Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Backyard Chickens

Posted on | September 15, 2009 | 2 Comments

So, you wanna raise chickens?  Sure, everybody’s doing it.   The people have spoken, the city leaders have relented, let there be backyard chickens!   I applaud the efforts of this uprising and, in appreciation, offer some of the tidbits I have learned during my years with chickens.   Gather ’round and listen close.  You won’t find this important information in Storey’s Guide.

Everything starts with the chicken coop.  If you build it, they will come straight home from the local feed store and make themselves at home.  Of course, when night falls you’ll find them on top of the coop, under it, and everywhere except on the lovely roosts you built.  Allow some extra time at dusk to gather your girls and put them in the proper place and always do a head count.   Someone is sure to have decided that underneath the car was a safe place to tuck her head under her wing for the night.

Clear a spot in your garage for 8 large trash cans.  You’ll need one for the crumbles they eat as chicks, one for the pellets they eat as layers, one for the high protein food you’ll want when they’re molting, one for their oyster shell, one for grit, one each for shavings, shredded newspapers, and straw (which you will frantically switch between in a desperate attempt to discover what type of nesting material will coax them to lay eggs in the nest boxes instead of under the hydrangea), one for soiled bedding so your neighbors don’t complain, one for ….oh, wait am I over 8?  Fine, make it 10.  After all, you can’t just throw the chickens into the yard and have them make do with bugs to eat and leaf debris for bedding like Grandma did with her hens. For Pete’s sake, what did Grandma know how about the proper way to raise animals?!

Now, you just need to wait for those delicious, fresh eggs.  Get comfortable.  Hens must be 20-22 weeks of age before they lay their first egg, according to most poultry publications.  I guess my chickens haven’t read those publications because I’ve never found an egg any sooner than a day before I decided I would butcher the lazy things and go back to the store for eggs.   And that’s way after 22 weeks.  Be aware that if you buy your chicks in the spring (like everyone does), they will reach maturity during the shortest days of the year.  Guess what?  Decreased daylight means a decrease in egg production.  Yep, you should get an egg or two before they quit for the winter season.   But those will the best scrambled eggs you’ve ever tasted because, boy, did you wait a long time for ‘em!

Finally, you need to make long range plans for your girls.  Around 3 years old they will stop laying eggs on a regular basis and you need to decide if you will keep them.  If you have children, you should build a retirement village coop.  This is where Buffy, Vanessa, and Henny Penny will live out their days because your children will not tolerate anything less.  Start over with new chicks and this time be sure they are all the same color so the children can’t distinguish them from each other.  If you plan to butcher the old hens and replace them with new layers (in the old days this was called “farming”, now it is called “sustainable living”), you will need to find an old person.   Pretty much any old person at the country filling station (hint: if it is referred to as a “filling station” instead of “Sheetz” there are bound to be some knowledgeable old people there) will be fine.  I prefer old ladies as they did most of the home poultry processing in the past and are less likely to laugh at you during the procedure than old men.  Anyway, have this fountain of knowledge show you the proper way to butcher your hens and freeze them for the crockpot.  But don’t post the pictures on your Facebook page.  I did that once and lost most of my friends.  I heard they talked about how cruel and disgusting I was when they met for lunch at ChickFila.

I know you’re beginning to think that I don’t really support the raising of chickens at all.  That’s not true.  I started with 6 hens and loved them so much that I currently have more the 50 in my flock.  I have raised hatchery chicks, managed layers, allowed broody hens to hatch their own young, and have had plenty of roosters come and go.  I think fresh eggs are just the starting point for all that chickens have to offer.  As a matter of fact, I bet most people have no idea of the wide range of benefits to raising backyard chickens.  So, I’ve listed some of my favorites below:

Exercise

Catching chickens is an incredibly vigorous, high impact, aerobic sport.  You” ll enjoy this activity every time a hen squeezes through a 2 inch gap and invades your neighbor’s flower beds or flies into the dog’s kennel but, inexplicably, cannot fly back out.  The necessary sprints interspersed with zig zags not only burns calories, but includes use of the rarely-exercised collateral ligaments in the knees and hips.  You’ll know you’re getting the benefit of the full workout when you collapse gasping for breath while wondering what is that searing pain along the side of your knees.  But don’t give up—development of cardiovascular health through aerobic exercise is crucial to longevity.   Furthermore, an effective zig and zag routine could save your life should you encounter an angry bear while hiking in the mountains or an aggressive crocodile while strolling on a  riverbank in the Everglades.   Have you ever seen a  bear or crocodile catch a fleeing chicken?  No, I didn’t think so.

