Know your poultry, from coop to kitchen

TWL and Bay Hay team up to help islanders raise birds in their backyards.

Understanding the natural tendencies of chickens is key to keeping them – and your neighbors – happy.

“Their mission in nature is to turn over plant matter for things to eat. Chickens can destroy a garden patch in seconds,” said Paul Farley, poultry instructor. “If they’re attracted to a garden three houses over, they’re likely to find it.”

Bay Hay and Feed and the Trust for Working Landscapes are co-sponsoring a set of informative poultry classes for novices interested in keeping chickens in their backyards. The classes are a first for TWL, whose mission is to provide education in farm-related areas.

“People are losing touch with the source of their food and losing the skills that we had until recently to raise animals and process and cook them,” said Candace Jagel, TWL secretary. “(The classes) are trying to counter this general trend.”

Farley began raising chickens about 50 years ago with his grandparents, and says most people do not have to go back more than two or three generations to find a family member who raised their own chickens.

“It’s a lost technology for virtually every family,” he said. “The classes are a way to help people reclaim something lost from their own heritage.

If you have a cat or dog, then you can have chicken, duck, or geese, Farley says – although security concerns are different.

Howard Block, owner of Bay Hay and Feed, keeps a chicken coop, and says raccoons “work on the cage every night. They stop by and check it every time… They’ve got plenty of time.”

Three kids from the local 4H club were on hand with their chickens at the first class last month, to show to a dozen Poultry 101 students. Nine-year-old William McDonald held a shiny “Black Beauty Sexlink” in his arms, one of the five chickens and two ducks he raises. Petting the chickens keeps them tame, McDonald said, stroking a hen.

Chickens come from the jungles of Southeast Asia, although they are raised around the world and come in several thousand varieties today. Throughout his talk, Farley showed how setting up a living environment for chickens, which takes advantage of their instinctual tendencies, creates a fairly low-maintenance and healthy environment for hens.

Chickens will dust themselves daily in sand or dirt to keep down the mite population. With a bad case of mites, treatment powder can be added to the dusting box, and the hens will self-medicate through their usual routine.

Most importantly, a well-kept coop creates virtually no odor or flies, an important part of being a good neighbor.

Bainbridge Municipal Code 18.27.060 on keeping poultry in yards is permissive, saying only that “confined feeding areas or structures to house livestock or poultry shall not be located closer than 200 feet to any pre-existing residence on adjacent properties.”

Chickens are personable, and noise comes mostly from roosters, which Farley says are really not necessary unless you want to hatch eggs.

Farley recommends that beginners start by raising adult chickens. But for those interested, the chick class will cover how to raise poultry from eggs or chicks.

“Dual-purpose” breeds are popular among backyard farmers, because they provide a balance of egg laying and meat production. They lay 200-220 eggs a year, whereas egg farms use breeds that lay about 300 a year, but that do not make such a good roast for the table.

Islander Ann Morse’s 36 hens have the run of the farm. Although numerous, the chickens, ducks, turkeys and other animals on her farm are still a hobby.

“It’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t really pay for itself,” Morse said. Unlike professional farmers that will butcher or swap out hens at the end of their egg-producing life, she just lets the hens stay on to live out their days.

Ironically, Morse says she does not eat many eggs. She sees the chickens as part of the life cycle of her farm; they pick through and disperse lumps of manure left on the field by the goats and donkeys.

“They make a mess, but eat grubs, keeping the bug population down,” Morse said, even picking through the compost pile, aerating the mix.

Morse says a lot of hens have distinct personalities.

She remembers one chicken that came to the front door at night. They would let it in, and it would walk around the kitchen table. After three days it went back to going to the coop at night.

Block says that there are quite a few people with poultry on Bainbridge. He and his staff “hold poultry classes every day” in fielding questions from customers.

He says the key is to set up the coop properly from the start and “don’t get more chickens that you can deal with,” Block said. “When it becomes a hassle, then it’s not fun.”

Classes are 10 a.m. to noon. Poultry 101 class repeats Sunday 4/18 and the Chick class is Sun. 4/25. Sign up with Candace Jagel at 842-4277 or at Bay Hay and Feed. Cost is $15 for TWL members, $20 for non-members.

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