It’s been a busy few weeks on the homestead. We’ve had the usual cleaning jobs, plus planting and maintaining the veggie garden, setting up and running our above-ground pool for the season, coaching soccer, preparing for summer (lots of events at school), and a new spring endeavor — chicken keeping.
They call them “gateway livestock,” because they’re an entry-level way to explore farming/ranching, and presumably they’ll lead us to goats, cows, etc. I read somewhere that the amount of daily care chickens need ranks somewhere above cats, but below dogs. Well, right now, because we chose to buy day-old chicks, the level of care is significantly greater, but they’re getting bigger and more independent by the day.
Our little brood of 8 (2 Easter Eggers, 3 Black Australorps and 3 Barred Plymouth Rocks) currently reside in a brooder in my office (pictured above), but when the weather is nice, we box them up and carry them outside to their coop, where they’ll live full time once they grow all their feathers. Right now it’s raining — lovely weather for a Memorial Day weekend in Central Texas — so they’re right behind me cheeping away.
What’s been most fascinating and surprising so far is how adept they are at flying. I never thought of chickens doing much flying, but when they are this young, and light, they’re able to wing themselves around quite well — something they won’t be able to do as well when they achieve full-grown weight. Even the one-week olds can do it.
It’s strange, I suppose, that I never thought of chickens as birds, but indeed I’m experiencing a lot of the same joys with them that our wild bird and hummingbird feeders bring me. I’ve never been able to be so close to these descendants of dinosaurs, and I’m finding it so interesting to learn about bird anatomy, diet and behavior. (I highly recommend the David Attenborough documentary series The Life of Birds, available on Netflix, as well as The Natural History of the Chicken, available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.)
Anyway, I could geek out on chickens for hours, but I’ll spare you and just answer a few frequently-asked questions:
Don’t you need a rooster to get eggs? In short, no. Just as human females produce an egg every month, whether it’s fertilized or not, so a hen produces an egg on an approximately 26 hour cycle — though the rate of lay differs from breed to breed.
Aren’t chickens messy and smelly and loud? Yes, they’re messy, but they needn’t be problematic or smelly, so long as you take care of them properly. As for loud, that crowing you may be imagining comes from the rooster, which, as I mentioned above, isn’t necessary.
When do they start to lay eggs? When they are 18 weeks old, approximately. Laying will slow for things like cold weather, hot weather and an annual molt (when they lose their feathers and grow new ones).
Why would anyone want chickens? I think I mentioned eggs. They also eat food scraps, kill bugs and produce a very fertile addition to your compost. Plus, it’s a good education for the kids on where food comes from, and they are fascinating to watch.
Are you going to eat them? Yes, we are planning to, eventually. Since we already eat chicken in our household, I don’t see a lot of difference between eating chickens we know have had a happy life, and eating factory-farmed chickens who’ve lived in confinement their entire lives. My thoughts might change when it comes down to it, but I am trying to steel myself for this eventuality. After all, chickens only lay for 3 years or so, but they can live as long as 10 years, so that’s 7 years of food going down the drain.
Here’s what they’re supposed to look like when they grow up. First, the Black Australorps (these are the ones that have a lot of yellow on their underside now):
The Barred Plymouth Rocks are mostly black as chicks (though ours were marked with some kind of green dye on their heads at the hatchery), and they turn out black and white striped:
The Easter Eggers aren’t a real “breed” but a cross that lays blue or green eggs.
These are all “heritage breed” birds, which means they’re similar to chickens found on family farms a hundred years ago. We chose them for egg production, ability to withstand heat, personality, looks, and ability to forage (find their own bugs for food). Most are considered dual egg/meat birds, which means they’ll have a good amount of meat on their bones, though they’re primarily raised for egg laying.