Intelligence

So, researchers have discovered mind games like Sudoko or crossword puzzles can decrease an individual’s chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease.  Not necessary for the owners of backyard chickens.  An endless array of challenging questions will fill your days.  For example, how can you force the chickens to lay their eggs in their nesting boxes?  Let them out later in the morning?  Build a better nest box?  Use wood chips instead of straw?  Play classical music in the coop?

Try to determine how the hens are escaping from their pen.  Sliding underneath?  Flying over?  Why do they never escape when you’re watching them but after a trip into the house for a glass of tea you will come back out to discover them wandering around the yard?

Attempt to identify what critter arrives each night, digs into the pen, wrestles with the coop latches, and leaves without alerting the dog to it’s presence.   Compare the footprints all around the base of your coop with the tracks in the Guide to Animals of the Southeast.  Raccoon?  Opossum?  Put down sand to get a better track.  If that doesn’t work, try making mud with your garden hose.  Can you think of anything else that may hold the print of a potential chicken killer?  How much money can you spend at Home Depot to reinforce the latches and base of your coop to prevent infiltration?  Will you buy electric fencing?  A combination lock?  Have you considered a new dog?

Yes, the mental challenges of chicken ownership are enough to keep anyone intellectually sound well beyond the retirement years.  When you find yourself walking around muttering to yourself with a chicken under one arm and a notebook full of hastily sketched diagrams under the other, you’ll know you’re using more than the measely 10% of brain power that suffices for the rest of society.   Are you smarter than a fifth grader?  Maybe.  But the real question is, are you smarter than your chickens and their enemies?

Philosophy

Nothing opens your mind like sitting in a lawn chair watching hens peck and scratch, cluck and fluff.  Pretty soon, you, too, will notice those little flying insects that hover right above the grass tips.  You’ll admire the simple evolution of a depression under the cedar tree into a hole and the innocent enjoyment of a dirt bath.  How can the value of “landscaping” or the aversion of being “dirty”  stand up to these wonders?  You’ll hear the squabble of blue jays in the background and the wind chimes making the slightest tinkle.  You’ll feel the sun warming your skin and may even close your eyes and turn your face up to it’s glow.  Ommmm. Ommmmm.  Think how much money you’re saving by just hanging out with your chickens.  No need to pay for therapy, massage, or herbal tea.  Wait, don’t think, you’re relaxing.  Ommmm.  Ommmm.

But chickens know more about life than just how to live in the moment.   Did you know that if hens are contained too long without a rooster that one hen may actually stop laying eggs, take over the dominant male role, and begin to crow?  I didn’t just read that online.  As much as my hens complained about the presence of an amorous rooster in the confines of their chicken tractor, there was a major upset when I removed him.   Pretty soon, Laney was more like Larry, even if her crow was a bit on the weak side.  Just her desperate attempt at righting the wrongs of same sex isolation.  So, is it true that life will always find a way?  Which came first–the chicken, the egg, or protogyny?

If you’ve never understood the parable of the lost sheep and the prodigal son in the Bible, just consider how hard you search your yard when the flock retires to the coop minus one hen.  Long after dark you will be out with the flashlight, checking under buildings, scanning rooftops, and questioning the neighbors.  And in the morning, when she appears in the driveway, leaving scratch marks on the hood of your car, will you shoo her away in disgust, leaving her to her fate?  No. You will chase her, catch her, and put her back into the safety of the coop.  Even if it makes you late for work.  You may even rub the ruffled feathers on her head and give her a quick hug as a reward for her delinquent behavior.  What if there really is a God that loves you that much, too?

Zen, the origins of life, and religion.  Like taking Philosophy 101 right there in the chicken coop.  So, bring on the backyard chickens.  You’ll be a lot of things– including fit, smart, and in tune with the universe.  You may even be That Crazy Chicken Lady on your street.  But you won’t be sorry!

© Stevie Taylor 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Comments

2 Responses to “Backyard Chickens”

  1. Nichole
    September 19th, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    I love this funny and witty article! As a fellow chicken keeper/lover I can totally relate!

  2. Susan
    August 29th, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    What a funny and informative view of chicken keeping. Loved it. Thanks!

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