Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Our Adventures in Backyard Chicken Keeping

This article was originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of Real Food and Health magazine.

We Decide to Get Chickens

My family lives on a small suburban plot of less than 1/4 acre, and over the last five years we've dedicated more and more of our yard to growing our own fruits, herbs, and vegetables. In the hot, dry desert where we live, I'm not sure that gardening is any less expensive than buying local produce at the farmer's market. Much has to be done to improve our soil and frequent watering is required during the many warm months. Yet I feel that there is an intrinsic value in knowing how to produce our own food, and in observing the cycles of growth and decay in our own back yard. I want my children to know where their food comes from, and to learn the skills for producing their own food as they grow up. The next logical step was for us to get chickens.

I've never owned or cared for any farm animals, but with the encouragement and support of a chicken-keeping friend, we decided to take the plunge and get two baby chicks. Springtime comes with lots of baby chicks at our local feed stores, and we were overwhelmed by the loud sound of hundreds of baby chicks peeping. The baby chicks seemed unbelievably tiny and fragile, like irresistible little fluffballs. We selected one Plymouth Barred Rock (known to thrive in our desert climate) and one Araucana (known for their beautiful blue-green eggs). We drove home with the pleasant sound of cheeping emanating from a little cardboard box.





In the early months of the year, we often still see freezing temperatures at night, so the cardboard box would be the chicks' home until they were big enough to move outdoors when the weather warmed up. With an incandescent bulb for warmth during the day, and blankets covering the box at night for insulation, the chicks were comfy in their new home. My nearly-five-year-old daughter decided the chicks would be named Little Chocolate and Little Black, and she helped out with the daily chores of feeding, watering, and changing out the newspaper covering the bottom of the box. Each day, both my daughter and her two-year-old brother relished in holding the chicks and letting them explore our walled front yard.

After a few weeks, we were surprised to see that Little Chocolate, the Araucana, could easily flap-and-jump up to the top of the cardboard box. The time for moving the chicks outdoors grew near. After searching the internet for chicken coop designs, I finally decided to just make a small, moveable chicken coop with the random pieces of lumber leftover from my husband's previous projects. So the kids and I spent a week in March working in the garage: measuring, cutting, drilling. Finally, the chicken coop was done, and it was a relief to move the chickens out into our back yard.



Gardening with Chickens


Once the chickens were moved outdoors, I wanted them to be able to roam freely. This would give the chickens the advantage of being able to forage for their own food in our yard, and cut down on the amount of grains I needed to buy for feeding them. We let them roam around most of the time, returning them to the coop to sleep at night. Since the chicks were initially small and not very adventurous, I was able to plant my vegetable garden as usual and they didn't much disturb it. By the time the chicks grew old enough to really make a mark on the garden, we were well into the growing season and I didn't mind them nibbling the leaves on our plants.

We did learn that chickens love to eat strawberries and tomatoes. I ended up erecting some temporary fencing around our strawberry patch, and I decided to let the chickens eat the low hanging tomatoes they liked so much. The chickens ate some squash, but the squash plants produce so abundantly that I didn't mind a little going to the chickens. Chickens also love to eat beet greens and the leaves on sunflower stalks. Surprisingly, the chickens haven't been much interested in eating our grass. They'd rather dig a hole through the grass and then roll around in the dirt.


Once the abundance of summer passed, I learned that chickens can be rather hard on landscaping when there aren't many other plants around to eat. They will scratch the bark and rocks out of my flower beds in search of bugs to eat. They will find a way into the strawberry patch and eat the strawberry plants down to the ground. And they will dig holes through the bark and landscaping fabric in the kids play area. I'm still learning the best ways to deal with this, and have resorted to penning the chickens up during the months when most of our plants are dormant. The chickens have plenty of space in the chicken coop and attached 4' X 8' chicken run. I'm sure that I will have to keep them locked up until after my summer garden is established this year, as otherwise they will eat all of the seedlings. But I am hopeful that they will be able to range around in our yard again once there are lots of plants growing.

Growing Up with Kids


Especially when they were babies and on into adolescence, the chickens would follow the kids around the yard and didn't mind being held and petted. Little Black did have an unfortunate run-in with my two-year-old on his tricycle, though, and the poor little chicken ended up with some mangled toes on one foot. Even now, two of her toes point out to one side but she doesn't seem bothered by it. My daughter was fond of holding a chicken on her lap while petting its beak and singing. The chickens do seem rather calmed by this unlikely technique.


Once the chickens were near adulthood, their love for shiny things kicked in. A friend had warned me about this, because once chickens get to that point in their development, they are liable to peck at anything shiny: rings, toys, fingernails, and even eyes. So the kids had to learn to be aware of the chickens propensity for shiny things and certainly not get down and try to look the chickens in the eyes. The kids can still hold the chickens, but just have to make sure the chickens face away from the them. The kids have delighted in finding things for the chickens to eat in our yard. They will pick flowers, leaves, and grass for the chickens and then hand-feed them.

