Clandestine Chicken Care Overview

Clandestine Chickens- Chickens not allowed on your urban farm? Not to worry, just bring ‘em indoors!

Who Would be Crazy Enough to do This?
Jeff and I are recent newlyweds who are interested in becoming more sustainable and self-sufficient. We live in a rust belt town in Upstate NY and have careers that keep us in cubicles during the day. I often laugh when I come at night to our small blue cape cod; the irony of such a normal looking home from the outside concealing the small menagerie of farm animals! Urban farming is a wonderful way to empower yourself, know where you food is coming from, and help protect the planet by reducing food miles. Why should we be hindered to do what is right by bureaucratic red tape that happens to make chicken keeping not allowed in our small slice of suburbia? As there is virtually nothing available on the web or in bookstores on keeping chickens in your basement (other than warnings that its “not recommended”), we had to experiment and learn a lot as we went along… We have somehow made this work, more or less, and want to pass along some of our knowledge to other intrepid would be members of the “chicken underground”.

Research, Research, Research….
Don’t make the same mistake we did and order the chicks and then go out and pick yourself up a copy of “Chickens for Dummies” Raising Chickens For Dummies
(yes this book actually exists, and is an excellent reference. We have relied on it heavily)…..Read the book before you order your chickens! This will make your life infinitely easier. There is ALOT you should know about different breeds, behaviors, health and environmental needs, and much, much more.  We have managed to have quite a lot of fun “learning on the fly” (pun not intended) with our chickens, but we also could have saved ourselves a lot of unnecessary stress by researching chicken keeping more thoroughly beforehand.

On this same subject, we have learned that much of the information available about chicken keeping in print and on-line is often contradictory and confusing, and many times has not actually reflected our own personal experiences with our chickens, so be sure to keep this in mind and consult more than one source. Also be prepared for the fact that chickens a lot of the time don’t seem to care about what books and websites say about how they should behave, and are very prone to doing their own thing.

Getting Chicks
It is imperative to only have hens. Roosters in your basement would be a total disaster! Order your chickens online from a website where you can order just hens (they genetically test the chicks for the gender). We used and were pleased with the service we got.  Before the chicks arrived, we prepared a large (at least 3 ft x 3ft) cardboard box with 3-5 inches of pine shavings in the bottom, and bought a red heat lamp that clipped onto the side of the box from a local farm supply store. The heat lamp provides the warmth vital to the survival of the chicks as well as light. With the red light they can’t see blood, preventing them from pecking each other to death should one of them be injured (Yes, for such sweet looking creatures, they can be violent). You also need a water container. We used a cream cheese container and filled it with rocks so they wouldn’t fall in and drown. Lastly you need chick crumbles, again we used another old cream cheese container to hold the food. Be careful to purchase chick crumbles and not adult chicken feed. The chick food doesn’t have calcium in it, which they need as adults. However, as chicks the calcium can cause kidney problems. Since we bought the chickens at a different time of year than when local farmers we allowing chicks to be born we couldn’t find the chick crumble in the farm supply store and had to order it online (plan ahead on this).

The Chicks Arrive!
The one thing we did research well was the breed of chicken to get. We considered a lot of variables such has general temperament, cold hardiness, egg volume, etc. Our final decision was the Australop. They are a beautiful black bird with a shimmery green undertone who handle cold well (a must in Upstate NY) are supposed to be generally friendly (for a chicken) and produce about an egg a day. The mail carrier was rather confused the day he came to our house with a chirping box. Fortunately Jeff answered the door and he just calmly signed for the chicks and when the carrier asked if he was expecting this delivery Jeff just answered yes and shut the door! (I can’t imagine what he told his wife that night at the dinner table!) They came in a box about the size of a shoebox. The entire box was lined with straw and the baby chicks were in a small little hole in the center cuddled next to a heat pack. They didn’t need food as the first day of life they are sustained by what they last ate while in their egg. Also they were over-nighted so they were only in the box for less that 24 hours. (The shipping cost more than the birds did!) I couldn’t believe how cute they were. We put them in the large cardboard box and gently dipped their beaks in the water (some chicks will die of dehydration if they don’t have the water pointed out to them.) They seemed tired from their journey through the postal system and settled in for a nap. We knew we were going to name one of the chickens “Cluck” in memory of my dad’s childhood pet chicken. Since we can't tell apart three little peeping fuzzballs, for the time being we are just calling them all “Cluck!”

