A Family Raises Chickens in Del Ray
To raise chickens in your backyard, Alexandria city regulations require your coop to be at least 200 ft. from your neighbor’s residence, something practically impossible given Del Ray’s narrow properties lines. But many residents, with permission of their neighbors, are raising chickens in their backyards and enjoying the fruits of their urban farms.
One Del Ray family agreed to let me see their backyard chickens and their DIY chicken coop as long as we keep their names confidential. About a year ago, the couple acquired a small flock of the handsome bantam chicken, a variety of fowl that’s characterized by its small size, and no roosters. The mother has had a fondness for chickens since she was a child, having remembered receiving live chicks in her Easter basket. She wanted to share her appreciation of chickens with her son. The family has no interest in raising other farm animals; they’re just happy to keep chickens in their urban backyard.
The chickens are considered family pets that come when they’re called (by whacking a food dish and making a clucking sound), and they’re healthy, docile, and good egg layers. Apart from the winter months, they lay about 5-6 eggs every day. And in spite of a reputation for being unclean, the chickens are actually quite fastidious about cleaning their feathers every day with a vigorous dust bath.
Here are the luxury all-season accommodations that the family built by hand for their chickens. The father is a carpenter so designing and building the structure proved to be a fun sideline project.
The chickens hang out in the coop where they can be secured inside at night. The front door and window open so the owners can clean the interior and access the chickens easily. To keep the chickens warm and hydrated in the coldest months, they installed a flat ceramic heater and a heated water bowl.
The biggest room includes a ramp so the chickens can head up to the top to roost whenever they feel like it.
On the far right, the family built a small addition where the chickens can lay their eggs in privacy. The day I visited, one of the hens was snuggled up in there keeping her eggs warm. I was told she gets upset when the eggs are taken away even though the eggs are not fertilized.
My daughter Nadja went home with a warm fresh egg the day we visited. I’m sure it will be delicious and I’m told is likely to have a yolk larger than the typical store-bought egg.
The chickens can go out of the coop through a small passageway on the left side into an enclosure that keeps them safe from predators. The family acquired a dog pen from Craigslist after a hawk made off with one of their chickens. Now, the hawks, sometimes two at one time, perch on the fence and even on the roof of the pen.
That’s why the family recently adopted a border collie. During the daytime, they do let the chickens roam freely in the yard. The flock often wanders out to the back alley to peck at the compost pile. They’re hoping the dog herds them back in from time to time and scares off the hawks.
Of course, they’re still training her to think of the chickens as her charges and not a possible snack.
The dog pen also keeps the birds and squirrels from helping themselves to the chicken feed.
From time to time, the chickens get a special treat of crickets and meal worms.
A group of chicken advocates is lobbying to change the Alexandria code so more families can legally keep chickens. You can follow their progress on their Backyard Chicken Facebook page.