This season, over 5,000 chicks will come through Robert and Hannah Litt’s store, headed for yards all over Portland. With over 50 breeds to choose from, southeast Portland’s Urban Farm Store has become the go-to chicken keeping destination for both novice and expert urban farmers. Now that they’ve celebrated two successful years in business, the Litts figured it was time to commit some of that knowledge to paper, with an all-you-need-to-know guide to chicken keeping, available March 22nd.

A Chicken in Every Yard could be Portland’s next bestseller and its new tagline, given the number of coops visible from any given street. Want to join in the fun? To kick off chick season, Neighborhood Notes presents the why and how of keeping a backyard flock.

Why Chickens?

Robert and Hannah Litt and their new book
Robert and Hannah Litt, A Chicken in Every Yard

"Keeping chickens makes the connection between the quality of food you eat and its source," Robert Litt tells a group of hopeful chicken-keepers gathered after hours at the Urban Farm Store. His enthusiasm is palpable during the informative presentation on basic chicken-keeping, offered every other week on Sunday evenings.

Why chickens? Why not? It’s fun, educational, and a great family activity, as kids in particular seem fascinated by the birds. That said, Robert emphasizes that there’s a fine line between pet and livestock, between novelty and necessity.

"Chicken keeping at home is likely never going to be a necessity as long as our agricultural system continues to function," says Robert." However, if you are interested in producing high quality protein at home, I know of no better way to accomplish this than poultry. A vegetable garden can't come close to the well-balanced protein production of even one laying hen.

Picking Up Chicks

Chicks waiting for a coop to call their own.
Chicks waiting for a coop to call their own.

Chickens are social animals, so start with a minimum of three hens. It’s your right to keep three chickens in the city of Portland; four or more, and you’ll need a permit.

Roosters are a no-no, so be sure you’re bringing home a lady. The Urban Farm Store sells only sexed chicks (95% are female), and it offers a 48 hour replacement policy: if your chick is determined to be male or has other problems, you can bring the bird back for a full refund. Started pullets, or birds under a year old, are also available in a limited selection of breeds.

Chicks are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The most common breeds are always available, along with a rotating selection of unusual and specialty breeds. (Check the calendar for chick arrival dates.) Don’t rush it; chick season at The Urban Farm Store runs from February to October. You have plenty of time to prepare for and purchase chicks.

"A lot of people say they want a ‘docile’ bird, especially parents concerned for the safety of their children," says Robert. "What you really want is a tame bird; docile has to do with how the bird gets along in a flock. If you want a pet, it doesn’t matter what breed you get, but how you treat it."

Do your research when choosing the breed that’s best for you. You can select breeds for egg-laying consistency (Golden Campine) or unusual shell colors (Americauna or "Easter Egger" lays eggs in blues and greens); perky personality (Rhode Island Red); cold hardiness (Barred Plymouth Rock); or for their beauty (Gold Laced Wyandotte, Brahma.) Similar to seed-saving, many chicken-lovers select heirloom breeds in a variety of colors, in order to preserve the full diversity of the breed.

Home Sweet Home

Chicks in a brooder.
Chicks in a brooder.

During the first six to eight weeks, your chicks will live in a brooder: a temperature-controlled container such as a large cardboard box or galvanized tub, lined with pine shavings. For three chicks, minimum sizing is 2’ wide, 2’ deep, and 4’ long. Securely affix a Pyrex heat lamp on one side, creating a warm zone and a cool zone. Keep food and water in the cool zone.

As they grow and become more active, chicks generate a fine layer of dust, so keep the brooder in a cool space outside of your home, like the basement or the garage. The basic class and the book both provide a useful timeline to help you keep up with your birds’ needs as they grow, making adjustments to the temperature, type of feed and feeder, frequency of feedings, and opportunities to add new breeds to the flock.

During these first 6-8 weeks, prepare the coop and run area. Before you know it, your chicks will be big enough to move outside—when they’re "about the size of a Nerf football or a bag of English muffins," according to Robert.

Design the coop and run to protect the birds from weather and predators, with enclosures radiating outward from the coop: a latch on the coop door, fencing made from fine-grid hardware cloth around the run, and your fenced yard surrounding it all. The coop and run areas each have a specific function and should be designed accordingly.

Chicken coops can be placed in a variety of places.
Your chicks will be ready for a coop before you know it.

The coop, where your birds will lay eggs and sleep, should be a minimum of 4’x 4’. The roof should be ventilated, the floor made of solid wood, and the door able to latch securely. Inside, provide a roost and a few nesting boxes. The run, where the birds eat, interact, and get exercise, should provide as much room as possible. The bare minimum for three birds is 4’ x 8’, with fencing at 6’ high. A solid wall or fence along one side of the run will protect birds from wind-blown rain in Portland’s wet climate. Discourage rats and predators by decreasing the amount of food left outside. Set out only enough for the day, about one cup of feed per hen.

Above all, Robert says, build the coop bigger than you think it should be. "You’re going to wake up one day and you’ll have seven chickens, mark my words."

Your Babies All Grown Up

Chickens are relatively easy to care for.
They grow up so fast!

Supervise your birds in the garden, as they’ll eat just about anything—including your succulent veggies. But greens are good for them (and for eggs), so let them graze. Limit scratch (a treat of cracked grains) and kitchen scraps to a handful daily, and never feed them moldy or spoiled food. Crushed oyster shell supports their calcium needs.

Clean debris from food and water on a daily basis, and choose the coop-cleaning method that works best for you. Fresh Litter enthusiasts clean the coop out every week, and replace it with fresh pine shavings. In the Deep Litter method, a new layer of shavings is added weekly, with a complete coop overhaul every month or so. The Litts recommend pine shavings from experience, as alternative materials may contribute to disease and infections. The shavings may be a bit more expensive, but are a worthy investment in the birds’ health.

During the warm months, most hens lay six eggs a week, tapering off during the winter months. As birds age, their laying decreases by 20% each year, so consider rotating in new hens to maintain a consistent egg supply. As your flock grows, you may find you have enough eggs to share with your neighbors, which helps maintain friendly relations.

A Word From Your Neighbors

Amanda Green's chicken coop is simple and compact.
Amanda Green's chicken coop is simple and compact.

Average Start-up Costs: $500
Brooder: $50-$75
Coop: $200-$300
Run: $100-$200
Chicks: $5.95 each
Pullets: $15-$20

Average Monthly Expenses: (for 3 hens)
Feed: $10-$20
Pine shavings: $4 (brick of $12 lasts three months)
Straw: $10

Amanda Green and her four housemates began keeping chickens in November. They picked up their three adult birds (Rosa Parks, Xena Warrior Chicken and Left Eye) and coop (simple and compact for a small yard) from a Craigslist ad, and have been surprised by the simplicity and fun of caring for chickens.

"My advice to new chicken keepers or prospective chicken keepers is to go for it! It’s easier than you think and it feels great," Green says. "Once you have a fresh egg, you'll never go back."

A few streets away, Elena Balduzzi echoes this sentiment. "It's really not much work at all. We spend minutes per day changing water, feeding and removing eggs."

Balduzzi and her partner just celebrated one year of chicken-keeping. Their four birds live in an attractive curbside coop, built with friends according to plans from a local coop designer The Garden Coop. The coop is built with FSC wood and the stain is from Ecohaus.