Home & Garden

A flock of tips on keeping chickens

Frank Hyman's chickens, from left, Buttercup, a Buff Orpington, and Black Dahlia, a Copper Marans, feed on fresh greens from the garden in Durham on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. The greens are clipped to the fence to stabilize them for the chickens for easier feeding.
Frank Hyman's chickens, from left, Buttercup, a Buff Orpington, and Black Dahlia, a Copper Marans, feed on fresh greens from the garden in Durham on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. The greens are clipped to the fence to stabilize them for the chickens for easier feeding. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Frank Hyman’s chickens look content.

It’s hard to say why, though; chickens are so different from humans. They’re descended from dinosaurs – a graphic in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh shows a chicken side-by-side with its distant cousin, Tyrannosaurus Rex – and we’re not.

Their evolutionary branch split from ours incredibly long ago, yet Hyman reaches across that gulf. He makes his chickens happy by not only keeping them fed and sheltered, but addressing their mental needs as well. To keep them intellectually stimulated, he’s given them different, interesting places to roost, such as a branch, planted vertically like a tree at the edge of the pen.

Chickens, like us, can get bored.

“It gives them a place to roost during the day,” Hyman says of their little tree. From it, the chickens get a different view of the yard. “In zoos they call this ‘enrichment.’”

Hyman, also a writer, has just put the finishing touches on his book “Hentopia: Trouble-Free, Low Cost Coops and Hen Habitat for Backyard Chickens,” coming out next spring. In it, he outlines many of the approaches that have kept his chickens happy, healthy and safe from predators and his setup largely hassle-free. Keeping chickens doesn’t have to be hard, Hyman says, blaming modern how-to books for making modern chicken farmers work more than is necessary.

Hyman claims to have discovered an easier way. “A lot of the advice in the chicken books is not good advice and would have you working much harder than necessary,” Hyman says.

Backyard flocks like his are definitely a trend, he says, but there’s an accompanying counter-trend of people getting rid of their chickens because of all the hassle involved.

Hyman walked us through the setup in the rear of his quarter-acre Durham property, pointing out labor-saving elements. All the while, his urban flock – a Buff Orpington named Buttercup, a Rhode Island Red named Poppy and a Copper Marans named Dahlia – cluck and mutter contentedly. They’re not even bothered when Chris Crochetiere, Hyman’s wife, opens the door and a sizable yellow lab bounds across the porch and into the yard. Their minds are stimulated, their stress levels are low and their eggs are tasty.

Below are some of Hyman’s thoughts and techniques:

▪ What to feed them. “We feed them organic chicken feed,” he says. “It costs more, but we like supporting organic farmers.” The chickens eat grass clippings and table scraps, chickweed and fruit rinds. They like things that can’t go into the compost – pork bones with fat and gristle, say, or shrimp shells – and today they snack on adult mealworms that Crochetiere offers. By the porch, Hyman grows water hyacinths in a horse trough – one of his newest offerings for Poppy, Dahlia and Buttercup.

▪ Best place for a nest box. “A lot of the books would want you to put your nest box inside the coop,” Hyman says. If you do so, though, you have to enter the coop to collect eggs, and you risk your chickens running out or your shoes getting dirty. His egg box is on the outside of his coop. While that isn’t an innovation, his does have a removable wall instead of the more common hinged top. This way, children or smaller adults can collect eggs with ease.

▪ A better way to clean up chicken poop. “Another thing that is kind of dumb in the chicken books is ‘Oh, maybe make the floor out of hardware cloth,’” Hyman says, referring to the metal screens that, in theory, chicken poop falls through to land on a removable, cleanable tray. In practice, however, poop gets stuck in these screens and makes a mess, he says, and he’d rather not have to deal with a tray of chicken poop in the first place. Hyman treats his coop like a litter box. The floor is lined with a rubber pond liner and topped with wood chips. He has washing machine-sized compost boxes at the end of the coop, which he scoops the “litter” into when needed.

▪ An easier way to water. “The standard practice for the waterer is to go out there every day and clean the waterer,” Hyman explains. “I’m not going out there to clean the waterer! You gotta remember who works for who!” Instead, he has a 5-gallon bucket with holes in the bottom. From these holes emerge the type of nipple typically found on a gerbil bottle. The waterer is replenished by a rain gutter and downspout, an idea Hyman got from Raleigh permaculture expert Will Hooker (whom we featured in this column in March) and Hyman says he has to top it off only twice a year.

▪ Protection from predators. “I have enclosed these shrubs. It’s a place that’s safe from hawks,” says Hyman, referring to the black plastic fencing covering the shrubs. “They can forage around in here so they don’t tear up our yard.” He’s built a low chicken tunnel – a “chunnel,” he calls it – running from the pen area to these shrubs. The hens are safe from predators, and Hyman gets a yard that is neither torn up nor covered in foul-smelling chicken poop.

▪ A pen open to the elements. “Some people have a roof over their pen, but I think that’s not a good idea,” Hyman says. “If there’s no rain and no mulch, then the poop doesn’t decompose.” Even from right beside it, there’s no discernible smell from his pen – and all he does is keep it open to the elements and floor it with wood chips. This naturally causes the ground level to rise, so every few years he scoops up the old wood chips and uses it as compost in his vegetable garden.

▪ Fun to watch. “Some people bring their kids over for entertainment,” says Hyman. He welcomes the little guests while his chickens, whose mental health is important to him, likely do as well.

Reach Hill at corbiehill@gmail.com

More Chicken-Keeping Resources

Want to learn more about how to keep chickens? Here are some opportunities and resources:

▪ Frank Hyman of Durham is teaching two classes, Hentopia DIY Coop Design/Build Class, Demo and Tour, 2-5 p.m. June 11 and 25. Class is held rain or shine. Cost: $35 per person (under age 10 free). Attendees must reserve a space via Paypal at www.frankhyman.com

▪ Raleigh’s annual The 2016 Tour D’Coop will be 10 a.m.-4 p.m. June 4. Tickets cost $10 per person or $20 for family/carload. Tickets are for sale now at the Ace Hardware in Seaboard Station, 802 Semart Drive, Suite 112; and Whole Foods locations in Raleigh, Cary and North Raleigh. Tickets also can be purchased online: tourdcoop.com/tickets/

▪ The Urban Chicken store in Raleigh sells chicken-keeping supplies. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays. It is at 8825 Westgate Park Drive, Suite 102, Raleigh, 919-578-6488, theurbanchickennc.com.

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