Three years ago, my backyard hens laid their first eggs. To commemorate the occasion (and because I get a lot of questions about the hens) here are some words on backyard chickens.
Raising chickens was not my idea. They arrived in my life after I made a passing comment to my husband that having backyard poultry might be “interesting.” Not long after, I came home to discover eight day-old peeps cheeping under a heat lamp in the laundry room.
From there, the innocent balls of fluff took over our lives. They got messy. Their adorable yellow fuzz turned into gangly half-formed feathers. They got bigger – and rowdier. They scattered food and water everywhere in their incubator. Within a few weeks they had to be moved from the incubator into a “brooder” in the sunroom (a brooder is sort of a halfway house for adolescent poultry until they are old enough to live outside.)
Meanwhile, my husband worked on a contractor-grade outdoor coop that would become the chickens permanent home. It had a working window, tile flooring (for easier cleaning), built-in next boxes and roost, and an insulated roof. The thing took four months to build and countless trips to Lowes’. One afternoon mid-build the chickens escaped from their brooder and ran amok in our sunroom. I arrived home from work to discover the chickens perching atop my graduate school thesis and family photos, feathers and poop everywhere, cheerfully oblivious to the mayhem they caused.
Our chicken experiment nearly ended then and there – via an impromptu and immediate chicken pot pie – but reason intervened and we captured the wayward chickens and returned them to the brooder. Soon after, they moved to their outdoor quarters, where they have remained ever since.
What have I learned from all this?
- Chickens are messy. Not only do they poop a lot and shed feathers, they also shed a fine white dander. That alone is enough for me to refrain from treating them as cuddly pets – though some chicken owners feel otherwise (see this fascinating article on a CDC advisory telling owners to stop hugging their chickens).
- Chickens have personality. The pecking order is real! We have the boss hen, Sophia, who pushes the other hens around. She’s first in line for the food and will peck the others back into their places. Newcomer Alice was shy at first but hung in there for the #2 spot, with the twin Americuana hens Matilda and Myrtle deferring to their more aggressive companions.
- Chicken psychology is real. Like people, chickens can be upset by changes in their environment or stressful circumstances. For instance, food or water shortages will cause the hens to stop laying, as will being frightened by predators like foxes. Myrtle has a propensity for “broodiness” (stubbornly sitting in the nest box when there are no eggs to hatch; this can be dangerous as broody hens often don’t get enough food and water because they insist on sitting in the nest.) When we place Myrtle in a special coop to break her broody cycle, the other hens tend to not lay as well.
- Chickens get you close to your food. It is thrilling to see fresh eggs! Because our hens lay eggs in different colors and shapes, we are often able to tell whose egg it is. We originally had four roosters from that set of 8 chicks; we aren’t able to keep roosters, so one by one, we harvested and ate them. This may sound cruel, but it actuality it is only removing the commercial poultry farms and butchery from the equation. It seems a more honest way to eat meat.
- Chickens are great for “going green.” Between our compost piles, chickens, and recycling, we have very little actual trash. Chickens are excellent means of using food scraps that might otherwise be thrown away. Vegetable peels, stale breads and rolls, strawberry hulls, apple cores…chickens love it all! These scraps add variety and extra nutrition to their diet of commercial poultry feed, and it reduces our food waste. It is pretty amazing to think that I know every single thing those chickens have eaten since they were a day old! Also, we are able to raise the chickens in comfortable, more natural circumstances and in a far more humane way that is generally practiced in commercial poultry operations.
The chickens are not saving us money when it comes to food or providing an endless supply of fresh eggs (production dwindles as the chickens age as well as with the seasons – in fall and winter, we may only get an egg a week), but they have been a worthwhile experiment, and a source of endless dinner party conversation.
Got a chicken question? Ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!