Raising backyard chickens on the North Fork

A Blue Laced Red Wyandotte chicken at the Hauser household in Mattituck. (Credit: David Benthal)

Twenty-year-old Jeffrey Hauser and his mother, Kathleen, headed to the Mattituck post office on a particularly chilly March morning. The errand was routine. The package? Not so much. 

Inside were six baby chickens — no more than two days old. After several weeks of nursing in a brooder box, the fledgling hens would join the Hausers’ 15 other chickens in their backyard coop in Mattituck.

This type of visit to the post office is one the mother and son have been making for seven years now. Jeffrey — a lifelong animal advocate — was a teenager attending Mattituck High School when his uncle inspired him to raise chickens at home. It was a prospect Jeffrey would follow up on in a bit of a sneaky way.

“My mom was sleeping one night on the couch — I woke her up, but she was still half-asleep — and, I said ‘Hey, do you mind if I have your credit card?’ ” Jeffrey explained. “She said yes and went back to sleep. I went online and ordered 25 chicks.”

“I was at work and I got an email saying, ‘Thank you for your order,’ ” Kathleen added. “I immediately called the hatchery and they said, ‘Oh, yes. We spoke to Jeffrey.’ I told them, ‘He’s 13 years old!’ ”

The first order was canceled, but the story was far from over.

Kathleen and her husband, Jeffrey Sr., made a deal with their son: Prepare for the chickens and he could raise them.

Jeffrey poses in his coop with one of his birds. (Credit: David Benthal)

Getting started

As society’s desire to know where their food comes from continues to grow, many people across the nation are turning to raising
backyard chickens.

The North Fork is not an exception.

Talmage Farm Agway orders more than 6,000 birds a year to keep pace with the demand.

“People love chickens,” said Tara Besold, who has been working at the Riverhead garden and farm supply store for 25 years. “There’s more and more interest every year.”

To help educate the public about the commitment, Talmage hosts Chick Days each March, when guests can visit baby chicks and attend seminars on the process of raising them.

“We like when people buy the birds and give them homes,” Besold said. “We want to make sure they know what they’re getting into first.”

One of Jeffrey’s chickens. (Credit: David Benthal)

Choosing a breed

Talmage sells 28 breeds of chickens. Similar to dogs, each has a different personality. Researching the breeds will help you identify the bird best suited to you. You can select breeds based on your preference for their size, plumage color, number of toes and even the color of the eggs they produce, said Tiffany Wyman, a Nutrena employee who hosts the Chick Days seminars.

“Think about the experience you want,” she said. “Most people want eggs and aren’t interested in the meat. I find that people today treat their chickens like pets. They raise them from tiny chicks, they’ve taken their pictures, they have names — it is highly unlikely you’ll turn them into chicken pot pie.”

Hardy breeds that fare well in the winter are top picks for new hobbyists looking for eggs. Breeds like Delaware, Jersey Giant, Rhode Island Red and Orpington are good egg producers, she said.

Jeffrey chose Blue Laced Red Wyandotte — a fairly rare English breed.

“Not that many people breed them and a lot of people are looking to add them to their coops,” said Jeffrey, now a sophomore majoring in biology at Molloy College in Rockville Centre. The aspiring high school biology teacher also plays lacrosse while still maintaining the coop. He selected the breed to grow his hobby into a business.

Jeffrey will launch his website, Hauser’s Hatchery, this year and plans to sell chicks, eggs, hatching eggs and full-sized chickens. The family will also continue to donate eggs to their local food pantry in Greenport.

Jeffrey with two of his chicks. (Credit: David Benthal)

Bringing home your chicks

The chicks begin life in a heated brooder, not the coop. New York State law requires people to purchase at least six chickens when starting out. This mitigates the problem of people purchasing a chicken as a novelty gift on occasions such as Easter, said Wyman.

Consider the flock when purchasing a brooder large enough to house the chicks in a roomy and comfortable environment — around one-square-foot per chick to start, said Wyman.

Proper lighting, heating, feed, water rationing and bedding also need to be evaluated at this stage. Dry pine shavings are often the best bedding in
a brooder, Wyman said. Straw and newspaper, on the other hand, should be avoided because chicks tend to slip on those materials.

“It is much like having a nursery ready before a new baby,” Wyman said. “You don’t bring a baby home without a well-equipped nursery.”

After roughly 16 weeks they’re ready to head outside to the coop.

The coop at the Hauser household. (Credit: David Benthal)

Building a coop

After the Hausers canceled the initial chicken order, father and son got to work building “the Taj Mahal” of chicken coops in less than five days.

“My dad is a great carpenter,” Jeffrey said. “I gave him my notebook that was just hundreds of drawings of what I wanted my dream coop to look like. He looked at it and showed me how to do it.”

Regardless of architectural design, there are features essential to housing. The floor plan needs to accommodate at least four-square-feet per bird. Hens also require perches for sleeping, which should be installed between two and three feet above the ground. It’s also recommended to have one nesting box for laying eggs per every four chickens.

Built-in chicken runs are also important for the birds’ health and safety.

“I let them out some times so they can walk in the grass, but they need to be watched closely,” said Jeffrey. “We have two fully closed-in chicken runs that protect them from predators: hawks, foxes. The runs go down about six inches so nothing can dig underneath and get them.”

Chickens roam at the Hauser household. (Credit: David Benthal)

Other considerations

There are many nuances to raising chickens. For example, each town has its own set of zoning regulations to keep in mind and regular veterinarians can’t always treat sick birds. In fact, it’s recommended to have a specialist’s number in anticipation of any illness, Wyman said.

That being said, the reward for families is often immeasurable.

“Being so young and raising chickens on my own — with my parents being accepting of it — helped me as an individual with handling responsibilities,” said Jeffrey. “When I have kids, I’ll be able to share this experience with them.”

“It’s been a great learning experience as a family,” Kathleen concluded. “I am glad I didn’t say no.”

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