There's a lot of interest in raising backyard chickens these days. If you're one of a growing number wanting to have your own fresh eggs at your fingertips, here's a quick guide and a few tips to get you started.
The first thing is to make sure that backyard chickens are allowed in your town, city or neighborhood. It's also a good idea to run it past your neighbors. If there's a concern about noise, then you'll want to avoid having a rooster. They are noisy! You don't need one (unless you want to hatch your own, which is more involved) and you'll still get just as many eggs.
Next, choose the location in your yard and figure out how much space you have for the coop (their inside space) and a run, which is a protected outdoor area where they can get fresh air, exercise, sunshine and access to grass, worms, and insects. A good spot has both shade and sunshine. They'll need cover in summer and the warmth in winter. Chicken coops that you can assemble yourself are increasingly available from many sources online. They come in a range of sizes and prices, from a few hundred dollars to a couple of thousand or more. There are also any number of build-your-own plans out there, and even ready-made coops that can be delivered to your house. The most important factor is protection from predators. No matter where you live, you are likely to have some creature nearby that will try to get to your birds. Some of the more common culprits are dogs, raccoons, possums, foxes, weasels, snakes, etc. So pick a coop that is tight and secure and be sure to lock your chickens up every night. It's not fun to wake up one morning and find your whole flock was last night's fox feast. It happens!
Once you have your coop and the run set up, it's time to think about getting the chickens. (Don't make the common mistake of reversing these steps!) There are several options at this point.
1) Mail order-- There are several reputable sources online that will mail you one-day old chicks. The ideal time to start this is spring, of course, but it's possible to do it anytime. Just keep in mind that brand new chicks have to be placed under a heat lamp at first, so the warmer it is outside the sooner you can move them out to the coop. Also, a chicken doesn't start laying until about five months of age, so if you get started in early spring then you'll have eggs by late summer. The biggest advantage here is that you can pick your preferences. There are many varieties of chickens and the size/color of the eggs they produce. You'll have a wider selection from these places and a better chance of getting the sexes you want. For instance if you want only female you can specify. You'll likely pay between $2.00-4.00 for a chick, more for the rarer breeds.
2) Local feed stores--Starting in late winter, lots of the feed stores will sell chicks that are already a few weeks old. This gives you the advantage of not having to use a heat lamp and getting eggs sooner. The disadvantage is that these places aren't as good at determining the sexes and you might end up with a rooster or two (or three). You also won't have the variety of breeds to choose from.
3) Local farms--Some farms are willing to sell for cheap or give away "layers" that are slowing down in their production. This is fine for a beginning backyard flock if you aren't picky about the breed and don't mind a hen that will stop laying after a year or so.
4) Schools--Lots of classrooms will hatch eggs as a spring project and will then give away the chicks. This is not a great way to start your flock, as there's a good chance of health problems and practically no way to determine the sexes. You could end up with a lot of sick roosters.
Once you're set up and have your chickens, maintenance and upkeep is pretty simple. Just make sure they have plenty of food and clean water every day. There are lots of choices in chicken feed--commercial, organic, soy-free, corn-free, etc. You will learn the differences and your preferences as you go. As far as keeping the coop clean--we use straw for bedding (other choices are wood shavings, chips and even sand), rake it all out every once in a while and replace with fresh. Beyond that, all you really need to do is have fun with them (they are hilarious), be smart about hygiene, and of course--enjoy your fresh eggs!