Elizabeth and Annabelle
So adding stinky chickens to my Type A lifestyle may seem odd. I grew up in Atlanta, but my family has always had a country home in North Georgia. I love my Prada shoes, but I can bait a hook, muck a stall, and drive a tractor, and I love that my parents raised me that way.
I’ve obsessed over wanting chickens for nearly a decade. I love animals and own two retrievers, a Chihuahua, exotic finches, and a horse. I’ve read every book, blog and article about chickens, but I just couldn’t commit. So last January, after ten years, five books, two Martha Stewart episodes and a bottle of wine, I placed my online order: $4.95 for four baby chicks. Then I quite simply forgot about it.
Nothing could have prepared me for the small peeping box that showed up at my front door via U.S. mail four months later. I had decided on four different Heritage breeds that are known for good temperament, can withstand hot weather and are also brown egg layers. The chicks had arrived. Thank goodness I have a Yankee city-slicker turned country-girl friend who knew exactly what to do. Tractor Supply has an entire aisle dedicated to raising chicks. Supplies are pretty basic and affordable. For the first two months all you need is a cardboard box, some pine shavings, a chick waterer, feeder, feed, and a warming lamp.
Baby chicks are adorable and my children loved to help take care of them. Chicks need to stay in a garage or basement and be kept at a very warm temperature for the first few weeks. However, they grow fast! The fabulous cottage-style wooden coop I ordered once the chicks arrived had an 8-week lead time, so by the time it arrived they had already grown into gangly, pooping pullets. Coops need to have at least one nesting box per three chickens, a roosting perch a few inches from the floor and protection from wind, cold, and critters.
The most important thing to know about chicken keeping is that chickens have natural predators here that include hawks, eagles, owls, foxes, moles, raccoons and dogs. My coop has special raccoon proof latches, an attached pen, and both coop and run are covered in hardware mesh wiring--the only type of wire that keeps out predators. The floor of the run is covered in pine bark and sand on top of the wire mesh. When I moved my adolescent chicks to their coop in the backyard, I stayed up all night for days on end, worried that a critter might get them, and realized, “Oh my! I AM a mamma hen.”
All of my birds are hens, as roosters are loud and crow day and sometimes night. I’ve watched my flock of girls grow into beautiful specimens: Clover - a buff Orpington, Flora - a silver-laced Wyandotte, Iris – an Australorp, and Miss Annabelle - my sassy Dominique. They are a happy flock. Hens lay eggs every day, with or without a rooster. A rooster is necessary if you want to have chicks. It is best to raise a flock together, and can be difficult to introduce new chicks into an existing pecking order, so planning is important.
The biggest downside to keeping chickens is that they are messy, but the biggest blessing of chickens is of course, beautiful fresh eggs. They smell, taste, look and feel completely different from supermarket eggs. Fresh eggs need not be refrigerated, and will keep for a few months. Most backyard hens live 8-10 years, and may continue to lay eggs throughout, but egg production usually declines after 2 or 3 years.
I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoy my birds. They are sweet, amusing and incredibly pet-like. They try and “talk” to me, follow me around in backyard, and love being fed leftover fruits and vegetables. They have been a fun addition to our family and are a wonderful agricultural lesson for my children. My dogs try and play with them and even my husband has started calling them by name.
Chicken keeping is on the rise in America for the first time since World War I. In the earlier part of the 20th century, it was commonplace for the lady of the house to have a hen or two in the backyard but now chickens have been banned from most non-agricultural zonings due to the loud crowing of roosters. There’s no good reason we can’t change that line of thought so that families can keep a hen or two . . . or three, or four!