Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in my First Year of Chicken Keeping

I first published this essay on my blog last spring. We’ve now celebrated two adventure-filled years of caring for chickens in our backyard. Since writing, we’ve experienced our first molting season. What a nail-biter!! Here’s the version of this essay that aired on WVTF, my local NPR station, and here’s a story I wrote for The Roanoke Times about the uptick in neighborhood chicken-keeping. Hope you enjoy!

backyard chickens

It’s been about a year now since a quick stop at the hardware store to pick up some, you know, duct tape and grass seed, turned us into part-time poultry farmers.

Not that I blame my husband. Those little balls-of-fluff are enough to melt any man into a can’t-say-no-kind-of puddle. And those downy cuties made our house the place to be — neighbors stopped by unannounced, friends couldn’t wait to come over, I swear my dad made the four-hour round trip just to see the chicks, forget the grandkids.

baby chickBut I had no idea what I was in for when I let my overjoyed children carry three peeping to-go boxes inside my kitchen.

How could I have known that in less than a week the sweet babies would be flying up to perch on the edge of their box and jumping right out? I was home alone, washing dishes, and chicks — farm animals, mind you — were pecking and pooping all over my dining room floor.

Or that a few months after that I’d be vacationing three states away and get a text from my neighbor that the darlings were scarfing the pansies in the front yard pots, pretty-as-you-please. Me, typing on my phone: Think you could round them up and lock them in the coop for us? They’ll follow if you drop dried cherries behind you.

Yes, in our 12 months of chicken keeping, we’ve grown a lot. And since new folks are trying out this urban farming gig every day, I’m here to share my wisdom from the flock. I won’t claim all I need to know I learned in my first year of chicken farming, but it’s something like that.

So, in an eggshell, a dozen takeaways from our year with chickens.

1. They’re warm enough. I can’t tell you how many conversations revolved around this question. Are they old enough to go outside? Do they need a heat lamp? Will they freeze in 20 degree weather? Man, can we fret in this family. Turns out chickens are resilient. And what doesn’t kill them, makes them stronger.

2. Chickens can fly. Yep. Over that fancy moveable barrier we bought and the six-foot-tall fence that surrounds our yard, over obstacles we put in their way, even into trees. We’ve been advised it’s not hard to clip their wings. But what would that do to all their chicken dreams?

3. Free-range chickens are nice — in theory. In reality, roaming chickens equal poop — in our yard, on our patio, on our shoes, between our toes. I’ll stop.

4. Good fences make good chickens. Or maybe just happy chicken owners. Wandering through our in-town neighborhood searching for escapees (See item No. 2) gets old, quick. And did I mention the poop?

5. Predators are real. A hawk (we think) took one of our girls when she was just three months old. It made us realize how responsible we were for keeping our hens safe. Their lives depended on us.

6. It’s better when your hens lay their eggs where you can find them. Let’s just say ours didn’t favor their beautifully crafted nesting boxes in the beginning. Searching for hidden clutches — behind marigolds, in native grasses — ranks right up there with chasing your chickens down the street. (See No. 4)

7. You cannot train a chicken (to sit, stay or roll over). But they can sure train you.

8. Henpecked is not just a literary term. Once we were down to two chickens, we decided we needed to increase our flock and better to do it while our original hens were young. They’d be more accepting of new chicks then, we reasoned. In truth, melding two groups of birds was exhausting and frightening. For months, the older girls reigned terror on the younger ones, flogging, intimidating and poking to communicate their displeasure. There is peace, now, in the coop. But, also, still pecking.

9. A flock’s pecking order is not something you can fix (or really even understand). In this first year, our flock’s leader changed continually. Bird challenged bird. Winners took their places. Losers stepped aside. The pecking order ruled everything — who ate first, who laid first, who slept where on the roosting bar. This was nature’s way, we came to understand. And there was no messing with Mother Nature.

10. Five hens can do a lot of damage to your garden. But they eat their share of bugs, too. They can break down a compost pile like nobody’s business. Their poop enriches the garden soil (if not our shoes). And we do score four or five eggs a day. It’s all about the give and take.

11. Every chicken cliche you’ve ever heard is true. (See No. 8) They do step into the road for no good reason and dislike being wet and are always trying to escape. I’ve gained a new appreciation for our ancestors’ idioms.

12. Hens are good company. There’s nothing quite like holding a living, breathing being up close — yes, even poultry — to calm you when you’re angry or to slow your pace when you’re rushing around like … you know, a chicken with its head cut off. In short, chicken cuddles are good for the soul.

So happy birthday Ruairi, Lily, J.J., Siobhan and Phoebe. Here’s to many more years together — and many more life lessons.

You can also find this post at Virginia Bloggers Friday Favorites.

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