At one point, Caitlin Mooney had 40 chickens pecking around her yard but one small Bantam hen named Little Mama was her favorite.
Every day when Mooney fed the birds, Little Mama came to visit. She perched on Mooney’s arm and cooed to her.
“She was really attached to me,” Mooney said. “You wouldn’t think a chicken would have a personality, but they’re fun. They’re entertainment with built-in benefits.”
A free daily source of fresh eggs is an obvious benefit of keeping chickens.
“The eggs are some of the best I’ve ever had,” Mooney said. “It also helps to bridge that gap between where food comes from that’s on your table. There is such a disconnect now.”
The birds will happily thrive on bugs and weeds if left alone but feeding them scraps from the kitchen — vegetable peels, old bread, even leftover cheese — will result in added nutritional benefits in the eggs they lay.
“Depending on what the chicken ate, [the egg yolks]can be a really dark orange. The ones you usually get in the grocery store are yellow,” Mooney said, adding that the darker yolk means a more nutrient-dense egg.
When Mooney and her partner Mike Slaton had 40 chickens, they struggled to round up enough scraps to feed the flock.
“We were basically dumpster diving for our chickens,” Slaton joked.
Mooney noted that chickens cannot have raw potato peels.
In addition to the benefit of fresh eggs, the chickens can also weed and fertilize a garden.
“If I just planted a row of greens and I picked as much as I could and there were still scraps, I could put the chickens on that row. They’ll get to eat the greens and they’ll also provide manure and fertilization for the future crop,” Mooney said.
Mooney said the free fertilizer is high in nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and lime.
A flock can also do the dirty work in a compost pile, eating scraps left behind and turning the material over as they forage and move.
Mooney has worked with chickens on farms since she was six years old, but she started keeping chickens in her yard in 2008 with Slaton, a manager at Progressive Farms.
Mooney helps in the Progressive Farms greenhouse, across from Progressive Gardens on Oleander Drive.
In addition to integrating a flock into the system at Progressive Farms, Mooney led a workshop about backyard chickens May 3, detailing the preparation and maintenance required.
A City of Wilmington ordinance allows chickens but requires a 20,000-square-foot tract for the fowl, with at least 10 square feet per bird. The flock must be kept in a fenced enclosure at all times.
No permit is required to start a backyard coop within city limits.
Chickens are social animals, so Mooney advised starting a flock with two or more birds.
A flock can be started with chicks or grown hens. Chicks are cheaper but require more maintenance.Chicks cannot regulate their body temperature so they must be kept at a carefully maintained temperature for four weeks.
“It’s scary to raise chicks. They are so fragile,” Mooney said.
Mooney recommended keeping chicks in a plastic container heated with a 250-watt bulb in a garage or on an outdoor porch.
Hens start laying eggs between four and six months old and will lay one egg every day and a half for three years. Exact yield varies by breed. Mooney said the birds lay fewer eggs during winter due to shorter days and less activity.
Each hen is born with all the eggs she will lay in her lifetime, ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 eggs.
“There is no real reason to get a rooster unless you want to hatch eggs,” Mooney said.
Coops can be stationary or mobile. A mobile coop will keep litter and manure contained but if chickens are free to roam for a few hours at dusk, they will naturally return to the coop at nightfall to sleep.
Chickens can live for 10 years if given proper care.
Jessi Strickland was in attendance at Mooney’s workshop. She started a backyard flock in March after seeing chicks advertised on Craigslist.
Strickland said she is still learning how to care for the flock but the benefits outweigh the challenges.
“I never thought of myself as a person who would want chickens or even like birds very much but I love them. They’re so much fun,” Strickland said.