Chickens can be pretty bird-brained, but keeping laying hens in their backyard has taught these Portland city folk a lot.
PORTLAND — Central to the organic movement is a desire to reconnect with our food and where it comes from. Farmers’ markets allow you to “meet the farmer” and better understand how different products are grown before they end up on your dinner plate.
Last year, after moving to Portland, I decided to go a step beyond shopping at farmers’ markets. I read books about permaculture, started a garden and decided to keep chickens. Of everything that I have done to get closer to my food, raising chickens has been the most rewarding and instructive. I’ve also discovered that there are many misconceptions about raising backyard poultry.
So here are some lessons I’ve learned from a year with urban chickens.
1. Everyone Wants A Chicken Dinner
Chickens are domestic animals. They were domesticated from wild jungle fowl. Most breeds are actually less capable of taking care of themselves than domestic dogs or cats. I found out the hard way when one of my chickens was eaten by a raccoon. If chickens don’t have a human being to provide them with a safe place to spend the night — to lock them in at night and let them out in the morning — they will meet a fate more gruesome than an animal rights’ activist’s worst nightmare.
(Note: So while chickens need humans to survive, humans will generally only raise chickens if they can eat and/or sell their products. Industrial chicken farms are cruel, but refusing to eat either eggs or meat from ethically raised chickens actually makes things worse, not better, for chickens as a species.)
2. An Omelette Is Not A Chicken Abortion
Hens lay eggs whether or not they have mated with a rooster. The vast majority of eggs you buy — at farmers’ markets or in stores — are not fertile. But there is nothing wrong with eating fertile eggs either, and they won’t develop into a little bird unless they are incubated under very specific conditions.
3. Eggs Are A Seasonal Product
Most chickens need a at least 14 hours of daylight to produce eggs, so egg production drops dramatically in the fall and winter when each day has less daylight. Most farmers — even organic ones — get around this by having electric lights in the hen house that trick the hens’ bodies into thinking that the days are longer than they actually are.
4. Chickens Are Not Just About The Eggs
After eggs, the most valuable chicken product is manure. Yes, these little birds produce a lot of it. Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen, which makes it a valuable addition to compost. Farming and gardening, whether intensive or not, depletes nitrogen from the soil — that is precisely what most chemical fertilizers aim to replace. Composted chicken manure makes great fertilizer, and it’s both organic and, if you have chickens, free.
5. Chickens Are Not Vegetarians
You will often see the words “all-vegetarian feed” on egg cartons at the grocery store. That’s because conventional egg producers will sometimes feed chickens ground up chicken bits (or bits of other animals), which can include the remains of chickens or other animals that died from illness. Chicken feed is often labeled “vegetarian” as well, apparently because some chicken farmers sell chicken litter — a mixture of poop, uneaten food and bedding — to be used as cattle feed, and if the mixture contains any beef products it can spread mad cow disease. But chickens are omnivores; they need protein to stay healthy and produce eggs. Free-range chickens spend most of the day scratching the ground looking for insects, slugs and worms, and they eat anything they can catch.
Chickens like salad too, especially dandelions and other weeds. They will gladly convert your weeds and garden pests into eggs and fertilizer.
6. Meat Comes From Animals
The first time I picked up an adult chicken, I was struck by how much it felt — in shape and weight — like a broiler from the supermarket. I have always understood intellectually that all meat has to come from animals, of course, but now the relationship between chickens (and other animals) and dinner is much more vivid. My husband and I can no longer think of “chicken” as a piece of meat that comes wrapped in plastic at the grocery store.
After one of our hens was eaten by a raccoon, we got two new chickens, both of whom turned out to be roosters. We ended up eating one of the roosters. We slaughtered him with the help of a farmer friend, and we made sure to use every part, including all of the organs, the feet and the head. Having direct experience with the animals you eat makes you very reluctant to be wasteful.
7. Chickens Are Cool
We play with the chickens, talk to the chickens, watch the chickens and have favorite chickens. If you never interact with a chicken up close, it is easy to think of them as strange egg-producing machines. Seeing how happy chickens are to wander around the yard together makes it almost unbearably sad to think about industrial chickens locked in cages so small that they can’t even turn around.
8. Mail-Order Birds
Perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered when I started looking into getting chickens is that you can order day-old chicks on the Internet, and have them delivered via the postal service. It’s like ordering a book on Amazon, except that you have to order at least 25 chicks so that they can keep each other warm while they are en route. This is possible because chicks don’t need to eat or drink anything for 48 hours after hatching.
9. The English Language Is Full Of Fun Chicken Expressions
All cooped up. To fly the coop. Pecking order (chicken flocks have a hierarchical social structure that is enforced by vicious pecking). Hen-pecked (a rooster who is below one or more hens in the flock social structure). Cock-eyed (roosters turn their head funny when they look at you). To make something from scratch (chickens forage by scratching the ground).
Chickens, it should be noted, are also actually known for being “chicken.” If you wonder why everything scares them, refer above to point No. 1.
*Emily Liedel is Worldcrunch Special Projects Editor