This month’s newsletter topic is by popular demand! Over the past few years I have gotten so many questions about my “girls” that live in our yard, provide us with fresh eggs daily, and give us companionship that I feel I must share their story. So I will tell you all about Amy, Jenny, and Nancy (and our dear departed Sally), and why we love them so much. Maybe you will decide to get some chickens of your own?
Here are the top 5 reasons to raise chickens (hens) in your yard:
1. Chickens teach kids about Nature and Nature’s cycle of life.
2. Chickens are adorable companions for the entire family.
3. Chickens are easy to take care of.
4. Chickens are great for your garden.
5. Chickens provide fresh, amazingly delicious eggs daily.
More about Reason #1: Chickens teach kids about Nature and Nature’s cycle of life. Do you want to get your kids outside more? Have them help out more around the house? Understand better where their food comes from? Time to get chickens! Our kids, ages 10 and 8, love to gather the eggs every day, and the task of gathering eggs is one easily delegated to even the youngest of children. Kids can also get involved (and get outside) by helping to keep the chicken area clean, which involves using a spray hose which most kids absolutely LOVE. They can see exactly where their breakfast comes from, and you can even teach them a bit about the birds and the bees by explaining that chicken eggs are infertile because there is no male (rooster) around. My kids love thinking that their French toast, pancakes, and many other things we make from eggs have a little “gift” in there from our friends Nancy, Amy or Jenny.
Raising backyard chickens may also inevitably teach kids about some of more difficult issues related to Nature’s cycle of life. We got our first two hens (Sally and Nancy, white leghorns) about three summers ago. We spent two blissful seasons with no incidents during their free range time on our front lawn. Last summer, Sally was attacked and eaten by a fox (in the middle of the day!), which was heartbreaking for us and our kids but also taught our kids a potentially valuable lesson about wild animals and the relationship between hunter animals and prey animals. The kids saw how difficult it was for Nancy to be alone without her sister (since chickens are prey animals, they thrive in groups), so we talked to our “chicken-Goddess” neighbor, Stacey, about getting a new companion for Nancy. Stacey gave us not one but two of her own “red-head” girls, which have been wonderful additions to the flock. Nancy has adjusted very well to her new sisters, and all is well again on the range.
More about Reason #2: Chickens are adorable companions for the entire family.
Chickens have personalities all their own. Sitting and watching the behavior of chickens is a great relaxing pastime. Being all girls, you can find the bossy one, the one that follows, and the one that does her own thing. The social dynamic is something that is simply fascinating to observe. When we are out gardening, the girls follow us closely at our heels wherever we go, clucking along and hoping that we will dig up a weed and hopefully a bug for them to snack on. When Nancy (who is particularly fond of humans) sees us or hears our voice, she will come running over with alacrity to see if we have any goodies in store for her. All of our chickens have been trained to come when they are called—this is especially hilarious to see!
More about Reason #3: Chickens are easy to take care of.
So I’ll admit here that we have a total of 12 pets in our household. I would put the chickens near the very bottom in terms of how much work they require. Are you surprised? (Have you ever taken care of a rabbit? That dear animal gets top prize for the most difficult, but that is another story). With chickens, you just have to make sure that they have fresh water, feed (which you can buy on-line or get at the Farm and Fleet), and a safe place to roam. The “safe” aspect is especially important at night, when predators such as raccoons, foxes and wolves are more active. Hawks, dogs and possibly cats could also be something to watch out for as well. Our nighttime safe spot is their hutch, which we bought online for less than $100 and which has a nice roosting bar for them to sit on. It is like a little house for the chickens which has a locking screen door which we open in the morning to become a ramp that they walk down into their chicken run area. To clean the hutch and chicken run area, we spray the poop (which easily washes away) with a hose about once every few days. I suppose if we didn’t do this, it would start to smell. The chicken area includes access to some fresh grass as well as some dirt—chickens need to take “dirt baths” as part of the maintenance of their feathers. In the winter months, we bring their hutch inside of the garage (which is partially heated), and spread out some straw on the floor. The girls pretty much shut down over the winter months and stop laying eggs—which is part of their natural cycle—so there is not much to care for during this period except to make sure they have enough water and food. We have some special winter gear for them, including a heated wall panel for their hutch and a water dispenser that has a heater so the water doesn’t freeze.
Here is a great resource for taking care of chickens: http://www.mypetchicken.com/backyard-chickens/chicken-care/guide-toc.aspx
More about Reason #4: Chickens are great for your garden.
Our chicken run area includes the part of our garden where we do all of our composting. This works out great as the chickens do some very valuable work poking around and scratching the compost pile, leaving less work for us to do. They also poop on the compost pile, which provides a great source of nitrogen—great for the soil! We also love setting them loose in our vegetable gardens, especially at the end of the season, to pick all the bugs off the plants. When people ask me what the chickens love to eat most I answer, “bugs!”. When we are gardening and find a nasty bug on a leaf, the kids get all excited and take the bug over to the chickens who eagerly devour it. We had a grub problem in our front lawn one year, and we set the chickens out every day—no more grubs. We have been able to keep a pesticide and chemical-herbicide free lawn thanks to those wonderful girls.
More about Reason #5: Chickens provide fresh, amazingly delicious eggs daily.
I have saved this for reason #5, but don’t think that last is least! I never knew until having chickens what a difference there is in the visual appearance (and taste!) of fresh eggs vs. store bought eggs. One morning I was making an omelet and I only had 1 fresh egg. So I broke one store bought egg into the bowl with my fresh egg. Wow, is there ever a difference! I asked everyone in the household to take a look, and now my kids want to eat ONLY fresh eggs. Can you see the difference?
I have had many questions asked of me about what the difference is between all of the eggs that you can buy in the store (cage free? Vegetarian? Free range?). So I’ve asked a dietetics student, Cristin Henderson, to do some research on the nutritional differences between various types of eggs. Stay tuned for an upcoming Healthy Kids Ideas Exchange newsletter! I will leave you with one thought about fresh eggs though. What I learned during that whole scare with salmonella in the eggs last summer is how to read the codes on an egg container. There should be a PXXX (4 digit code), which helps you to track the plant from which the egg came. The other number, a 3-digit number, tells you how “fresh” the egg is (when it was packed). The coding is certainly a “code” to the layman, since I don’t know anyone who normally thinks of time in this way (is it meant to confuse/disguise? I think so!). The three-digit code represents the consecutive day of the year. For example, January 1 is shown as “001″ and December 31 as “365.” Typically, eggs are packed within 1 to 7 days of being laid. I checked a carton in September and the pack date was something like “218″, meaning that the eggs were packed on the 218th day of the year, or—if you can figure this out in your head (I couldn’t), August 5. Wow, these (store bought) eggs were really not so fresh!
If you happen to live on Chicago’s North Shore, the following might be of interest to you:
A Pioneer Press article on Evanston’s decision to change the law banning chickens: http://evanstonnow.com/story/news/bill-smith/2010-09-28/chickens-to-roost-in-evanston
A Pioneer Press article on the movement to change the law against chickens in Wilmette: http://triblocal.com/wilmette-kenilworth/2011/06/07/residents-working-to-change-wilmettes-backyard-chicken-ban/
A Google Group for “chicken enthusiasts” located in the Chicagoland area: http://groups.google.com/group/chicago-chicken-enthusiasts?hl=en.
See you next month for some more “egg-cellent” information about eggs!
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This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.