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Chicken Lessons

Bryan Buckalew

Seattle City Council has dubbed this year the "Year of Urban Agriculture." Seattleites are now allowed to keep eight chickens in their backyard, up from just three. And with recent headlines like:

Egg recall newscast: "The average American consumes about 260 eggs a year. Now this largest ever salmonella outbreak from eggs is making consumers sick."

— some are beginning to wonder what it takes to raise their own chickens. KUOW's Bryan Buckalew explains the learning curve.


When Falaah Jones decided to get chickens, she was set on Buff Orpingtons. According to all her friends and all the Google searches she'd done with keywords like "calm chickens," Orpingtons were the bird for the first timer. "Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds" describes them as "quite docile and even somewhat affectionate." Which made it even more disappointing when Jones arrived at Monroe Farm and Feed only to learn they didn't have any Buff Orpingtons.

Jones: "And I hadn't thought of plan B. And I said to the man, sort of panicked, What's the next most docile chicken?"

He recommended the Black Australorp, which they did have in stock.

Jones: "And he says, Okay, just pick out your chickens. And I say, Oh, you mean me? You mean touch these chickens? Oh! And so I go into this big pen, and it's not like I could say, Hmm, I think I want that one over there. No, I was trying to find a chicken, and I probably got the smallest, weakest, smallest one that allowed me to get it."

Chickens don't raise themselves, unfortunately. In the beginning, they have to be mothered a bit.

Benecki: "Most people keep the babies indoors. They need a lot of heat and warmth."

That's Shirley Jane Benecki at Walt's Fertilizer in Ballard. To start, she says chicks need a heat lamp, chick feed, a feeder and something to hold water.

Benecki: "And then that's pretty much all you need for the first seven weeks. And then when you're ready to put them in the coop, you need to have your coop, and those can range in price, you know, do–it–yourself, couple hundred bucks, up to two grand."

Danielson: "When I started this in March, I thought I'd build just three or four of these things and then the season would be over. And now I've sold like 28 or something, so it's been pretty good."

That's coop builder Berg Danielson. Every couple weeks, he drives his pick–up truck down to All City Fence in South Seattle, picks up the company's unwanted cedar scraps, and then uses them to side his custom coops. Danielson got laid off from his carpentry job last year, and building coops was a way to make extra money. Now he has to put new customers on a waiting list. He's set up coops in backyards all over.

Danielson: "Yeah, a lot in Seattle. Media, even. I have one on the waterfront in Leschi. Bellevue. Some really nice houses actually. That's kind of an interesting thing as well — people with some really expensive real estate are getting chickens."

Falaah Jones decided to save a little money by building her own coop. When she finished, she made a run out of chicken wire, and then put the birds in it. She felt like she was dropping her kids off for the first day of school.

Jones: "It was like, Wait a minute. They're out in the yard. It's like cold and dark and scary out there. You know, it was really strange."

Afraid they would freeze during a December cold snap, Jones lodged them in her laundry room. The next spring, her work paid off — she was rewarded with her first homegrown egg.

Jones: "It was really odd. As I went out in my chicken coop, there on the ground was an egg. Sometimes they don't figure out where the nesting box is in the beginning. It just did not compute in my brain: Wait a minute, a chicken egg is supposed to be in a carton in the refrigerator, not on the ground like that. So it was quite startling, actually."

So how much did that egg cost? Six months of feed, plus the cost of the coop, plus hardware divided by two chickens — roughly $200. Now to be fair, that number declines the more eggs the chickens lay, but you have to figure in labor costs too. In the end, maybe it's a wash. For Jones, backyard chickens aren't about economics, they're a hobby, a pet with benefits.

Jones: "And also, you're supposed to get a good feeling in your heart by saving backyard chickens from extinction. I'm really not in it for the eggs. I mean, how many eggs do I eat? Not that many, in fact."

Buckalew: "You could make a lot of quiche?"

Jones: "But they're really cool eggs. And maybe psychologically, I know my chickens were happy when they laid that egg."

Buckalew: "Do you feel proud?"

Jones: "I do. I do feel proud!"

So, of course, the next logical step is — goats.

Jones: "No. I'm stopping at chickens."

For KUOW News, I'm Bryan Buckalew.

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