We took them out every night to get them used to us; my parents came over often to get them used to people asides from Jeff and I. We changed their water daily and checked on their feed to make sure they haven’t tipped the container over or pooped in it. Not to be too graphic, but the little chicks pooped like it was their job! It was very runny and a brownish yellow color. At the time, I was on a “lets get rid of paper towels and only use cloth” kick. Suffice it to say, the next day I was at the bulk store buying the biggest pack of paper towels they had! They grew incredible fast and quickly lost their baby fuzz which was replaced by tiny feathers. It was only a few weeks before they looked just like miniature chickens. The first few weeks were incredible fun. It was great to come rushing home from work to see how much they had grown (yes you could see the difference from day to day) and if they had figured out anything new like how to use the cardboard ramp Jeff built in their box.

Outgrowing the Cardboard Box
It wasn’t long before we had to move them out of the cardboard box in our home office and down into the basement. The first pen we built for the chickens was a disaster- a true testament to our chicken naivety. We improvised a “coop” made of some scrap wood, cheap plywood lattice, and an old blanket. The side of the tiny basement bathroom and the walls of the basement were the three side of the “coop”. We duct tapped the lattice to the wall and laid down an old blanket to cover the floor. We took the old heat lamp from the cardboard box and drilled an eyehook into the rafter above and with an s hook and some chain put in a white light plus where they were in the basement happened to be next to a window which let in some natural light. This coop looks like something the Beverly Hillbillies would come up with. Over the next few weeks we realized just what a bad idea this set up is. The blanket smelled in almost no time, and we constantly had to wash it. Since it was covered in chicken poop, we had to wash it by itself, which is an insane waste of energy. This coop was going against everything that we were trying to accomplish with having the chickens. They didn’t seem to mind the set up though and they happily chirped around looking for treats!

The Indoor Chicken Pen Round II
On the second attempt we got things much better. What we came up with is a 6 x 8 piece of linoleum from the scrap bin at a home improvement store, as the floor, and 8 inch wide boards fashioned together into something like a sand box sitting on top of it. Then a wood post in each corner to support chicken wire around the whole thing, and finally a sack of aspen pine shavings over the linoleum. We made a door of sorts that is just a continuation of the wire with a board on the end of it that has a hook that we join onto another board. It was easy to build, and much cleaner and nicer for the birds to live in. We put their feed tray and waterer on cinderblocks as they had the habit of getting the shavings into their food and water. With the aspen shavings in the bottom we can change it every few weeks by sweeping the shavings up into a big garbage bag. Using wood shavings over linoleum has worked out really well for us. They absorb moisture and the manure quickly dries out as it gets buried in the shavings. This really keeps any smells to an almost unnoticeable minimum. The chickens also like to scratch and root around in it. It is also a cinch to clean. We just sweep it up and put it out in the composter in the back yard (the manure makes great fertilizer and the shavings are great to add as browns to the compost to keep it dry). We usually go with aspen bedding which is a more expensive than regular pine shavings, but really keeps the pen smelling fresh and clean. Beware of cedar, though. Supposedly the strong smell given off by cedar can be harmful to chickens respiratory systems. I also went to a home improvement store to find a compact florescent lightbulb that was a high enough equivalent watts to light the pen while still being easy on our energy bills. (I am currently considering switch to the new LED bulb, which will give me better energy uses and be mercury free.) When describing the set up to people who haven’t seen it, I tell them to “image the Guinness Book of Records largest hamster pen and then you have an indoor chicken coop!”