The Chickens Start Producing


When the chickens were about 5 months old, Little Black decided to adopt me as her rooster. Whenever I got near her, she would do a characteristic crouching posture, which pretty much translates into "climb up on my back!" Soon enough, we found a little brown egg in the chicken coop. My daughter was very excited, and her eyes shone with delight. Over the next few days, we kept looking for more eggs, but there were none in the coop. I began to watch Little Black more closely and saw that every morning she disappeared into the vegetable garden. Looking underneath the large leaves of some zucchini plants, I found the nest she had built in the shade and the three brown eggs she'd laid within it. I used the old trick of replacing the eggs with a few egg-shaped stones, to encourage her to keep laying in that spot. Little Black continued to lay her eggs in that same spot until the vegetable garden was long gone, and she was sitting in an exposed spot to lay her eggs. After awhile, she apparently decided this wasn't a good plan, and found a new place to nest between two ornamental grasses.


Little Chocolate was slower to mature. As she grew up, she became more skittish, and then started trying to explore new places. I was very surprised one day to see her inside our front walled courtyard, after she had escaped from the back yard. One day, my daughter couldn't find Little Chocolate, and though we looked everywhere she was nowhere to be found. I sadly told my daughter that Little Chocolate must have run away, and was then surprised a few hours later to see Little Chocolate once more roaming around the back yard. The next day, we once again couldn't find Little Chocolate. I wondered if she was somehow wandering around our suburban streets, as our neighbors have large dogs and their version of landscaping is mostly just rocks with no plants. I couldn't imagine her wanting to go into any other yards. Where would a chicken go? A few hours later, once again Little Chocolate was in our back yard. The following morning the mystery was finally solved as I heard a noise and looked up to find Little Chocolate on the roof of our house! I quickly searched for an internet video on clipping wings, and got to work. Little Chocolate can't fly very well now, and seems to have grown out of her wanderlust once she established her own nesting spot in the back corner of a yardwaste-only compost bin.

Our "Exotic" Pets


One evening, we took the chickens out in our front yard to show them to the neighbor kids. One 7th-grade girl was particularly enamored with the chickens, but she was afraid to touch them. Even watching my 5-year-old daughter nonchalantly pick up the chickens did not encourage the girl to hold the chickens, but she did tentatively pet them. She was very excited when I gave her a green egg, proclaiming "my favorite color is green!" and saying she would save it for awhile before she ate it. The same girl started bringing her friends over on a regular basis to showcase what she called our "exotic" pets. It was amusing to see all the random kids she would bring into our back yard, and their reactions to the chickens. By and large, the kids were surprised by what the chickens looked like (since they are not white like the ones shown on TV), and most of the kids were afraid to touch the chickens. For me, this really underscored the importance of letting my kids grow up in an environment in which they can see and experience where food comes from.

Learning to Live With the Chickens


Keeping chickens has taught us many lessons. Some of these lessons are minor, such as knowing that if you feed food scraps to chickens on the porch, the chickens will then hang out on the porch all the time and leave behind excrement to step in. But other lessons are more valuable, such as the intimate knowledge of where eggs come from and learning how chickens interact with their environment. For our family, keeping chickens has become more than just having a source for local, healthy eggs. Keeping chickens has given us a tangible way to connect to the animal nature of our food. We watch the chickens roam and peck, hold their warm bodies, collect their eggs, and listen to them speak their surprisingly intricate chicken language. This year, we plan to broaden our experience in chicken keeping by raising a couple chickens for meat.

Do you keep chickens? Have they been a valuable resource in learning about where our food comes from? 

7 comments :

Tom and Juli said...

Having backyard chickens is something I have always wanted to do. We're waiting until we get settled into a house of our own before we start that adventure though. Just last week Clark and I took dinner to a friend from church and she showed us all the animals they had on their property and let Clark go in the chicken coop to collect some eggs to take home. Surprisingly he wasn't afraid of the 10 chickens following him at all and was really great with them. Watching him do so well with the animals was getting me excited for when we can have our own.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with chickens as "pets" that laid eggs and when their time was done, into the stew-pot they went. I loved it! Now we are looking at getting some for our sons to learn with too :)

Anonymous said...

Hi you chicken lovers, I am one too and have started my own website. I am happy to share information. Check it out http://www.breedchickehens.com

James Grayston said...

I can fully appreciate what you say about the effect of chickens on the garden. They do wreak havoc. Although in the Winter our hens have free range over the whole of the garden, for the sake of our plants they need more limitations in summer.

I have added it to my Facebook page which is a daily update of the best advice, tips and tricks relating to chicken keeping. www.facebook.com/tryallaboutchickens

Laura said...

Hi Sarah!! I haven't checked in with you in a while. Looks like things are going well. I am glad your blog is still going strong, it's awesome! I have totally neglected mine... I just can't seem to find the time for it anymore. Hopefully again someday :)

I am loving the chickens!! We have always talked about raising some ourselves some day, it's good to get some "insider" views on it.

Sarah Smith said...

Hey Laura,
It's great to hear from you! I've wondered how you are doing, but I know that with 2 kids, finding time to do anything, much less blogging, can be very difficult. I didn't even start blogging until my youngest was a year old.

Laura said...

It is difficult!! Especially since I am doing photography now and my husband is working and going to school. It's crazy!! I rarely even get to catch up on reading blogs. I have your email though, I will have to remember to send you a message here and there and see how you are. :)