, and process the grains in order to feed the chickens. A backyard chicken flock might be more sustainable than buying eggs at a store, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

The core from this apple on the tree in our backyard makes a great dietary supplement for our hens.

You can start by trying to feed your chickens as much as possible with table scraps. Apple cores, leftover rice, stale bread, etc. will supply your chickens with a great deal of nutrients that would have otherwise ended up in the garbage. I always think that for every apple core my chickens eat, they are eating that much less grain, which is decreasing our dependency on fossil fuels.

Penny and Dorothy attack the apple core.

Chickens are also great foragers. They enjoy grazing on tender grass and clover. They also eat various roots, bugs, and flies. Chickens that forage tend to produce eggs that have a higher Omega 3 content.

As conscientious urban chicken farmers, we should always be mindful of ways to increase our sustainability. We should be careful about the feed we buy for our animals. We should allow them to forage as much as possible and supplement their food with our kitchen scraps.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Egg Recipe: Migas (with homemade guacamole & pico de gallo)

Migas, with fresh eggs from our girls!

This southwest concoction of eggs and pretty much everything that is heavenly has become one of my favorite things to make in the kitchen.  In my humble opinion, the key is to serve it with fresh, homemade guacamole (make it nice and chunky), homemade pico de gallo, and some sour cream.  

Migas (6 servings)
(I'm using Pioneer Woman's recipe, since that woman simply can't go wrong.  She also posts fantastic, illustrated step-by-step guides to all of her recipes).

  • 4 whole corn tortillas
  • 1 whole jalapeno, seeds and membranes removed, finely diced
  • 4 whole roma tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1 whole green pepper, roughly chopped
  • 1 whole red pepper, roughly chopped
  • 1 whole medium onion, chopped
  • 12 whole large eggs
  • 1/4 liters Cotija cheese, grated (or Cheddar, Monterey Jack, etc.)
  • 1/3 cups cilantro, chopped
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1/4 cups half-and-half

In a bowl, whisk together eggs and half & half.  Salt and pepper eggs, then set aside.

In a small skillet over medium heat, heat oil and fry each corn tortilla just until crisp.  Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Chop tortillas and set aside.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt the olive oil with the butter.  Add onions and bell peppers and cook until starting to turn brown/black, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Add in diced jalapenos and stir to combine.  Add tomatoes to the skillet and stir around, then add tortilla pieces, stirring gently to combine.

Reduce heat to low.

When the heat has decreased, pour egg mixture into skillet.  Stir gently to cook with the peppers, folding mixture very gently as it cooks.  Once eggs have cooked, add in grated cheese and chopped cilantro, and stir to combine. 


Guacamole and Pico de Gallo (8 servings)

  • 5 whole roma tomatoes
  • 1/2 whole large onion
  • 3 whole jalapeno peppers
  • cilantro
  • lime juice
  • salt to taste

  • 3 whole avocados
  • pico de gallo
  • lime juice
  • salt to taste

Chop jalapenos, tomatoes and onions into a very small dice.  Remove jalapeno seeds if you are like me and can't handle too much heat.  

Next, chop up a handful of cilantro. Put jalapenos, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro into a bowl and stir.

Squeeze the juice of half of one lime into the bowl. Add salt to taste and stir again.

 Halve the avocados lengthwise and remove the pits.  Next, scrape the meat out onto a large plate.  Then mash the avocados with a fork, but don't mash too thoroughly - leave them chunky.  Add a dash of salt.

Next, add a generous helping of Pico de Gallo.  Fold together.  Squeeze the juice of half of a lime over the top. Give it one last stir.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Hen Who Wasn't

Bandita, in a very unflattering photo, arriving home from the farm.

We acquired our first backyard hens about a year ago - two huge Plymouth Rocks, as well as a small chick that was a mix between a Buff Orpington and a Black Sexlink. We didn't intend to bring the chick home, but she was tugging at my heart strings. Since this was obviously not the ideal age mix for three chickens, we kept the chick separate until she was old enough to hold her own with the big hens. We dubbed her "Bandita", and watched her grow from the scruffy-looking chick in the photo above to a gorgeous bird with bright orange plumage and extravagant feathers on her feet.

David grew up on an organic farm in the Snoqualmie Valley, which is where we got these chickens. The farm had about 500 chickens at one time, so David was certainly very familiar with raising poultry - but raising them on such a small scale, in a backyard, provided difficulties all its own.

Bandita seemed like an incredibly healthy bird. She was always smaller than most, but since she was the product of a large chicken breed and a small chicken breed, the strangeness in her size didn't surprise us.

One day, out of the blue, Bandita started limping. We kept a close eye on the problem, inspecting her feet carefully and checking for any cuts. The leg in question was incredibly stiff - she had a hard time bending it back to walk properly, and the whole leg tended to stick out in front of her. The next day, she lost use of it entirely - she just stayed in an egg box, and we brought food and water to her throughout the day. Her other leg soon began to exhibit the same symptoms.

Then we did something that David, as a farm boy, would probably have never imagined himself doing. We took our chicken to the vet. We viewed our birds as pets, after all.

