Chicken Run 

Backyard hens are now legal in Richmond. Here's what you need to know before you buy.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

About 30 downy chicks crowd together in a black tub under a heat lamp at the Southern States on West Broad Street. The store's manager is surprised there are any left.

Chicken are hot this year, Roy Lee says. Since Southern States started carrying the birds for the season in mid-February, the store has been selling out of its weekly order of 300 in an average of two days. And now that Richmond City Council has started permitting residents to keep as many as four hens in their backyards, Lee says the store plans to lengthen its usual chick-selling season through the end of April.

But as some have discovered, keeping chickens isn't always as blissful and carefree an exercise as some proponents would have you think. So what should keep in mind if you've resolved to bring home a flock?

We checked in with Patricia Foreman, the force behind Chickensandyou.com and author of "City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers, and Local Food Producers."

1. State law requires stores such as Southern States to sell chickens in groups of at least six. With the city allowing only four per residence, you'll need to find a chicken friend or neighbor to share the purchase. Foreman recommends a mix of breeds because it makes it easier to tell your hens apart.

2. Chickens will enter a coop on their own when it gets dark out, but the door still needs to be closed at night and opened in the morning. Foreman recommends an electronic model that operates on a timer. That allows her to leave for days-long trips without worrying about her flock of 40.

3. A chicken eats an average of $30 worth of standard feed a year. A chick will take about five months to start laying eggs. In their prime, they'll produce about 250 eggs a year, Foreman says. After two years, that number starts to decrease.

4. Like other pets, chickens tend to grow on their owners, so you probably won't want to make soup out of them when their production falls off, Foreman says. "Spend time with your flock and handle the birds," she says. "One of the things you'll be most surprised by is how thoughtful and entertaining they are."

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