A decided benefit of keeping chickens is the opportunity to raise birds that have beautiful plumage and lay unusually colored eggs. Many breeds come in two sizes: standard, also known as large breed, and bantam, which are typically one-quarter the size of standard birds. Both do fine in back yards, though standard chickens lay much larger eggs than bantams and, because they weigh more, tend to be less flighty.
For dependable egg production, choose layers--lightweight breeds, such as Black Australorps, that were bred to lay reliably. Dual-purpose breeds (eggs and meat), such as Buff Orpingtons and Silver Laced Wyandottes, are heavier than layers but have better egg production than broilers, breeds used primarily for meat. Many layer, broiler, and dual-purpose breeds are available as standards or bantams.
Most breeds lay either white or brown eggs, though the tint can vary. Welsummers, a rare dual-purpose breed, lay dark brown eggs. And both Araucanas and Ameraucanas lay blue-green eggs, though many of the chickens sold as these breeds are actually "Easter Eggers"—hybrid birds that may lay blue-green, olive, or other tinted eggs.
When building a flock, consider the behavioral and physical characteristics and climate suitability of each breed. Rhode Island Reds are a popular dual-purpose breed that lay large, light brown eggs, but they can be aggressive toward calmer birds such as Brahmas. Breeds with thicker plumage do best in cold climates, while those without a lot of extra insulation, such as Silkies, a fabulously ornamental breed with feathers that look more like fur, live comfortably in warmer climates.
A coop provides shelter for chickens, but it will also be a part of the landscape, so consider aesthetics as well as the chickens' needs when planning for one. Debbie Hoffmann, who keeps chickens in her suburban-Philadelphia back yard, paid a carpenter to build a stylish gray-and-white coop with a leaded stained-glass window installed over the nesting boxes. "I had to go before the zoning board to get permission to have the hens," says Hoffmann. "They were really dazzled by the decorative window and I had no trouble." A quick search online will turn up loads of inspiration for do-it-yourself coops. Several companies, including Wine Country Coops and Henspa, sell premade henhouses.
At its most basic, a coop must protect chickens from drafts and predators and keep them dry, warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. The coop itself should have wooden boxes filled with straw in which the hens can lay their eggs (one box for every two hens, because they will share), a place to roost off the ground, and at least 2 to 4 square feet of floor space per bird. "Crowding is one thing they don't like," says Louisiana State University AgCenter poultry expert Theresia Lavergne, Ph.D. "If they get stressed, they will peck each other." Cover the floor of the coop with 2 to 3 inches of pine shavings and dust the shavings with diatomaceous earth to help prevent infestations of lice and mites. Replace the shavings every month or two. Attach an enclosed outdoor run (8 to 10 square feet per bird) to the coop to give the hens a place to exercise while keeping them contained.
Even in a fenced back yard, it's not wise to allow chickens to range free without supervision, both for their security and the safety of your garden. Chickens love to scratch the ground looking for worms and seeds, without regard for what plants might be in their way. And in urban and suburban areas, predators come in all shapes and sizes, from coyotes to raccoons to hawks. Danger can come from above and below, so cover the run and bury its fencing at least 1 foot deep. Use 1/4-inch hardware cloth for enclosures instead of chicken wire, which raccoons can easily pull apart and small rodents can squeeze through.