Backyard Chickens – Five Reasons You MUST Try Them, and Two Reasons Why Not

1. They make charming pets! I love their happy little chortles when they see us, and if you want them to love you forever, a bit of leftover rice or lettuce goes down a treat.

They’re great gardening companions, too. Esther, above, likes to stay close when I’m digging so she can have first crack at any worms. It’s a bit hard to dig when she keeps sticking her head in the hole, but then, gardening isn’t supposed to be a race to the finish, is it?

2. I’m growin’ all the snail-attracting plants – Hostas, Dahlias, Lettuce, you name it; not a hole in the leaves. Our girls think snails are the tastiest treat ever, and they crunch them up with great relish.

And the ladies help with the weeds by scratching up the weed seedlings! Of course, they also scratch up my re-seeding annuals like love-in-a-mist, but if I don’t have to weed so much I can handle putting a little framework over my baby plants.

3. The eggs! They are healthier and taste WAY better when they’re fresh from happy free-range chickens. No more of the insipid pale yolks with a side helping of guilt from supermarket eggs. Even the expensive eggs from the natural foods store can’t hold a candle to the ones from our girls.

4. You’ll make loads of new friends who want to come over and see them. Nobody can resist petting their soft feathers and bringing them offers of snails from their (organic only!) gardens.

And the jealousy and conniving that goes on when one chicken has ahold of the last snail and her sister wants it! The one with the snail will hunker down and turn in circles, using her feathery behind to keep her sister at bay while she tries to gulp down her prize.

What guest can resist returning for more of such drama?

5. The Locavore movement? You’re totally there, dude. If you read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and got all inspired about growing your own, then keeping hens is a great way to start. Not only do you get the eggs, but you get plenty of manure for your compost pile.

Need more convincing?

Check out garden writer Amy Stewart’s hen Bess and just TRY not to fall in love:

So, why wouldn’t you keep hens?

1. They’re expensive. I don’t care what those naive but well-meaning articles have to say – between the initial expense of building a solid coop, the chicken food, the coop repairs, the hay, and don’t forget to value your time – there’s nothing about keeping chickens that is saving you money.

2. Raccoons will break your heart if you aren’t careful. In order to keep your ladies safe, you need to build an amazing coop – floor, roof, wire-mesh walls and a sturdy door, with no holes anywhere big enough for skunks to squeeze through.

If you let your ladies free-range, you have to be home again to close them in at dusk. Not a problem if you’re a creature of habit like me, and love to be home, but if you’re a person with a lot of night-time adventures going on, chickens probably aren’t right for you.

Gratuitous cuteness alert!

I’ll leave you with these photos of our hen Esther meeting our feisty kitten Kernal for the first time. Esther was well used to telling our previous kitty Rocky what was what, and she wasn’t taking any guff from this newcomer. You should have heard her scold him!

Heh-heh, a tasty chicken lunch!
Kernal making his move…
Eeeek! She's a lot bigger up close!
An undignified exit.
An undignified exit.

More Chicken Links:

Chicken-o-rama by Amy Stewart

Eight Benefits of Raising Backyard Chickens by Robin Wedewer

13 responses to “Backyard Chickens – Five Reasons You MUST Try Them, and Two Reasons Why Not”

  1. I too love chickens, but living as I do next to a nature area, I worry not only about raccoons, but foxes, wolves, etc. Plus, I’m just a little lazy. Apparently you couldn’t keep chickens in Ann Arbor (unless on a farm) until very recently, though chickens could always be kept in residential homes in Ypsilanti, a city next door. A coworker has all kinds of chickens, ducks, and geese and they lay wonderful eggs. Not only are they interesting sizes and colors, but as you pointed out, they are WAY yummy!! (I just had some for brekkie!) And finally, I love how Kernal’s tale gets even fuzzier and how his ears are waaay back as he beats a hasty retreat!

    Monica’s last blog post..Nature More Calming Than Cities

  2. Hi Genevieve, that was the funniest thing ever! HA My daughter, Chickenpoet, raises chickens, the fancy kinds and all kinds really. The turnover of new ones coming and old, or young ones biting the dust is incredible. She names them all and someday surely she will run out of names. The eggs are the best and the poop is too! 🙂

    Frances’s last blog post..Leaves Of Grass(es)*

  3. Cool!

    I have questions! You say it’s expensive, but how expensive is it (in terms of time and money)? You say you need to be nearby to keep a watch out, but are there other time sinks involved (I dunno, vets, grooming, what do chickens need)?

    Also, how many eggs do you get (eggs per month or year if it needs to be seasonally adjusted)?

    I was quizzing my neighbor on the practicalities of growing enough food in a small yard (something similar to the size of your own). His response was that you could grow plenty of food to feed yourself and others, but the difficult part would be having enough variety lest your diet be boring. Add chickens into the mix, and you’d go a long way.

    I wasn’t thinking these things in terms of “preparations for the apocolypse”–after all you still need water and other things–but I am curious.

  4. Oh my gosh, the photo series at the end was too funny! My indoor kitties probably wouldn’t know what to do if they saw a chicken. A crow once landed on the air conditioning unit right outside our front window and the cats all ran and hid in the closet.

