What’s a hardworking bachelor carpenter doing with homegrown eggs? Frunk is part of the backyard chicken coop trend inspired by the grow-your-own-food movement. And he is certainly not alone – three neighbors within a one-block radius of my house in Norwood have backyard coops. Sure, there’s a little more noise in the neighborhood, but every time someone drops by with a dozen of these incredible eggs, I think: I could get used to this clucking.
The eggs are what motivated Frunk to raise chickens. As a carpenter, building the coop was easy. He converted an old motorcycle shed behind his house, using scrap material to build roosts and nesting boxes. He says the only materials he had to buy were chicken wire for their outdoor enclosure and a JOBOX (a large metal toolbox) to store food and scratch. “It’s important to keep their feed clean, dry and rodent-free, and the JOBOX is perfect for that,” says Frunk. “Recently, I also purchased an automatic chicken-coop door opener that opens the door at sunrise and closes it at sunset.”
Across the street, another motorcycle has been displaced to make room for layer hens. Jon and Katie Sapp decided to add a coop onto their utility/motorcycle shed after they chicken-sat for friends who have backyard birds. Jon is a handyman and got creative with his own henhouse. He enclosed a tall, south-facing swath of their yard so that the birds would have indoor and outdoor roosts and buried the fencing material eight inches to a foot deep to keep out predators. “I didn’t spend a whole lot of money, but it took me about a week because I made it really elaborate. I put linoleum floor down to make the cleanup easier. And people give me a hard time because chickens are pretty hearty and all that, but I actually insulated the coop. We took the extra step to make it kind of cozy,” says Jon.
The birds have fit right into Jon’s gardening cycle; he and Katie used to compost their kitchen waste, but now they feed the scraps to the chickens, and use the birds’ excrement to enrich the compost and fertilize their plants.
Down the street, Ross Dupuis started out with a small flock of chickens a few years ago, but now he’s stepped up his operation to include ducks, geese, peacocks and peahens – nearly 100 birds, total. Dupuis has several acres of land, instead of a small backyard coop, and his chickens are truly free-range. They roam about the property during the day and he shepherds them back to the safety of their five coops each night, where they can roost and lay eggs in nesting boxes. Dupuis didn’t let his early experiences discourage him – a whole shipment of mail-order hatchlings arrived dead because of a bout of ultra-cold temperatures, an owl made off with some of his young hens, and a fox walked brazenly past him with one of his chickens in his maw – and instead, he has fine-tuned his setup. Keeping predators away from his outdoor flock is a constant battle (“Dogs are by far the worst of all the predators,” says Dupuis), and he supplements the chickens’ grazing and bug-eating with special, custom-mixed feed of millet, cracked corn, oats and barley. Like many people with layer hens, he also feeds his birds oyster shells for calcium, to keep the eggshells strong. He says that giving them room to roam and putting their roosts as high as possible helps to keep the hens active. “The shells are harder, the yolks are brighter, more flavor…just an overall better egg. And there’s a relationship between a healthy bird and a quality egg.”
There’s also a relationship between the type of bird and a good egg. Dupuis is becoming interested in more exotic breeds – he has Junglefowl, believed to be the progenitor, or ancestor, of all chickens. Because they haven’t been hybridized, the Junglefowl are heartier and better at flying away to defend themselves from predators. A good breeding pair is worth $1,000-$1,500, says Dupuis, which is more than I paid for my old Subaru. He is going to try cross-breeding Junglefowl with a high-altitude bird that produces lots of good eggs, and he might just create the perfect backyard bird for people in the Telluride area.
Tony and Barclay Daranyi of Norwood’s Indian Ridge Farm and Bakery are the local experts on raising chickens, and they keep both meat birds and layers. They have mobile trailer coops that let their birds graze all over the farm, a luxury most backyard coop keepers don’t have. But a chicken’s needs are fairly simple, says Tony. “Whether your coop is permanent or mobile, the elements needed are the same. You need to be concerned with a way to feed and water your birds, you need to provide comfortable and safe shelter during daylight and nighttime hours, and you need nesting boxes and roosts.”
Other tips the Daranyis give to DIY coop creators and chicken keepers is to make sure that the hatch door is easy to open and close, and that you let the birds in each night; to use straw in the nesting boxes and wood shavings on the floors; and to add lighting in the winter to stimulate the hens to keep laying eggs. They also advise using fresh-milled grains to supplement the birds’ diet of grass and bugs.
And to anyone who wants to raise a few chickens to save money on eggs, it’s probably not going to be cost-efficient – even if you’re not insulating your coop, buying an automatic door or using an expensive breed. “A small backyard flock can never compete with the price of eggs from an industrialized operation. You may be saving a little money, but not much,” says Barclay. “You are paying for the taste and quality of a fresh egg, insect control and the pleasure of having your own flock. I’ve had chickens all my life and find they are a constant source of joy and entertainment.”
But unless you have a lot of land, there’s one thing a neighborhood coop doesn’t need, she says: “Just don’t get a rooster. Waking up your neighbors with their crowing early in the morning won’t win you any brownie points.”