Having back-yard chickens sounds like great fun in the summertime when the birds are out eating bugs and skedaddling around the garden. But what happens when winter arrives and snow begins to fall? Do chickens get cold? Do you have to put a heater in the chicken house? Do chickens suddenly become a big problem?
Hardly, said Jeremy Porter.
"When it gets cold, they ruffle their feathers, and that holds warm air next to their body, like a layer of insulation," said Porter, chicken consultant for the food-sustainability group Seedleaf and Cluck! Lexington, an organization that works to support urban chicken farming.
Cluck!'s third annual Tour de Coops on May 26 will showcase nine back yards where owners keep chickens. Educational workshops in several yards will have Cluck! members on hand to answer questions about gardening with chickens, incubating eggs and raising young chickens.
Porter will give tips on keeping chickens during all four seasons.
"A lot of folks feel the biggest barrier to chicken-keeping is how to care for birds in the wintertime," Porter said. But chickens can stay outside year-round. Mulch or fine wood chips spread on the ground will keep their feet dry, which is important.
When temperatures dip, chickens need additional food, plenty of water to hydrate and a coop where they can retreat in very cold or windy weather, Porter said.
"As long as they have shelter, they will go in there by themselves if it's really cold or rainy. They're pretty smart," he said.
Sherry Maddock said heat is more of a threat to the well- being of chickens than cold. Maddock and her husband, Geoff, have an small urban farm at their house on Fourth Street. They have a dozen hens alongside beehives, fruit trees, raspberry and blackberry bushes and raised beds of vegetables.
"Last summer, when it was 105 degrees, our chickens would go underneath the chicken coop and cool off," she said. "Fresh, clean water is critical in summer and winter."
The Maddocks' home will be one of the sites on the Tour de Coops.
After the tour, attendees are invited to Alfalfa restaurant for an early dinner and to hear a panel discussion on raising chickens. There also will be a silent auction at the event and online.
Proceeds from the tour will fund the Seedleaf poultry program, which helps people get started raising chickens in urban settings.
Porter does free, half-hour consultations on chicken-keeping as part of his job. He also presents programs at schools, garden clubs and other organizations on raising healthy chickens.
During the past few years, back-yard chickens have become popular in cities around the country. Porter estimates several hundred people in Lexington have chickens. "It's really a growing phenomenon," he said.
Keeping chickens in Lexington is legal, but local ordinances and neighborhood restrictions might set limits. Check with your neighborhood association to find out about possible rules.
People raise chickens for different reasons. "Some folks want to raise their own food because they want to know where their food comes from," Porter said. "A lot of folks want their kids to know how to raise chickens and see what it takes."
Chickens are called a "gateway animal" because they are easy to keep in a small urban space, he said, and success with them can encourage their keepers to raise other livestock. Some people come from the country or are a generation or so removed from farming. "They remember their grandparents having chickens. They want to get back into it because chickens were part of their heritage," he said.
Raising chickens for economical reasons is not the reason to do it, Porter said.
"You can get eggs from the grocery store a lot cheaper," he said. "But the eggs from your back yard, from chickens that have foraged in your yard or garden, are simply delicious."
IF YOU GO
Tour de Coops
What: Cluck! Lexington's tour of nine urban chicken coops
When: 1-4 p.m. May 26
Where: Various private residences. A map and list of tour sites will be available with ticket purchase.
Tickets: Tour: $7, free for ages 11 and younger. Available at Alfalfa restaurant, Good Foods Market and Café or Seedleaf.org.
After-tour dinner: 4:30 p.m. May 26 at Alfalfa, 141 E. Main St. $10 adults, $5 children.
Learn more: Clucklex.org.
Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.