When we first put them in the new pen, they grouped together and started making the strangest almost humming sound. It was just so weird so we turned to the Internet for guidance and began combing the message boards for anything similar. This was when we discovered one almost universal truth about chickens, they HATE change. Eventually a few days went by and they began to get used to the new coop and now seem to enjoy playing around in it. The one item that they never got used to was the perch. Jeff built them a freestanding perch over a small bin that their droppings would fall into. Well rather than using the perfectly good perch they instead decided to sit on the side of the pen on the chicken wire. This caused several problems. For starters Jeff was rather annoyed, since their fat little butts were weighing down the wire, causing it to sag where they perched on it, and this also proved they could easily escape and roam around our basement getting into all kinds of trouble if they wanted to. Not knowing what to do and being too tired/lazy to deal with it, we let the go for a few days and discovered that they have no interest in escaping. They will stay wherever there is food. There was even a few times we accidentally left the door open to the coop overnight and when we went down in the morning they were clucking away in their coop. (One of the advantages of the indoor coop is that we aren’t trying to protect them from outside predators.) However we still had the issue of them weighing down the wire. We eventually conceded to their stubborn ways and put hooks on the end of a 2x4 and laid it across the pen so they can perch where they wanted to. We also clipped their wings to try and keep them more or less contained in the coop. Clipping their wings sounds scary but really it is very easy. One person holds the bird and fans her wing out and then the other person cuts three to four inches off the length of the feather on the part of the wing closest to the bird’s body. This limits their ability to fly. We envisioned it being a huge flurry of flying feathers and all kinds of drama but the girls barely peeped when we did it.

Our Egg Compared to a Store Bought Egg
The First Egg
At five months old, the girls laid their first egg. We were so excited; like new parent when their children take their first steps! We had been getting anxious about when they would lay; the books said they would start at around four months, but when we read other blogs, a lot of people said they will lay when they are good and ready to. Chickens are divas and do things when they want and how they want. The day or two before they laid we could tell something was different; they were making a racket all the time and pecking at each other much more than usual. Then when it sounded like they were in a fight to the death Jeff ran downstairs to break it up and there was a tiny little egg! Now that they are used to laying eggs they don’t make anywhere near the amount of noise and the eggs have gotten much bigger. They have since gotten on to using their nesting box (a wooden box I picked up from the craft store) to lay their eggs. This way we only have to look for eggs in one place, and they naturally like to lay in a dark secluded place. What surprises me the most is how much thicker our eggs shells are compared to store bought eggs. Also, the yoke is a much darker orange, which I have read is a sign the egg is more nutritious (I have no idea if that is true, but they are defiantly better tasting!)

The Treat Bin
We Settle into a Routine
 Everyday before we leave for work, we give them a few handfuls of black oil sunflower seeds and cracked corn to peck for. This gives them something to do during the day. We also check their water and food. If we feel nice, they get an extra treat of grass clippings or an apple. Ironically, of all the treats we have bought for them nothing compares to their love of grass clippings! Every two to three weeks we change their bedding materials and wash all their accessories (water container, feed tray, nesting box etc.) The bedding gets swept into a garbage bag, which we take out to the compost bin. We regularly take them outside to play in the yard and get some exercise.  They love to peck at as much grass as possible and take dust baths in the new hole they have dug in our yard! A small dog carrier works wonders for transporting the chickens in and out of the house for “walks.” They have shown little to no interest in escape so don’t worry about taking them outside. We collect eggs when we get home from work and it has become a normal part of our routine to talk about a “one egg day or two egg days!” At one point, they started to eat their own eggs. One day I went down to see if there were any eggs and one of the girls looked up at me and had yoke dripping off her beak. It was so cute, I couldn’t be mad at her --but Jeff sure was! He felt that the entire point of having them is that they aren’t “freeloaders” like dogs or cats and here they were eating the entire reason for keeping them. Like we did with all our “chicken problems” we turned to the Internet and read that it might be due to a deficiency in calcium, so we increased the calcium in their diet by adding crushed oyster shells and tried putting golf balls in the coop. They pecked at the golf balls which will not break, and this tricks them into not pecking their own eggs. Since our chickens lay brown eggs we also put in tan river rocks which look very similar to their eggs. Eventually they got over this nasty new habit…which was good because I was worried Jeff would make them into soup if they hadn’t!

