The (chicken) House that Tim Built

There are two questions people tend to ask when they find out we have chickens:

Do they smell?
Are you saving money on eggs?

I was surprised by the first question, because I’d noticed no odor at all from our chickens. I’m not sure if it’s the way we’re keeping them (in a coop with a large run, vs. in a shed or some other closed environment?) or if somehow chickens have garnered an entirely unwarranted reputation for stink — but our chickens don’t smell bad. Not even during that week that Tim was out of town, when I dutifully kept the girlies fed and watered and closed up at night, but failed to scoop the poop from the coop.

Scoop the poop from the coop. Say that three times, really fast.

(made you do it.)

Does having chickens save money on eggs? Probably not much. Especially if your initial investment includes purchasing or building a coop (you can buy them locally built, or order some uber-hip ones online) which can run anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars (check this “urban chicken residence“). Once your chickens have a place to lay their head eggs, they just need to be fed — and depending on type of feed, it’ll cost $15-30 a month for four chickens.

Our coop was designed and built by my big-picture-gifted, detail-challenged husband. He rounded up free-cycled materials, so our coop ended up costing about $75 (plus his time, which he assures me is worth mountains of cash). The frame was built using old shelving from an auto-parts-store-turned-urban-culture-center:

He said it was like playing with a grown-up-sized Erector Set — he just fit the pieces where they needed to be and bolted them together. My favorite part is the ladder, which was a shelf for oil filters in a previous life. Next up was adding the walls, roof and windows:

The particle board and trim pieces were leftover from DIY projects, and the windows and roofing were extras given to us by friends. I had randomly bought a box of cedar shingles at a yard sale about a year ago — we have them on our house, and I figured it didn’t hurt to have extras (classic thought-pattern of a hoarder) — so we decided to get matchy-matchy with house and coop.

At night, the chickens roost in the coop, and during the day they have access to a run. We close the run off each night with a sliding gate, since it’s not adequately wrapped underneath with wire to prevent dig-under predators (no one wants to wake to an early-morning bloodbath in the ol’ backyard). We can open the top hatch of the bump-out to feed them, and there’s a side door that opens to give us quick access to eggs in their laying box.

(I should note that one of my favorite things is accidentally opening the door on a chicken in the laying box. It has the same feeling as walking in on someone using the restroom — and the chickens react in a similar manner, warbling an embarrassed complaint.)

It’s not chic, not magazine-worthy. But it fits well in our not-huge backyard, looks like it goes with the house; the chickens seems happy (would we know if they weren’t?), and Tim followed our general life philosophy of spending as little money as possible.

The thing about chicken coops — there are about as many variations of them as their are houses. If you’re local to Indianapolis and are thinking about keeping chickens, I highly recommend seeing a variety of coops in action at Tour de Coops, on September 16. I went with a friend last year, and it was the first time I seriously considered having chickens. A fun way to see many coop varieties, first-hand, and be inspired to think about what could work well in your space.

(And if you go, take a whiff at each coop, and report back any smellage. Gotta know if our birds are anomalies.)

Interested in keeping chickens? Is there something I’ve not covered that you’ve been wondering about?

 

 

 

Chickens in da house

Chickens are funny. Funny ha ha.

Don’t they look regal, with their combs and honey-colored eyes? But in reality they are just silly little birds, quietly chatty, with odd household habits and a seeming willingness to dig a hole clear to China if it means getting a fresh bug or worm.

We’ve enjoyed getting to know our little chickies. We “adopted” them, from a woman in our neighborhood who had fifteen (!!!) in her backyard, needing to unload them before an imminent move. We connected via phone, and on a weekend she was out of town, Tim took the kids over and grabbed four. The kids named them that day:

1. Z-Horn
One of our two Plymouth Bard Rock chickens. Named Z-Horn because its feathers look like a zebra, and its comb is more horn-like than its twin. Or so my kids say — I still can’t tell the two chickens apart.

2. Z-Za-Zebra
Suffice it to say that this one was named by our 3-year old. She originally named her “Z-Zebra,” following the lead of her brother’s naming of Z-Horn. We tried to get her to reconsider, considering the fact that stuttering out the name “Z-Zebra” is awkward and confusing. But she stood her ground, and almost to punish our suggestion that her choice was anything but ideal, she retro-actively added an additional syllable — so “Z-Zebra” became “Z-Za-Zebra.” And you might as well add an extra syllable of laughter in there, because none of us can say it without chuckling.

Oh, and in case you think that Z-Horn and Z-Za-Zebra look suspiciously like the same chicken, they could be. I took countless photos of those birds, and when I got them downloaded couldn’t tell them apart. So, who knows. I’m calling them both Z-Horn anyway, here’s hoping they don’t suffer from identity crisis.

3. Fire
Fire is, in my opinion, the prettiest. But we have no idea what breed she is. Any ideas, those of you familiar with chickens?

4. Bullseye
Again, no idea on breed. Bullseye got her name because she was the first one the kids found scratching in the coop, and they thought she looked like a bull. Again, I plead confusion, because every time my kids refer to “Fire” this is the bird I picture. Because, you know, she’s bright gold. Like fire. Duh.

