Urban chickens are as trendy as hipster beards and mom tattoos. More and more cities are allowing them (at least hens, if not roosters) and you can find countless books, Facebook groups, and blogs telling you why you should keep backyard chickens.
Now my kids and I have joined the trend with a coop and two hens of our own. (I can’t grow a beard, fortunately, and I don’t want a tattoo, so I needed something cool in my life.) The planning/ shopping took a few weeks, and we got our birds earlier this month. Here are the surprising things we’ve learned so far:
Chickens are absolutely, astoundingly, stupid
No, really. I always thought my dog was lacking in IQ, but compared to the chickens, she’s a genius. I watched one of ours, Raven, peck at the wire on her run for about 10 minutes trying to escape… with an open door just inches away from her that she didn’t notice. So. Stupid.
But they’re very endearing and entertaining
Their stupidity just gives us more reason to love them. It’s fun to watch them scratch and peck around, try to escape through wire fences, and listen to their funny noises while they do it. There’s something very endearing about their little mannerisms, and my kids and I like to just sit and watch them “chickening” around.
They don’t all say “bawk bawk”
Our two hens, Henny and Raven, each make different noises. Henny has a soft “bawk bawk” type sound that becomes a squawk when she freaks out (such as when the dog sniffs the coop.) Raven has a quieter “toot toot” sound that resembles a muffled trumpet. We like to “talk” to the chickens by imitating their sounds, which they find fascinating and talk back to us excitedly. I assume they’re correcting our pronunciation.
They’re living composters and fierce predators
Chickens excel at eating… everything. The healthiest diet for a chicken is a varied one; the producers that sell those “vegetarian fed” eggs at the store are making a serious biological mistake. Chickens are made to hunt and eat bugs, worms, and even small animals, as well as grass, vegetables, fruit, seeds, and disturbingly, their own eggshells. This means that you can feed them your kitchen scraps– your carrot peels, strawberry stems, wilted-but-not-rotten greens, and yes, eggshells– and they’ll turn them into delicious eggs. And the stuff they can’t eat– like orange peels– will attract ants and beetles, which the chickens will then eat, adding protein to their diet.
Who needs a compost bin when you have chickens?
But they’re also everyone’s favorite prey
Col. Sanders isn’t the only one who likes to eat chicken. So do hawks, owls, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, domesticated dogs and cats, and any number of other natural predators, many of whom thrive in urban areas. They want your chickens and your eggs, those bastards, which is why you need to protect them carefully with hardware cloth (not “chicken wire”) and securely locked housing. Even letting them free-range in a yard with a fence is a risk because a hawk or falcon could swoop down, grab a bird, and break your children’s hearts.
Speaking of free-ranging…
It’s not a great idea because chickens are also disgusting (sorry) and might carry salmonella. You don’t want to step where they’ve been pooping. And they will poop. A lot. All of those kitchen scraps don’t just come out as eggs.
The good news is, with the right bedding, you can compost their feces. Yes, chicken poop makes a great natural fertilizer. But it also stinks, so you want to keep their coop and run nice and clean.
Also, make sure you and your family wash your hands thoroughly after gathering eggs (which you also need to wash), petting/ handling the birds, or after any interaction with the coop. And no kisses! Apparently some people have gotten salmonella from kissing their birds… just, no.
The eggs really are better!
Fresh chicken eggs are a world apart from store-bought. They are a gourmand’s dream. The yolk is richer and much more flavorful than even the highest-priced eggs at the store. And you can alter the taste by feeding them strongly-flavored foods, like herbs or garlic. Fancy a garlic-infused hard boiled egg for lunch?
Keeping chickens has already inspired my boys and I to have a host of interesting conversations about where our food comes from, animal evolution, ethical farming practices, the facts of life (e.g. when my 8 year old asked why our eggs would never become baby chicks and it led to follow-up questions like “What is sperm?”), and the natural world’s system of prey and predators. And like all pets, it teaches children (and adults) responsibility and empathy.
They don’t have to be expensive
Books and websites will tell you that chicken keeping has high start-up costs. You can get high-end coops for several hundred dollars, or drop money on incubators and pens for hatching your own eggs and raising chicks.
I wasn’t willing to do it if it didn’t meet my budget. Fortunately, a friend clued me into a backyard chicken facebook group, and I found one family selling a very nice coop for only $25, and another one willing to sell me year-old hens for $10 each. I still had a lot of other things to buy: nesting material, feed, scratch, water and food containers, etc. But my whole start-up cost– including renting a van to pick up the coop– added up to about $150.
You can also build your own coop/ run with recycled materials or repurpose a play house or play set. I wasn’t feeling that handy, so I’m glad I found one pre-assembled. As with many hobbies, you can put as much or as little money into it as you want.
You might not want chicks
Fluffy yellow chicks are so darn cute. And the thought of hatching your own is very appealing. But I didn’t do that for two reasons: I didn’t want to buy special equipment for baby chicks, and I didn’t want to have to figure out what to do with the ones that turned out to be roosters. It was much cheaper and less stressful to buy young, laying-age hens. My kids were only briefly disappointed that we weren’t hatching chicks, but once they met Henny and Raven, they stopped complaining and just fell in love with our silly girls.
Last but not least: they’re addictive
Everyone I’ve talked to who keeps chickens warns me that I won’t be able to stop at 2. The lady who sold me her coop has 18. (Her husband, who didn’t want chickens in the first place, said, “I drew the line at 18 and said ‘no more,’” but we didn’t believe him.)
I have a small yard and don’t want to invest in another coop/ run. But they are a kind of gateway drug to urban farming. I’m finding myself daydreaming about bunny hutches and bee boxes. (Next year!) Although maybe for now I should just focus on raising my chickens well and finding new egg recipes on Pinterest.
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