Why Chickens?

Every once in a while someone asks me, “Why chickens?”.  The quick answer is why not, but of course there is more.  Eighteen months ago, I got very sick and nearly died. After I got better, I realized just how unpredictable life is and decided to start doing things I wanted to do instead of waiting.  Like going to Italy, playing more music, writing a blog, and raising chickens to name just a few.

I heard a woman on NPR talking about chickens, how much fun they are and how easy it is to raise them and have your very own eggs.  I’d always liked chickens and had bought local eggs for years, so the story caught my attention. The woman was Jenna Woginrich and that’s where my chicken saga begins.

Ruby loves drinking from the bird bath.
Ruby loves drinking from the bird bath.

My birthday was coming up in June of 2012. My darling husband, Paul, asked what I wanted and I said a coop and chickens.  He even put the coop from a kit together for me. Overall it’s been a great experience. It’s cost more than I expected, but no more than any other really good, long-term hobby that requires an investment.  But you do have to get used to tragedy.  The avian vet (part of that unexpected cost) says that chicken are synonymous with tragedy and she’s right.  There is almost no way to protect your flock completely from predators and disease. It’s just part of the deal.  I started with four pullets, hand-raised five chicks this spring, bought assorted additional pullets last year and this. In one year I’ve lost six to tragedy, given four away to start my sister’s flock and ended up with eight.  And I love it.  I’m sad when I lose one but I steel myself and move on. Losing a chicken is not as hard as losing a house pet. I’ve talked to other people who have chickens and they all agree. You have prepare yourself and keep going.

Mattie and Dovey (rear) patrolling the garden.

Mattie and Dovey (rear) patrolling the garden.

Another trial is that the chickens dig up our gardens. It’s natural for them to scratch and dig for bugs and worms. They do so daily and they know no boundaries. They can throw mulch in the air like high-powered machines! It’s fun to watch the antics, but not to sweep the front walk for the hundredth time.  We’re seeing less mulch throwing this year, thank goodness. They also uproot very small plants so it’s hard to starts plants outdoors without a fenced garden. I learned this after they dug up one small stock plant 10 days in a row. I replanted it 10 times, but alas, it died. They will propel themselves into the air until they have swiped every blueberry from every bush. These are the times that try a woman’s soul! Solution? Waist-high raised beds for lettuces and herbs, buying bigger plants and using bird netting to drape the blueberries. Problem solved (Mostly).

Ruby and Mattie share a pear.

Ruby and Mattie share a pear.

I’ve had three of the girls, Ruby, Baby and Mattie, for almost a year now. Ruby survived a bout with coccidiosis, an evil parasite. I kept her isolated in a plastic tub/hospital room with food, water and gave her medicine through an eye dropper. The tub was in the sun in winter. She took full advantage of the spa treatment and recovered beautifully. Baby has survived a year of sleeping in a tree, exposed to predators and the elements. She’s a Sumatra and doesn’t like coop confinement unless she’s got chicks. No tragedy for her yet, but one of her offspring disappeared from my sister’s week after only one week there. That was surely a predator tragedy. Mattie survived having ALL her tail feathers removed by a neighbor’s dog. Do you know how close that is to being eaten alive?  She missed a day of laying, but was back to work in 48 hours. The feathers grew back. These girls are tough!

The girls play queen of the mountain, running each other on and off just for fun.

Lil’ Mattie and Buffy on a garden boulder.

There are endless positives.  First, the eggs.  Our chickens are free-range and eat lots of insects, worms, grass and clover in addition to the food we supply.  Because of this, their eggs are better for us, containing more vitamins A, D and E, beta carotene and omega-3 and much less cholesterol and saturated fat than cage-raised eggs.  The beta carotene makes the yolks a beautifully bright yellow-orange color.

What about the blood pressure effect? Paul and I both think there is something soothing about chickens. We rock on the front porch, listen to them coo and cluck in the garden and feel our stress float away. Sometimes they come up on the porch to visit, or hop up on the garden boulders to talk to us. They follow the lawn mower nabbing bugs that pop up in its wake and sun bathe while lying on their sides with their wings spread. They make us laugh when they jump two feet in the air to grab flying insects and eat clover with a family of rabbits every afternoon. What could be nicer than having eight clucking chickens at your heels while you weed or cut flowers? As a bonus, they keep the area clear of ticks!

Ruby and Mattie check out the strawberry patch.

Ruby and Mattie check out the strawberry patch.

We marvel at their personalities. Ruby and Mattie are best friends and do everything together. They only separate when one heads to the coop to lay. They aren’t afraid of people and will gladly eat out of your hand. Raisins and leftover cat food are Ruby’s favorite treat, while Mattie prefers dried mealworms. Baby is a loner but hangs out with her daughter Opal when she wants company. They sleep in a tree together. Baby lays her eggs in various places; the coop, the wood edge, the potting bench and the wheel barrow. After finding eggs on top of the potting bench under our second story screened porch, I put a cardboard box there as a nest for her. She used it for a month and then moved on. I’ve yet to find where she’s laying now, but will keep looking. If I’m outside after she lays, I will hear her triumphant calls and may discover her secret.

Baby's nestbox on the potting bench

Baby’s nest box on the potting bench

 

Mattie laying in the wine box

Baby laying in the wine box.

One perfect eggin the winebox.

One perfect egg in the wine box.

Lil’ Mattie and Buffy are almost four months old. They are buddies and enjoy eating out of hand. They turn their noses up at the girls who arrived a month after them and have recently decided that they love, love, love bananas. That leaves Dovey and Number Eight. They are americaunas and run as a pair.  We thought we heard Dovey practicing a crow the other morning, but we haven’t seen any rooster-like behavior so aren’t convinced yet.  Number Eight has developed a limp this week. She’s spending more time resting but runs as fast as the others when she needs to. We hope she’ll get better and start laying lovely green or blue eggs soon. We can’t see anything wrong with her leg but there may be a trip to the vet in her future. Dovey and Eight are a little skittish but have eaten from my hand a couple of times. They are fruit-lovers too and always want a fair share of the bananas and raisins. Right now they are at the bottom of the pecking order, but everything will change if Dovey is a rooster!

Baby and Oal in the forground and Buffy and Mattie in the birdbath.

Baby and Opal in the foreground and Buffy and Lil’ Mattie in the bird bath.

 

 

In spite of the pecking order, the girls move about the yard as a flock and are mostly nice to each other. I can see them out the kitchen window grazing with the rabbits while our cat sits close by. She watches their every move but doesn’t harm them and seems happy to observe from a few feet away.  Every day, I collect eggs and thank the girls for laying them, clean the coop, serve the girls kitchen scraps and treats and on occasion, sing to them.  I love the routine and the happy sounds that come from a contented flock. They’re good listeners.

And that’s the long answer to “Why chickens?”.

Ceci observing rabbits and chickens.

Ceci observing rabbits and chickens. In case you’re wondering. Ceci is Italian for little chickpea and pronounced Chechi.