Taking care of these little creatures has been surprisingly, pleasantly easy. Most of the time they stay in their coop/run (details on these to follow in a future post) — but on slow mornings and weekends we close our backyard gate and let them out into the yard to eat grass and bugs. They dig up everything — which matters not to us, since the drought has left our grass brown, our yard full of leaves already fallen from two river birch trees in distress, our garden a bust. Call me cruel, but one of my favorite things is to sit outside and drink my coffee, watching them run in terror when a squirrel scuttles down a tree. Turns out, uselessly-terrified chickens are hilarious, especially first thing in the morning.

And, of course, the eggs. We’re getting an average of 3 a day, which according to many chicken folks is amazing in this heat. Their main diet is feed, but we’re generous with kitchen scraps — and between those and the grass/bugs, their yolks are the biggest, yellowest yolks I’ve ever seen.

Many of you have asked about the investment required for chickens — whether or not they save money on eggs. I’ll try to cover that in the next post, all about the house that Tim built.

 

Chicken scratches

It’s been one of those weeks. Between the unbelievable heat wave and drought we’re having in Indiana (and I know we’re not alone), kids (ahem… and a Mom) who are at the end of their summertime rope, and the unexpected chaos that life throws at you sometimes, I’m ready to announce that the month of July can stick it.

Except there have been some bright spots of intense, broad-spectrum UVA sunshine. A couple of fun moments in the past days:

WE GOT CHICKENS!

I plan to write much more about this, and include all the back-story about Tim building our coop, and acquiring the chickens, and their appropriately bizarre names, and the fact that Tim thinks they’re dumb (as if he expected otherwise). But the best part by far is the fact that we’re already getting eggs — the pic above was our very first one, before we had even touched it. Isn’t it beautiful? I couldn’t believe how big and perfect it was. Not a spot on it. Like a pristine little gift from who knows which chicken.

I’m eating eggs everyday, from my backyard! This brings me much joy.

I’ve also gotten to spend a few hours at a new bakery in town, called Amelia’s. I’m working on my next story for NUVO, and am beside myself with excitement over this one. For our three years in Indianapolis, we’ve never had a good artisanal bakery — but Amelia’s is changing this. It’s a commercial bakery, so they’ll mainly be supplying local restaurants — but you’ll be able to buy their naturally-yeasted breads through their next-door restaurant, Bluebeard, as well as several other local markets in town. If you’re local, look for the story in next week’s issue (edited: whoops, looks like it won’t run until October).

Meantime, we’ll just be here waiting for a seemingly endless summer to break, dumping buckets full of ice into the chicken coop, continuing to be surprised by the fact that chickens really will eat anything, counting my lucky stars that we have air-conditioning. Less than a week, right?

 

Chickens -n- cherries. Not together.

Big news at the Carter house: we’re getting chickens.

Isn’t that just so femivore of me?

All we need is the coop. Which usually runs a few hundred bucks, even if you’re building it yourself.

But thankfully, my husband is a cheap and resourceful man (really sexy traits — and I’m not even joking — when we started dating a dozen years ago). He found out that BigCar, a local arts collective, is unloading quantities of industrial shelving from an old auto-parts store that’s now the Service Center for Contemporary Culture to people who have a specific project in mind for up-cycling. He figured it would make great framing for our chicken coop, and hey, it’s free.

So here’s a shot of the beginning stages of our coop (via an Instagram from last week):

The top part will end up with plywood and siding, and the whole thing will be wrapped in chicken wire (bottom too, as predators like to dig under coops to get to the chickens), and they’ll have an enclosed run that’ll extend about 15 feet. My favorite part is the ladder they’ll walk to get into their house, which is ready-made from a steel auto-parts shelf.

His prediction is that the whole project will cost him about $70. That man, I tell you. Be still my beating heart. More pics of the progress will come.

……………………………………

In other news, it’s cherry season! Only about 3 weeks early!

I had my first-ever experience of cherry-picking a couple years ago, when my friend Shannon discovered a sour cherry tree in her new yard. We picked like mad, probably after the cherries were a little over-ripe, fighting against birds and worms and gravity to get the largest harvest we could. Last year the tree was dormant and produced no fruit — so we were eager last month when fruit began to appear. Because of the crazy-mild spring in Indiana, the cherries are very early, and I was shocked to get the call last week that they’d likely be ready within days. I picked this afternoon, with Shannon, her girls, and Emily:

Don’t we look gloriously happy to be picking cherries? I think it looks like an ad for some sort of pharmaceutical that has nothing to do with cherries. In reality, one of us had undoubtedly said something unbearably funny, since we are just those kind of girls who say unbearably funny things with every exhale.

And if I’m smiling, then what you can’t see is the fear in my eyes: that rung was as high as I was willing to go on the ladder. And every so often I’d look down and wonder what it would feel like to not just fall, but fall through the limbs of a cherry tree, scraping  exposed skin along the way, to the hard ground below. The smile was all a nervous facade.

There is a reason someone invented a cherry picker. A person-sized bucket with sides & hydraulics sounds like the way to go.

But all that living-dangerously did paid off with a quart & a half of cherries. And don’t think I won’t be out there again in coming days — dropping necessary activities for more opportunities to take my chances on a ladder in a (relatively short) tree.