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Chicken Chat

photo-of-chickensA few years ago I moved into a house in the country (well, Holliston), with a bit of land, fenced in garden, and… a chicken coop. Mercifully, the previous owners did not leave chickens behind, and I convinced my husband that knowing NOTHING about raising poultry, we’d best wait a bit before starting a flock. As a librarian, I committed to doing my research before diving into a new endeavor caring for living creatures.

At a family get-together I discovered that a distant cousin had chickens, and asked her “What do they eat?” Her answer: “Everything,” seemed glib and less than useful. Nowadays when asked the same question, I offer the exact same answer. I field many inquiries about chickens, and a handful stand out as the most common. After just three years of chicken-wrangling, I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I shall attempt to answer some here.

Q: What do they eat?

A: Everything. Well, not everything, but we do feed them: leftovers, garden weeds, grass clippings, oyster shells, desserts, cat food, and (gasp) chicken, and eggs. They don’t grasp the notion of chicken or egg-eating as cannibalism, and we only introduce leftover cooked eggs, so they don’t develop a taste for their own freshly laid eggs. On their own they enjoy insects, earthworms, and Lyme Disease carrying ticks. Dave Ingham, in Backyard Chickens: How to Keep Happy Hens, confirms, “Hens are omnivorous, meaning they eat anything.”

I didn’t know based on the “everything” response that the birds also dine on “crumble,” a supply of food that stays in their coop for everyday consumption. Chicks get one formula, youngsters consume a “starter/layer” formula to encourage egg development, and when fully grown, hens graduate to “layer” variety. Crumble contains a mix of grains, vegetable protein, animal fat, vitamins and minerals, including calcium important for strong eggshells. The familiar term “chicken scratch” refers to a blend of seeds and corn (like bird seed) we toss around the run as a snack they enjoy “scratching” for in the dirt. Our hens love apples, fight over salmon and animal fat, and have no interest in asparagus.

Q: What do you do in the winter?

A: Chickens have managed to evolve and survive all over the world for centuries, and I think they tolerate winter better than I do after a few rounds of shoveling snow. However hearty though, cold climates require provision of some heat when temperatures drop below freezing. We use a red heat lamp in their coop to provide warmth without messing up their circadian rhythms. When they feel cold, hens huddle together and cuddle keeping each other warm (and cute). Following a D.I.Y. tip from a backyard chicken web forum, we made a basic heater to prevent their water from freezing. We cut a hole in the side of a Christmas cookie tin, put in a light bulb with a cord attached, and placed their waterer on top.

Q: Do you need to have a rooster to make eggs?

A: Sorry, reader – you may feel awkward, but the time has come for us to have The Talk. No, you don’t need a rooster; single ladies make eggs too. Just like women, hens produce eggs. Human females during their fertile years generally create one per month, with or without a man. In both species, the male comes into the picture to fertilize an egg, potentially making a baby. Our Casanova rooster enjoys “fertilizing eggs” indeed, but we collect eggs every day or so, in advance of embryos developing into chicks.

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens explains the tendency of “broodiness,” when hens feel a maternal instinct so-to-speak, and would prefer sitting on their eggs to hatch them instead of continuing to lay. Some breeds get more broody than others; ours couldn’t care less about offspring.

Q: Don’t you hate store-bought eggs now?

A: Nope. Some may feel this way, and I do prefer mine straight from the coop, but I love eggs and even indulge in Dunkin’ Donuts bacon egg and cheese breakfast wraps from time to time.

Q: Do your neighbors get mad?

A: Fortunately we have enough buffer space between yards to, hopefully, protect folks from the rooster’s pre-dawn wake up calls. Local ordinances vary, partly based on potential rivalries bound to stem from chicken coops in close proximity to neighbors’ bedrooms. Ours have never complained… although we do bring them a fresh dozen now and then.

Becoming a backyard chicken farmer turned out much easier than I expected, and requires minimal work after the initial setup. The Backyard Homestead includes beginner-level information about selecting breeds, and the life cycle of egg production. The library has titles devoted to building chicken coops, including How to Build Chicken Coops, by Daniel and Samantha Johnson, and a volume from the For Dummies series. If the whole family gets involved, check out A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens, by Michelle Caughey.

To enjoy and get creative with all of those farm-fresh eggs, I consult Michael Roux’s Eggs, All About Eggs, by Rachel Khong, and D’lish Deviled Eggs, by Kathy Casey. When the refrigerator starts getting too crowded I turn to deviled eggs, quiches, and tortilla Española to use many at once. I bring fresh eggs to parties in lieu of beer. I give them as thank-you and get-well-soon gifts. For family Easter festivities the colored egg responsibilities fall to me.

Aside from the culinary benefits, my top reason to raise chickens is because they make me smile every day. I sit in front of the run and watch them like fish in an aquarium. I laugh at their stupidity and marvel at their smarts. I try my hardest not to get attached, but cry when a bird dies due to natural causes or at the hands (or talons) of a predator. Silly, pretty, fun, and entertaining, our little flock adds tremendous joy to our modest homestead, and we have no regrets about repopulating that inherited coop.

Lydia Sampson is the Technical Services Department Head at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the June 13, 2019 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.


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