Three Years of Chickens

On this day three years ago, I excitedly picked up a tiny, peeping shoebox from my post office containing the five chicks of our original flock.  While only Ms. Tori remains with us to celebrate her third birthday, it nonetheless makes me smile to think of all the fun that started that day.  

I've written a lot about our Ladies in the ensuing time, but I think my favorite is this bit I wrote for Rhythm of the Home last spring.  To celebrate our third chick-anniversary, here it is.

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The Chicken TV :: Why We Adore Our Backyard Flock

Unbuckle my baby boy from his car seat. Jiggle the lock to open the back gate. Grab the old quilt as we pass the porch, and spread it out one-handed in the yard while the other hand keeps the boy securely on my hip. Plunk him down in the center, singing a silly song as I run to our chicken coop to check for eggs—beautiful chocolate colored and creamy eggs that make me grin big as I marvel over them in my hand. Head back to the blanket and the boy, and settle in—it’s time for some chicken TV.

By the time we got our backyard flock of chickens, just about two years ago, city chickens were already becoming incredibly popular. “It’s easier than keeping a dog!” veteran chicken keepers told me. I like eggs, but—like many people—I was concerned about the cruelty inherent in battery-cage farming chickens. So it didn’t take much to convince me that having a flock of my own was a good idea. What I didn’t necessarily understand was how much time we would spend being fabulously entertained by our girls.

Our flock is named after singers. Tori (Amos), our Buff Orpington, is my favorite, for her sweet disposition. My one-year-old loves Etta (James), our Polish bantam, because she’s got what can only be called a marvelous headdress. Bonnie (Tyler) is a rocker chick Buckeye. Joni (Mitchell), our Lavender Orpington, is the exact color of the real Joni Mitchell’s voice. And Gladys (Knight), our Copper Maran, lays the most gorgeous dark chocolate colored eggs.

On any given afternoon, the five of them will run to greet all comers into our backyard. Have you ever seen a chicken run? Let me tell you, it will lighten the cares of your day faster than you can say “scratch.” (Scratch is the mix of “treat” grains we feed to them, in addition to their regular food.)

And, oh, their little squabbles. You can always tell when a chicken has something good, because she will immediately run away from the other hens in order to keep it for herself. But, of course, the headlong flight is a dead giveaway to the other girls, and a chase always ensues. Half a cherry tomato makes an exciting battle, but the best was when Tori found a locust. Every time she would sneak away, the poor little bug would let out a shrill chirp that was like a car alarm to the other hens, beginning the chase anew.

Tori isn’t always so selfish though. One afternoon last fall, I had put out a handful of scratch on the ground, and little Etta kept getting chased away from it by the bigger hens. Tori chased the others off and physically stood guard while Etta ate. She didn’t take a bite for herself. She just stood there and gave the other hens the evil eye as Etta enjoyed her benevolence.

And don’t get me started on Etta and my baby. While she wasn’t sure about him at first, there are times now that she’ll let him pet her. I think if we spend enough time outside this Summer we’ll have a lap chicken before it’s over.

Of course, we haven’t talked about the other benefit of chickens—the eggs. Last year our girls laid 778. And you haven’t eaten a fresh egg until you’ve eaten an egg an hour after it was laid. We’re so spoiled now that even the best, freshest store-bought eggs are a sad substitute. I love my garden-grown tomatoes as much as the next woman, but as far as bang-for-your-buck growing food in town goes, the chickens are my most successful endeavor so far.

That’s not to say we haven’t had some difficulties too. So far we’ve raised all our hens from baby chicks, which leads to two issues. First, inevitably we lose a baby chick or two. Second—because sexing baby chicks is never guaranteed—we’ve ended up with two roosters, which aren’t allowed in town due to the noise they make.

If you’re considering backyard chickens, the rooster problem is something to really think about beforehand. We’ve been lucky to find last-minute pet homes for both of our roos, but in each instance I was already learning everything I could about humanely butchering a chicken when the home materialized. At this point, I’ve all but decided I’m not going to count on luck a third time, and we’re going to stick with pullets (older hens). For the sake of your neighbors, and for the sake of keeping backyard chickens legal, you have to have a plan for your roosters.

We’ve also lost a few big girls along the way (one to heat, two to our own dog), which is always harder for me than losing a chick. But I take a lot of comfort in knowing that—even when they die sooner than I would like—our girls have really good lives. Free-ranging everyday, catching bugs, taking dust baths in real dirt—my backyard is chicken paradise.

And yours probably is too. For the most part, it really is easier than keeping a dog. Baby chicks are a bit more intensive—they have to be kept warm and checked on more often—but all the big girls really need is food, fresh water, and a secure shelter to sleep in and lay eggs. With backyard chickens becoming so popular, there are a ton of books out now specifically aimed at small, backyard chicken keeping. I recommend you check out at least a few; my favorites are Keeping Chickens with Ashley English and Raising Chickens For Dummies. Also the websites Backyardchickens.com and The Hen Cam Blog are very helpful.

Good luck and enjoy the show!

[Reprinted with permission :: Rhythm of the Home, Spring 2012.]