Like any new parents, we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Standing in the post office, the incessant, frantic peeping coming from the box, which seemed way too small to contain 50 baby chicks, suggested that our free-wheeling, home-after-dusk days were over. Like many beginning “neo-homesteaders” these days, we began our foray into livestock husbandry with that seemingly fool-proof barnyard staple—Gallus gallus domesticus—the chicken.
After a few minor tragedies that we now consider inevitable rites of passage for chicken keepers, including the sad, but often correctable “splay-leg” chick, the totally preventable suffocation by “pile-up,” the unfortunate neighborhood dog pullet chow-down and one horrifying nocturnal marmot rampage, we’re now solidly in a more confident and comfortable stage of poultry parenting, but it didn’t come easy. This is not to say that chickens aren’t wonderful beginners’ birds; they are. There are many things to consider when starting your own homestead flock.
Like many people today, if you didn’t grow up with your Sunday dinner clucking around the back door or have a grandmother who could whack, pluck, and cook a bird faster than you could stop at the store for a Tyson rotisserie dinner, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the details. Today, since chicken keeping has become not just a good idea, but fashionable as well, there are copious books and websites to assuage your newbie frets and hand wringing. But that is not what this is about. This is about the nuances that only come from learning the very best way there is: the newbie hard way. Let us put it nicely and call them Chicken Quirks. (To be clear: I love my chickens.)
The first thing to understand is that chicken habits can often be both a tremendous benefit as well as an infuriating liability. For instance, a few hens scratching and fluffing around will pretty up a suburban yard with minimal damage to landscaping; more than a handful will totally decimate your marigold bed, your mulched shrubs, your kid’s sandbox and for absolute certainty any type of vegetable garden you dare tempt them with. Simply put, a fully realized chicken will scratch. They will eat ticks, but they will gladly de-root/de-foliate to do so. “Free-range” is great, but be sure to fence them out of areas you’d like to keep intact.
Chickens are both equally endearing and horrifying in turns. We have roosters that will cover hens with their wings on cold nights while their combs shrivel from frostbite and a few friendly girls who will come loping over for treats. We have motherly brood hens that defend their eggs with raptor-like squawks and beak stabs that require gloves. On the other hand, hens (and chicks) will peck an injured comrade to death should a tempting flesh wound appear, or the temperature in their quarters becomes too hot/crowded/boring, or they just feel like it. While a hierarchical pecking order is natural, keep a careful watch out for bullies. These need to become chicken soup pronto, unless you like coming home from work to scenes of cannibalized carnage.
While it is true that chickens are technically susceptible to a host of gruesome deaths, they are not fragile hothouse flowers. The key is to meet your chickens’ food, shelter and behavioral needs as efficiently, cheaply, yet healthily as possible. This means being fastidious about a few simple things: clean water, frequent moves to fresh ground, and predator-proof but not airtight shelter. We have had chickens recover from extremely splayed legs due to nutrient deficiencies, mink bites to the neck, and run-of-the-mill sniffles. We have also lost some to the same. In our opinion, there are few chicken emergencies (apart from disease outbreaks) that require calling a veterinarian. Once mature, chickens are remarkably resilient.
Lastly, every day as you admire Mrs. Fluffybutt the Jersey Giant or Mr. Flappy the Rooster cooing and clucking around your yard, remind yourself of the primary purpose of your homestead flocks as first and foremost a source of sustenance. A particularly friendly pet bird here or there is fine (I admit to having one or two), or if setting a place at the table for a bathed and diapered Henrietta is your thing, well, I guess that’s fine, too. But here we are concerned with managing a primarily utilitarian homestead flock. They will eat you out of house and home if you find yourself not up to the task come butchering day.
[The Templetons keep a flock of 40 to 70 heritage breed chickens at their Sugar Street “Farmden” in Bethany, PA.]
Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from “On Track,” the newsletter of Transition Honesdale (July/August 2011)