I should make it clear from the start that this won’t be a true “soup to nuts” article on keeping chickens; the information is simply too vast to condense it here. However, I do think the title suits the subject. It can be read as either: owning chickens can drive you slightly nuts, or you may become absolutely nuts about your chickens. For me, it’s a little of both.
Over two years ago, my family began raising four Buff Orpington chickens: Hyacinth, Daisy, Rose and Violet. We call them our bouquet. Yes, we named them after flowers (and with a nod to a Brit-com from the 1990s called Keeping Up Appearances). Although it took a while, we can now tell them apart. Not only are their combs slightly different, but their personalities are also unique. For instance, ever since her babyhood, Violet has enjoyed singing out her peeps very prettily. As a chick, she used to steal bits of paper towel and run away screaming; now, she’s much more ninja-esque about the whole thing. Hyacinth is usually quiet and peaceful, but occasionally she’ll let out a loud squawk or two. It’s always a surprise. Rosie loves to carry on a conversation and will happily answer nearly every time you speak. Daisy, sweet Daisy, with her single rooster spur, is the largest and most docile of the bunch. They can’t help but remind me of a group of darling, elderly ladies, with their love of a good chat and the way they tuck themselves in for an early bedtime each night. These chickens are more than simply egg-layers, but I’m sure you’ve already guessed as much.
Like similar breeds (Australorps, Barred Rocks, etc.) we chose Orpingtons for the fact that they’re cold hardy, quiet and friendly. Plus, we hoped their large size (7-8 lbs for adult hens) might deter our dogs and cat from becoming overly curious about these new, feathered family members. That’s correct. I just called them family members. They don’t live indoors with the rest of us, but our chickens can look forward to being here for the long haul: past the point of abundant egg-laying, they will be welcome to spend their days happily clucking about in our yard.
Though my family and I are–relatively speaking–newcomers to the world of backyard chickening, we’re hardly the first. It seems we won’t be the last, either. During the past decade, chickens apparently have been falling into favor and gracing backyards–from rural settings to urban lots–in increasingly greater frequency. I must offer my public service announcement at this point and say I sincerely hope none of these new chicken owners have “pecked” off more than they can chew, so to speak. Keeping chickens requires a fair amount of work and, barring predators and illness, they can live a decade or even longer. I believe the Guinness World Record holder lived to be at least 22. Not only is that one dazzling feat of survival, it’s a long time in terms of daily chicken care, especially keeping in mind that most chickens experience a steady decline in their egg laying after the first couple of years. This brings me to the dark side of the surge in poultry popularity: large numbers of pet chickens are being abandoned, forced to become the problem of animal shelters already bursting at the seams.
Therefore, to anyone considering chicken ownership, please do just that: consider and consider and consider some more. If, after all of your considering, you’re still interested, I hope you will do your research. Veteran chicken owners may be happy to dole out sage advice. Other resources include books, such as Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow (2010), which was recommended by a friend and has been our chicken-raising lifeline. The Internet, too, can provide a wealth of information, provided everything presented there is taken with a Rubik’s Cube-sized grain of salt. Last, but in no way least, please check your local regulations (township, neighborhood, etc.) regarding the keeping of chickens.
As for my family’s chicken-keeping experience, our friends were right to warn us that it wouldn’t be easy. At one-day old, our chicks arrived at our local post office in a cardboard delivery box, filling the entire room with their peeps. We hurried them home to their waiting brooder, complete with water, starter feed, temperature gauge and a new, red brooding lamp. They ate, slept, made lots of little messes and overwhelmed us with their cuteness. They also grew and then grew some more. Now adults, these chickens of ours still require daily care. They sure do make yummy, mild, and sunny-colored eggs, though.
Aside from the care and the lovely eggs they produce, a lot can be said for a spending a quiet moment on a warm day with a chicken resting in your lap…or for witnessing their uniquely foul brand of entertainment. I love to offer the girls a special treat now and then, just to see their excitement. If it’s oatmeal I have, they stand around me, faces upturned like expectant little puppies; if it’s a tub of unsweetened applesauce, they dip their beaks, hurry to wipe them in the grass, realize they like the taste, then excitedly begin the ritual all over again. I can’t help but laugh at their antics and, although I might sound a little strange to any passersby, I’m really just nuts about my chickens.
*Adapted from the original, which appeard in the 10/9/2013 issue of the Chester County Press