Some of the author's chickens going outside for the first time
Today is the first birthday of my four hens but I don't feel much like celebrating; I think I'll just have an omelet. These unlikely members of my household come with benefits and drawbacks, not all of them expected when I first decided to get them. Last year I wrote about the experience of getting chicks, raising them, and preparing for their care. The Benefits Of Keeping Chickens
It took a little patience but the girls began laying within a few months. Between the four of them they average about 3 eggs per day, less in winter. The eggs are delicious, with bright yellow yolks that evoke an image of the sun straddling the horizon. There is never a shortage of eggs, with plenty to gift to friends and neighbors. With complete knowledge of their living conditions, their diet and their health, I can indulge in a spoonful of cookie dough without fear of salmonella or ingesting antibiotics and growth hormones.
Since we hand-raised our chickens our faces are "imprinted" in their little bird brains. While they are not quite feathered lap dogs, they do allow us to pet them; one of them even comes up to us to say hello. When the girls have free roam of the yard they often stand by the sliding glass door to our bedroom, looking for us. They will even peck bits of dirt out of our dog's fur as he lounges in the shade; he doesn't seem to mind.
The Drawbacks Of Keeping Chickens
The biggest annoyance is the noise. We don't have a rooster (we are not allowed to by zoning laws, nor would we want one) but still the noise that these creatures make is impressive. Their peeps yield to cooing and squawks shortly before they begin laying. When they begin laying they "celebrate" with a cacophony of "buck-buck-BUCKAWK!" at the top of their little lungs. Even when they are not laying they don't mind practicing their serenade at any daylight hour.
Fortunately darkness puts them in a near-coma so that they are quiet as long as it is dark. During the winter, when the daylight hours are short, chickens will stop laying if they don't have artificial light. Since our chickens' coop is located near our bedroom we learned early that the lighting timer needs to turn off at least a half hour before our own bed time. This is because they take about 20 minutes to stop hopping around and finally settle down.
Chickens eat a lot of food, requiring re-stocking of their feeder about every three days. Of course this food turns into chicken poop. Chicken poop is high in nitrogen so it is an excellent fertilizer but it also releases a lot of smelly nitrous oxide. When the chickens poop in their coop it is easy to gather it and add it to your garden or compost, but when they have free roam of the yard they will not only poop on your deck and walkways but they will also scratch your mulch onto your walkways in search of worms and grubs. Chickens do eat garden pests, but thinking that they are compatible with a vegetable garden is not quite right. Chickens love tender greens and will ravage beets, lettuce, chard, and even broccoli. Also, they are attracted to the color red and will eat all of the tomatoes that they can reach. Chickens will also eat their own eggs, an extremely hard habit to break. Only one of my girls, a Welsumer named Ginger, destroys her own eggs.
Finally, I have heard many stories of raccoons and other wildlife killing entire flocks in one night. While I haven't experienced this, a friend's dog did manage to tear a big flap of skin off of one of my girls' back. It was still partially attached, so with the help of a neighbor we reattached it using a skin stapler. The chicken, a Speckled Sussex named Suzie, was initially kept indoors on antibiotics for a month but was moved back outside to a large dog crate for another month. Suzie is now back with the flock, but has been demoted in the "pecking order" to the lowest rank.
Of course your experience with chickens will vary. You may have a large property and plenty of time to care for your flock.
Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com, an experienced greenhouse gas engineer and the Senior Environmental Program Manager at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
More Resource On Keeping Animals:
Eating Locally: Backyard Chickens
Building a Chicken Greenhouse: In Search of a Permaculture Cliché
Omlet Home Chicken Coop