Backyard chickens - The Explorer: El Sol

Backyard chickens

'Pets with benefits,' enthusiasts believe

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Posted: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:07 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

If you're interested in raising chickens, it's better to start from scratch – and talk to someone with experience.

The Uurtamo family and their aunt, Cindy Rospond, have been raising chickens in northwest Tucson for more than 30 years. At one time, they had 30 birds, now they have considerably fewer, but enough hens to keep them well supplied with all the eggs they need.

"Chickens are pets with benefits," said Cindy Rospond.

They are also great for kids, teaching them responsibility in the care and maintenance of chickens. Raising chickens and harvesting their eggs teaches kids where their food comes from.

Nadia and Tait Uurtamo, 10-year-old twins, help to feed and maintain the hens.

"I like to do it," said Nadia. "Chickens are funny and cuddly, good to talk to and we don't have to buy any eggs."

Chickens need shelter and protection; chicken coops should provide shade from the hot desert sun, especially in the summer. The birds also like to have a nesting area to lay their eggs and a perching area to sleep at night. The perch can be very simple; Tait Uurtamo simply ran a pole across the coop area a couple of feet off the ground where the birds hop up at night to roost.

The birds also need protection from predators such as hawks, stray dogs and coyotes. After a chicken is full grown, most cats seem to be afraid of them and will leave them alone. Chicken wire keeps chickens in, predators out.

"Watch out for coyotes," said Rebecca Uurtamo, the twins' mother. "We've had a few coyotes that tried to dig under the fence, so we lined the outside of the fence with buried blocks and bricks."

"Give them plenty of water and check it daily," said Cindy Rospond. "You should keep it clean for them to drink and when it gets very hot, our hens like to stand in the water to cool off."

Joanne Reeder has raised chickens in upstate New York and in Tucson. What's the difference? "In New York, you have to keep them warm in the winter, out here they need shade in the summer. Also, there doesn't seem to be as many parasites out here, as in the northeast."

The Uurtamo family feeds their hens lay pellets, available at any local feed store, and table scraps, like leftover vegetables. Baby chicks can be purchased at feed stores for about $6 each, according to Rebecca Uurtamo. Eggs are one of nature's wonder foods. Each egg is approximately 75 calories, and they are important sources of vitamins A, B and D. They also come in their own lightweight, stay-fresh, easy-to-access packaging.

"Chicken manure is an excellent fertilizer, but because it is high in nitrogen, it should be composted first with other recycled waste," said Fox. She uses the composted manure on her own vegetable garden.

According to Fox, good egg-laying breeds that do well in the Sonoran Desert include Rhode Island Reds, Arauncanas, Grey Rocks and Barred Rocks.

Always check with your neighborhood or homeowners association to see if chickens are allowed. Roosters are not necessary for the hens to produce eggs. In the city limits of Tucson, roosters are not allowed.

If you have chickens and are planning a vacation, always make sure a friend or neighbor can check on your birds at least once a day.

Good web sites to learn more about raising chickens are backyardchickens.com and mypetchicken.com

"We also feed them their own eggshells and let them free-range in the yard for an hour or two each day," said Cindy Rospond.

A single hen can lay up to 200 eggs a year, according to Kim Fox, who has about 25 hens. She calls herself a "food revolutionist" – she maintains a sizable vegetable garden and raises chickens so she can eat and sell the eggs at local farmers markets. She also teaches workshops, "Chickens 101," on a regular basis.

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