What are the Eggs Like?
Our eggs are shades of brown, some speckled, and slightly smaller than the usual store bought large size egg. It is interesting to see the variety. They naturally have a membrane on them so you don't have to refrigerate them. (They last a week un-refrigerated and three weeks in the frig.) (This is why in farm homes you regularly see the eggs left out.) One interesting thing we learned was that you shouldn't wash your eggs with water. This takes off the natural membrane and allows bacteria to penetrate the egg. Your best option for cleaning the eggs is to scratch off any dirt with a light sand paper or scratchy sponge right before preparing it to eat.

Normally the chickens get along okay, but they are prone to some pretty loud fighting occasionally, probably over pecking order. One day they got into a fight and one of them got their crown cut. We picked up the injured chicken and took her to the bathroom where I held her while Jeff washed her cut and put hydrogen peroxide and ointment on it. (Try holding a chicken during that!) We had her upstairs in the living room for a few hours to make sure the bleeding stopped. Now we have Big Crown (for obvious reasons), Scabby (again for obvious reasons), and Cluck. At least we can tell them apart.

Yes, They Have Personalities
Scabby is really sweet. She will come up the pen whenever anyone comes over to visit. She doesn’t mind being pet, never pecks as us, and is a good sport about Cluck picking on her. However, she is not the smartest bird. None of them are exactly brilliant but Scabby is especially dim. The other day she got herself turned around in the dog carrier, and I couldn't get her out the front door since she was pecking so hard at the back of the carrier.

Cluck is, well, kinda mean. I think she is the one who cut Scabby and she is always pecking at Jeff and I as well as the other chickens. We forgive her since she is a regular layer, and I think she was the first to lay!

Big Crown
Big Crown is the funny one. She is funny mostly because of how she looks. For some reason her comb/wattle is much larger than the other two and as she was growing her wattle grew in first and was really disproportionate. She is a regular layer (every morning as Jeff and I are waking up around 6-7 we can hear her crowing as she lays-just awesome!), her eggs are a darker color and speckled.

What do your friends think?
The second the chickens came, despite the fact that we had decided we would not tell our friends and family, I had told everyone in my giddy excitement! Generally our friends think it is really interesting, and we have given many a tour of the “farm.” Our families have been mostly supportive. Jeff’s uncle said what he thought in a very matter a fact way “You know I think Jeff just keeps getting weirder by the year.” However once people come to visit the birds and see what a simple set up we have, how clean they are, and realize, no we don’t have chickens running around in diapers through our living room, they seem to think that it is okay.

To Eat or Not to Eat?
For now, we finally feel like we have a handle on indoor chicken keeping. For the first few months, there were several times when I wondered what we had gotten into and if we were doing the right thing. Since we made the decision to take responsibility for the keeping of these birds, we had an obligation to make sure they live in safe, healthy, and humane conditions. While they definitely have an unusual life I modestly think they have an exceptionally good life. They enjoy a clean home, ample fresh food and water, a good amount of space, plenty of treats, regular access to the backyard, and, I am embarrassed to admit, a small collection of parrot toys (of which they show no interest in). Someday we will have to answer the question of if we are going to eat them or not. On average chickens live about eight years, yet they only lay for two to three. We will have to cross that bridge when we get there. I personally think I can kill them to eat. Jeff however isn’t so sure. (Isn’t this what most newlyweds fight about?)

Chickens have to be some of the funniest animals you can imagine, and we hope you will also try “Clandestine Chicken Keeping.” We love the fresh eggs, the sense of self-sufficiency, and enjoyment of watching our goofy birds. Feel free to leave us any comments, and we will be happy to help you the best we can.