    Do you have to have a special permit to have chickens in your back yard? Not that I’ll have the room any time soon…

    Fern’s last blog post..Great Gardening Links

    • Monica, I confess, if I had to worry about much more wildlife I think I’d throw in the towel. Wolves!!! Raccoons have been enough of a thorn in my side!

      Frances, oh how I wish I had room for many more – I see all the photos of the different kinds and wish I could add to our little brood – but I think three is probably enough for my small space! I love to name my chickens old-fashioned names, like Hazel and Agnes and Ethel. Right now we have Beryl, Ethel, and Esther.

      Fern, we don’t have any special permit, but we live in what is called “the bottoms” of Arcata, which is to say it’s suburban, but just a couple blocks from farmland. I think chickens are allowed in our town’s limits but no roosters; however many neighbors have roosters so I think it’s loosely enforced in our neck of the woods.
      I’m laughing imagining your kitties running from the crow. I can just see them hiding in the closet, going – phew! That was close!

      Hey, Stanza! Thinking of adding fresh eggs to the Cooking On Sundays lineup? Let’s see, how expensive is it – I think the initial expense is the worst. Our coop cost about $500 to build plus $100 for a used nesting box, but I chose to use redwood for the frame so that it would last. If you used cheaper wood which would last less long you could probably build something for a couple hundred less – and I bet you could build something serviceable out of scrap wood and a $50 roll of wire for much, much less. The main thing is it has to be super-sturdy. Raccoons are surprisingly dexterous and smart and will dig under, manipulate the door, try to get through cracks – whatever – to get a nice chicken dinner.

      Once you have a good coop, if you let them out to eat snails and weeds every day too, it’s maybe $15 a month per three chickens to feed them? Then you just have to think about coop repairs, the yearly bale of hay for $7 or so, oyster shells $5/year, and scratch $2/ month – oh, and a handful of diatomaceous earth tossed in a bowl of scratch once a month to prevent problems with gapeworm, which they can get from eating snails and garden bugs. And replacing any vegetable plants they eat or dig up. 🙂 We haven’t had to take ours to the vet yet, but I do feel a commitment to them as pets so if they need it ever, we will.

      I refill their food and water every other day which takes like five minutes, collect eggs, scoop out the floor of the coop every so often and compost it (it’s easiest to do it oftener, like every other month, then if you let it build up to icky proportions – it takes like a half hour to do and then you need to shower!).

      If you let them out each day, you don’t actually need to hang out with them, but you do need to make sure you shut them in before dark. Most breeds want to go back to their coop and will go home on their own at dusk. Or you can use scratch to bribe them in.

      We have been getting a shockingly good 2-3 eggs per day from three girls! They took a month off in December but are back at it already for January, which I hear is unusually awesome. I hear this breed usually gives about 300 eggs per year – we have golden sexlinks. They won’t lay in the first nine months of their lives and I hear they stop laying at around the 4-5 year mark, but live on for a few more years (we will love ours until they die).

      Allright, I’m laughing now – grooming, Stanza? We have sturdy sexlinks – perhaps the fancier ladies require spa visits, but luckily ours seem happy with a patch of dust for their baths!

      You might like to check out Animal Vegetable Miracle from the library if you are thinking of doing some food gardening! It’s not a how to, but it’s really inspiring and got me all fired up about what I could do on my own small patch. When I think of growing enough food to get by on, the main sticking points are that I don’t have a cow, and that grains seem difficult to deal with. But I think if you canned and froze food through the year you’d have good variety all year long, and I agree with your neighbor that you can do a lot in a typical backyard. Even just in containers, really!

  5. Woot, thanks for all that additional information! Sorry to ask dumb questions, I don’t know these things. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be acquiring my own chickens–my schedule isn’t happy with that additional time, plus the odd travel for work and play makes things difficult–but I am curious.

    I’m definitely going to check out Animal Vegetable Miracle–I saw you mention this in the initial post and added it to my various wishlists/todolists. I’m reading so little these days I don’t know when I’ll get to it–I have a huge stack of books I’m currently “reading”.

  6. No worries Stanza, I liked the silly question the best!

    Maybe you can convince your neighbor to get chickens and share in their enjoyment vicariously.

  7. This post was the best!!. I loved reading it and as a cat lover, it made me LOL. I think if David ever retires and we live in FB full time, I’ll definitely give the “ladies” a try. I know I sound repetitive, but your posts are always so interesting, beautifully constructed, well-written and elegant. Is there a book in your future? If not there should be. Regards!!

  8. Regarding vets, you might need to use an avian-specific vet. I took one of my hens in to my regular/exotic animal vet when she was ill several years ago. He took a blood sample to send in to the lab ($75), gave her an exam, and said he had no idea what was wrong with her except that it wasn’t bird flu. The bill was well over $100, no diagnosis. Eventually she got well on her own. The vet said they just don’t see chickens, that no one bothers because of the expense. How sad that they are considered expendable.
    Good news is she and her hen-buddy are thriving at 5 yrs. old, still laying like mad this year, although last year not so much. Their main job is keeping my garden area weeded in the years I don’t have time for it. They love their job. They are such sweet girls. I hope they live a long long time!