From coop to nuts
By Heather O'Connor
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 either as: owning chickens can drive you slightly nuts, or you may become absolutely nuts about your chickens. For me, it's a little of both.
My family recently 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 1970s called "Keeping Up Appearances") but no, we cannot yet tell them apart. We do know one likes to sing out her peeps very prettily, another loves to steal bits of paper towel and run away screaming, and not all of them are very keen on being held. But, so far, they look too much alike to hold onto their names for long.
We suspect they've all been called Hyacinth at one point or another. 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.
I ought to confess that I say all of this with the idealism of limited experience. We've had our chickens for only a short time. We've raised them since just after hatching, through their bed-headed pre-teen stage, and are now eagerly watching them put height and weight beneath their golden feathers, quickly approaching adulthood.
Though my family and I are newcomers to the world of backyard chickening, we're hardly the first. It seems we won't be the last, either. During the last 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 easily live a decade or more. 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, 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. They changed on an almost-daily basis, forcing us to expand their brooder once and then again. Only recently have they begun to slow their pace. Now, as fully-feathered pullets, or young hens, they are full-fledged coop residents.
These chickens of ours still require daily care and have yet to provide us with our first fresh egg, but we're enjoying the wait. 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. Just the other day, I offered the girls a tub of unsweetened applesauce and sat back to watch them explore this new oddity. They dipped their beaks, hurried to wipe them in the grass, realized they liked the taste, then excitedly began the ritual all over again. I couldn't help but laugh at their antics and, although I might have sounded a little strange to any passersby, I'm really just nuts about my chickens.
(Editor's note: Heather O'Connor is a freelance contributor who lives in Lincoln University, Pa.)