Backyard and City Chickens in Clark County
City Chicken Law: Livestock in Vancouver and Clark CountyUnless you live in a suburban development with covenants, conditions or other deed restrictions, you are allowed to keep at least a few hens, whether as livestock, domestic animal or pet. The most restrictive public guideline is found in Vancouver Municipal Code (VMC) 8.24 and allows city residents to keep hens, but not roosters, providing that their living conditions are humane and that the eggs are for personal consumption, and not trade. Small-scale egg producers in Washington may generally sell eggs from their own flocks directly to consumers at the farm or by "CSA" subscription, but more commercial sales require an annual egg handler or dealer's license, available through the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Getting Started with ChickensLocal feed stores, classes and neighbors can help introduce you to the basics of keeping chickens, which are social animals and so should be kept in groups of three or more. Chickens will need a moderate amount of space, including a predator-proof coop, laying boxes for eggs and a small yard for exercise. Five hens can manage in a 4'x8' area, if it can be kept dry and reasonably wind-free. There are a variety of simple and fancy designs online and elsewhere for chicken coops and chicken runs, as well as fancy pre-built coops available through farm supply stores such as Thrifty Feed. One popular option that combines the coop and yard into a single portable structure is called the "chicken tractor," and is essentially an open-bottomed cage on wheels that one moves from one area in the yard to another to keep predators away from chickens, and chickens away from the garden.
There are a variety of different kinds of chickens, as anyone who has seen the Clark County Fair's poultry barn can attest. From "easter eggers" such as Martha Stewart's blue-egg ameraucanas to small bantams and fancy Asian varieties, there are many breeds to choose from. If selecting chickens primarily for eggs and meat, most northwest flocks tend to be made up of heavier birds with short combs, who can withstand our wet winters. Many of these have "New England" breed names such as Rhode Island or New Hampshire reds, Plymouth Rock or Orpingtons. Other popular varieties include red or black sex-links, leghorns and the austrolorps. Egg color is determined by breed, from brown to white to a sort of blue-green.
Living with Chickens over TimeOne gardener referred to chickens as "land piranhas" and they are basically small dinosaurs. They will tear up and eat a garden if they can, then take a dust bath in the remains. Dogs will easily kill them and smart cats will avoid them, while rodents will want to steal their food and raccoons will want to steal their eggs. Young chicks can be purchased in the spring at most feed stores, but will not begin to lay for the first few months, and almost never more than one egg per day. Most hens will decrease in frequency after about two years, and average lifespan for a city chicken is five to eight years.
Interesting Egg Facts
Just as a woman will menstruate even without a mate, so hens lay eggs without roosters just dandily, and scientists tell us that the few extra cells in a fertile egg do not significantly affect either taste or nutritional value. Hens will normally try to lay their eggs in a protected, secluded spot (which is why each coop should have at least two dark and covered "lay boxes"). All eggs can safely sit for days without refrigeration, and each is naturally protected within its sterile shell by a natural "bloom." Mother Earth News published an article in late 1977 where they tested a variety of egg-storage methods, and decided that room-temperature was best for storing clean, unbroken eggs from home chickens.
The eggshell itself is slightly permeable, and eggs should be collected regularly so that they are not accidentally broken, exposed to feces or a temptation for scavengers. The main danger for contamination by eggs is that it might become cracked, with salmonella getting into the nutrient-rich interior, where it grows quickly. (For many years, eggs were the preferred medium for scientists to culture bacteria, because this of these nutrient-rich, sterile properties.) Even fertile eggs are laid in a sort of suspended animation, and will not grow until raised above a certain temperature and kept there for a certain time, as replicated by commercial incubators when warm hens are not available.
Upcoming Chicken EventsThere are a variety of chicken classes and workshops in the spring, including events by Growing Gardens in Portland and the Urban Farm School, as listed at http://VancouverFood.net/calendar
For Further Information
- Wikipedia article on chickens and chicken breeds
- Vancouver Municipal Code (VMC) 8.24 "Animals"
- Washington State Department of Agriculture egg licensing requirements and RCW 69.25
- BackyardChickens.com has an entire section on coop designs, including small, large and portable "tractors"
- Backyard Poultry magazine covers both home and small producers
- Growing Gardens in Portland has a good chicken resource page, including a tour of urban coops each July
- Barbara Kilarski's 2003 book Keep Chickens!: Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and other Small Spaces is a terrific resource for beginners. FVRL call number 636.5 KILARSK or available through Powell's
- Joel Salatin's 1996 Pastured Poultry Profits is the primary book for small-scale, non-factory farmers.
- Other books are listed at the VFN bookshelf at Powell's
- "Can You Really Store Fresh Eggs A Year Or more Without Refrigerator? Mother's staff experimented with various methods of storing eggs with no refrigeration and for a long haul in a refrigerator." Mother Earth News, November/December, 1977.