My life with backyard chickens

chickens
© K Martinko

It's been one month since my new little flock arrived, and we've had some unexpected excitement.

I am now a proud chicken owner. Every morning I let my hens out of their little coop into a fenced-in area, where they spend their day foraging for bugs, sleeping in the grass, and flying up to their favorite vantage point on the coop’s roof to watch the goings-on. By 9 p.m., they’ve marched up the ramp into their home and nestled in for the night; all I do is shut the door, and the cycle starts again next morning.

It’s only been a month since I got these hens, but their arrival was long awaited. The process began last fall when I asked town council to allow backyard chickens – a request that was met with great controversy among councillors and the general public. Passionate speeches were given on both sides of the debate and argumentative letters were published in the local paper, but finally approval was granted – a two-year pilot project, with a maximum of 5 hens and no roosters.

I ordered my birds from a farmer in Kincardine, Ontario, who raises a rare heritage breed called Chantecler. These are a truly Canadian breed of chicken, developed by a monk in Quebec in the early 1900s who wanted a dual-purpose bird (useful for both eggs and meat) that would be highly resistant to cold. The Livestock Conservancy writes:

“From the French ‘chanter,’ “to sing,” and ‘clair,’ “bright,” the Chantecler is the first Canadian breed of chicken. Under the supervision of Brother Chatelain, the monks of the Cistercian Abbey in Oka, Quebec [home to the delicious cheese of the same name], sought to create, ‘a fowl of vigorous and rustic temperament that could resist the climatic conditions of Canada, a general purpose fowl.’ Although work began on this breed in 1908, it was not introduced to the public until 1918, and admitted to the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection in 1921.”

Chanteclers, I’ve discovered, are quite shy. They keep their distance and resist being caught for daily cuddling, much to my young son’s chagrin, but once held in his arms, they settle right down. We got ours at 3 months of age, so they look like full-grown feathered hens, though not so big and not yet laying eggs. Hopefully, they’ll start producing by September.

The most amusing part of this adventure, so far, has been the accidental acquisition of a rooster. One week after arrival, one of our ‘hens’ began crowing every morning as soon as she (he?) exited the coop. My instinct, as a newbie farmer, was to turn to Google, where I learned that dominant hens do occasionally crow if there’s no rooster present. (I also sent the farmer an email.) But as the crows grew louder, longer, and more numerous in the mornings, I became suspicious. When the farmer replied, she said, no, she’d never known a Chantecler hen to crow; and so, very sadly, I had to return my magnificent chanticleer to his former home. Now the remaining four hens cluck quietly and softly all day long and I miss the rooster’s cheerful morning greeting.

Another challenge has been wrapping my head around how much they poop. People had warned me, but until I was actually cleaning out their coop every few days and seeing the waste lying around the fenced-in yard, I didn’t understand how ‘efficient’ they would be! Daily rain hasn’t helped either, turning their yard to slick mud. I’ve since learned about the “deep litter” method and am trying to toss as much organic matter as possible into their yard, in an effort to recreate a soft, interesting forest floor for them – a sot of “living compost heap” that will break down the waste more quickly.

The chickens are an endless source of delight to my children, who have never owned a pet before. Even my husband, who resisted their arrival, is growing quite fond of “the girls,” as he calls them. They’re part of the family already, and will be for many years.

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