I remember it well, the first time I met my chickens. They were so small and cute and defenceless there in the little box they had arrived in. I immediately knew, as my chest swelled with pride, that I would be the best dang chicken-keeper I could be for these tiny little beings. I knew that if I did right by these girls, they’d keep me well fed with tasty eggs for years! We had decided on a Barred Rock / Plymouth Rock cross, that being a large dual-purpose bird which lays big brown eggs and can provide good meat too. My wife and I had done some research before making the plunge into chickens. We had read the Storey’s guide, as well as having a well worn copy of Back-to-basics for comparison. It seemed simple enough.
Being off-grid, we had improvised a simple, effective incubator box from a cat litter crate and a 12v DC lamp we had taken out of an old RV. We could move the lamp up and down in the space to adjust the temperature which we could monitor with a cheap thermometer. Though speaking about cheap thermometers, the chickens made the best reference to know how warm the box was, by spreading out when it was too warm, or crowding in when it was too cool. I guess I should say cheep thermometer. Having a small house, and farm cats, we kept that little brooder in our bedroom and watched over the chicks closely for the first few days. It was very relaxing to fall asleep to their gentle peeps and chirps.
After about 2 1/2 weeks or so, we started taking the box outside for a little supervised scratching time in the dirt. This was also the easiest time to clean out the box and refresh their space while letting the birds get some sunlight and, well, be chickens! We also introduced the chickens to the farm cats during these expeditions, though with some trepidation at first. Having already learned some of the language of cats in childhood, we hissed at them when they got too close or looked like they might pounce, reminding them that these are OUR chickens, not to be touched! Soon though, we had to let the two groups interact, or we’d never be able to turn our attention away from the farm again. It turns out we needn’t have worried. As the first young cat approached the chickens, one of them, the same size as the cat at this point, pecked her right in the eye. The startled cat jumped back, and considered this formidable being she had just considered potential prey a moment ago. After a moment, she walked right into the midst of these scratching feet and pecking beaks and laid down. We’ve had peace between the cats and the chickens ever since.
One of the most interesting things we have done with our hens is whistling “fly me to the moon” every time we feed them. This has yielded some delightful results. One, is that whenever we feed the chickens, we know they will all come right up to us and get some, no-one missing out. It also means that when visitors come to the farm and ask about the chickens, we can just call them over. With a quick whistle, they all arrive, and because we’ve handled them their whole lives, we can, if we’re quick, catch and hold our calm chickens gently in the crook of our arm. It makes picking bugs out of the garden a simple joy too, being able to dispose of them by calling someone to me to help, knowing that I am feeding more protein to one of the girls, which will provide me with more, and better eggs.
I think watching chickens scratch and peck has given me a real insight into the mind of the chicken. It seems they have almost a religion of sun worship that they practice most faithfully and devoutly. How else could you explain an animal that cries out in joy every time the sun comes up. I am speaking of course about the rooster, a subtly different creature than the hen, though an excellent yang to such a pleasing ying. We added a pair of males for our second purchase of a dozen new chicks, and though one of the fellows didn’t survive to adulthood, (he had got his head stuck in the feeder, and was, shall we say, put to the bottom of the pecking order by the other birds. He survived for another 2 weeks with the name “Perseverance”) the surviving rooster, now named “Sinatra” (as he sings to bring all the ladies in) has been a proud addition to the flock. Interestingly, when hens are raised without a cockerel, they develop much larger combs, as we discovered with the second batch of chicks and their subsequent small adult combs. Back to the “religion of chicken”, every day they wake to greet the sun with a call to prayer. They practice their faith by first scratching and then pecking the ground to find food. When a scratch does not find what they seek, they move to the next spot with another scratch, scratch, peck, all the while the rooster reminding them of their devotion with exaltations to the sun, the bringer of light, and hence safety. If he finds a good source of food, like a pile of grains or an especially nice, fertile patch of ground, he beckons the hens over to him with a little “bup-bup-bup” kind of call. All-in-all, a very simple method of living, but highly effective. Perhaps I give the chickens more credit than they deserve, but the “chickenness” of chickens, when allowed to express itself in natural conditions is quite remarkable.
Our chickens, as you may have guessed, are pastured. This means they spend a lot of their day on grass. Sadly, the term “free-range” has been taken by the factory farm industry, to mean “having access to an outside area”, whether or not they have only some part time, or worse, almost no access to fresh air and sunshine. Pasturing a small flock is a much more sustainable approach, as it allows the chicken manure to create fertility where it falls, while not becoming toxic waste, as it can in a factory farm setting. Furthermore, the bugs and other forage the birds find saves on cost for feed, and helps create a balanced diet, rich in nutrients, while the grass provides the perfect Omega 3 and 6 fatty acid balance. We do our pasturing either in a chicken tractor, if the garden is sensitive to scratching, as it is when seedlings are just getting established in the spring, or loose if the garden can take it. This means the chickens can come and go as they please, scratching up dusty patches onto themselves, to control mites, and turning over the top layer of soil in dirt patches to work the top compost further down. Quite often, they find their soil management counterpart, the earthworm, working it’s way up while they work their way down. This encounter is usually short and exciting, though it doesn’t work out for that individual earthworm especially well. Fortunately, there are always an abundance of reserve forces waiting in the worm barracks to reinforce the front lines. What is a chicken tractor you ask? That is a name for any enclosure, big or small, that allows someone to move chickens from one area of grass to another. This can take the form of a small moveable fence, or a free, home-made open-bottom, screened box, with a minimum of 1 1/2 ft2 of space per bird, or much more elaborate and costly systems with wheels, enclosed nesting boxes and safe shelter for evening roosting. As long as the chickens are moved to new grass when the old grass is finished (usually daily) and have water and some kind of shelter from the elements, they are quite happy, usually well fed, and wonderful to watch. Just to make sure they’re not hungry, we supplement the diet of our cluckers every day with a few handfuls of corn or wheat and any food scraps we may have from the kitchen.
In my experience, I would recommend to anyone who likes to eat eggs, and has a patch of grass, to be brave enough to try your hand at raising hens. It will be a learning and bonding experience for you and for your children. Low in cost to invest in, and providing tasty, fresh and healthy eggs, as well as the potential for meat and breeding stock, chickens can be wonderful animals to care for. Start with just a few, and if you like it you can always get more, or get rid of them if you don’t. A small hand-built chicken tractor can be cobbled together by even the most inexperienced hands. Plan on having enough space to be able to move the birds to at least 10 new spots, (though more can be better). This allows the grass to rebound between moves and can save you having to mow ever again! Many plans are available online if you’d like to have a look. As well, there are some companies who are selling backyard flock coops right now, if you’d like to pursue a more “pretty poultry” approach. Some of these are like chicken Shangri-la! Whichever way you go, you’ll be delighted by the many benefits of shortening your food chain right to your own back door with your own chickens.