(Attention Tacoma chicken owners: if your bird is sick, I highly recommend the Jones Animal Hospital at 3322 South Union. Most vets don't take chickens, but Jones can handle pretty much anything).

We expected that euthanasia was the only option and were surprised by the vet's analysis. He suspected that Bandita might have had a vitamin deficiency of some sort that was causing paralysis in her legs.

We still have no idea how this vitamin deficiency could have occurred; we kept the chickens outside, in full daylight (with a shelter of course), where they hunted for bugs and ate grass. We also fed them chicken crumble from a local Tacoma supplier. Moreover - none of the other chickens showed any signs of illness or paralysis.

At any rate, the vet gave Bandita a shot (some sort of vitamin cocktail) and sent us home with a vitamin paste to mix in with her food as well as very specific instructions.

We spent the following week feeding that chicken by hand about 6 times a day. We mashed Flintstone vitamins up with her crumble, as instructed by the vet (I'm not kidding), and also mixed the vet's vitamin gruel in with the concoction.

A few days later, that bird walked again. A few days after that, her limp was gone.

A few days after that, at about 5:30 in the morning, Bandita let out a warbly crow.

Bandita was actually Bandito. The blend of breeds in Bandito's lineage made it hard to judge him by size, so we were pretty surprised, to say the least. Since roosters are not allowed in the city of Tacoma, we had to drive him back to the farm and bid him a fond farewell.

As far as the vitamin deficiency goes, we're really not entirely sure what the problem was - neither was the vet. We haven't had a problem with any of our chickens since the Bandito incident. It could have been related to a genetic disorder, but I guess we'll never know for sure.

Ultimately, though, it was a humbling experience to discover that we didn't always know the different between a rooster and a hen. :)

More reading:

Sunday, September 5, 2010


On the left is an example of one of Petunia's regular eggs.  On the right is the mammoth that she laid last week.
Please forgive me for this post's title.

We bought our hens as week-old chicks in February 2010 (surprisingly, every chick we bought turned out to be female), so they just started laying eggs in July.  Hens under the age of 1 year are technically called "pullets", and they start off their egg-laying careers by producing small pullet eggs.  Our girls were quite disconcerted by their changing bodies, and their first egg-laying endeavors started with lots of pacing and squawking.  Understandably so.

That was nothing in comparison with the squawking that poor Petunia did when she laid the monstrosity pictured above.  She went from laying pullet eggs to laying a gigantic double-yolker in one day.  It was fortunately an anomaly, and her eggs have since returned to their normal size.

What's the deal with double-yolks?  According to poultryhelp.com, they appear "when ovulation occurs too rapidly" and are often laid by pullets who don't yet have a properly synchronized laying cycle.  Here's a more detailed answer:

When an egg starts its journey inside the hen, the first thing formed is the ovum in the hen's ovary. This grows and the colour changes from pale grey to the yellow we know as the yolk colour.
Once it reaches full size, the yolk sac breaks away (ovulation) and begins a journey down the oviduct where the egg white (albumen) and the shell form around it. The process from ovulation to egg laying takes around 24-26 hours.

Normally, the next ovulation is triggered by the hen laying the egg but occasionally things go wrong and two yolks are released at the same time to travel down the oviduct together, being surrounded by one shell and giving us the double yolker. 
Much to the chicken's horror.

More reading:

A Day in the Life

Meet Penny, the hen who thinks she's a person.  She regularly scoots onto our porch, hops up onto a chair, and spies on us.  She drives the cats crazy.

Kristin and I are starting this blog to chronicle our experiment of raising chickens in the city Tacoma. I say "experiment" because we are certainly not experts in the field of chicken-raising; nonetheless, we hope that our experience will be beneficial to others.  We also hope that other urban chicken farmers and those interested in producing their own food will contribute to the blog to add to the knowledge base of urban food production in the Tacoma area.

We became interested in starting our own flock a couple of years ago as a way in which we could draw closer to the food we put in our bodies daily.  We value sustainability and autonomy, and we are hesitant to put our full faith in the vast global food network to provide quality food for all people indefinitely.  We hope that this blog can articulate the importance of local, urban food production and explore the philosophy behind this movement while encouraging others to start making adjustments in their lives.

There are lots of questions that people have about raising chickens and starting gardens. Sometimes it seems as though there is so much information that it can be difficult to sort through it all and know where to begin.  We aim to make this blog a place where practical information will be readily available and where people will feel comfortable asking questions and posing problems.  And if we don’t have a good answer, we hope that others will step in and share their knowledge.

Chickens are a lot like conventional pets such as dogs and cats. Anytime you bring an animal onto your property and into your life, you can expect to have to make adjustments in your routines and schedules.  Along those lines, this blog will also be about the day-to-day aspect of keeping a flock in an urban environment. We'll be posting photos, anecdotes, delicious egg recipes, etc., and we encourage other urban farmers to send in their photos and stories as well.

Thanks for reading! We plan on updating at least a couple of times a week, so check back and please do participate!  If you'd like to add any content to the blog, feel free to comment or send us an e-mail.