There’s this picture of my sister and me. We’re on the eucalyptus leaf-strewn lawn of the public library. In the background, you can see the fluffy haunches of some kid’s cat– surely the kind of pet the librarians had in mind when planning the Best Pet contest. But we’re in our summer dresses, proudly posing with our chickens, who have just won first and second place.
Sure, we had cats, a rabbit or two, some goldfish. It’s just that they were… kind of boring. The chickens, on the other hand, were amazing! I mean, they laid eggs. Which of our other pets made breakfast for us? The chickens also had shiny feathers in a rainbow of colors, made funny noises, and, once the old rooster Fred had been given away, they lived in an impressive girls-only clubhouse.
It made perfect sense to us that these were the pets destined to win the library pet contest. Memory is hazy, but probably I was a little miffed that my big sister had once again come in first, like she did with so many things I desperately wanted to match her in– pinata-busting, picture-drawing, tree-climbing.
Then again, her chicken Brighty was pretty stunning. I know now she was a Silkie, the only one in our coop with a bouffant hairstyle and fancy little slippers. Back then, we just thought she was one totally together lady. She certainly deserved to win the blue ribbon.
Calico won my little five-year-old heart, though, with her sweet personality and reddish brown feathers. I’m not sure what breed she was. I think she may still have been a pullet at the time of the contest. I loved her because I had watched her grow from a fuzzy chick into this gangly, squawky, skinny-necked bird.
A few months later, she would catch that skinny neck in a crooked wire opening in the coop fence, and meet an untimely end. The importance of preparing a safe and appropriate home for the backyard flock was impressed upon me then, in a confusing and slightly-terrifying way, but it was more recently made clear in a workshop I took at the local urban farm store, doing research for my recent article on basic chicken-keeping.
Store owner Robert Litt stressed that the care and keeping of backyard birds will probably always occupy the gray area between pet and livestock. Most people raise chickens for their incomparably fresh and delicious eggs, sure, but if you’re not also in it for the pleasure of the animals’ companionship, you may find yourself underwhelmed. Small-scale chicken-keeping is a great way to enjoy the birds themselves, in all of their variety and personality, rather than simply a great way to grow your own protein.
That said, large-scale chicken-keeping is often nightmarish for the birds and their keepers. Confinement of too many birds in too small an area breeds disease, aggressive behavior, misery. Even on a smaller large scale, the stress of living in close quarters can drive birds crazy. For a little while not too long ago, I lived on a natural process farm in Petaluma, California, once heralded as “the chicken capital of the world.” The eight of us interns were responsible for taking care of the 80 hens, roosters, and pheasants occupying a ramshackle coop on the far end of the property. There were too many roosters, too many different kinds of breeds, too many bird who hadn’t grown up together.
In short: chaos waiting to implode. The hens pecked at each other ruthlessly, the roosters fought, and the smaller birds couldn’t compete for space at the feeder. We watched all of this happening and set about educating ourselves– quickly. Many chicken-keeping books, conversations with older farmers, and coop remodels later (plus a long day spent butchering several older roosters,) we had a much healthier, happier flock.
Not without casualties, though. (“Life and Death with the Chickens,”my fellow apprentice Julia entitled a chapter in her self-published manifesto and resource book from our time on the farm.) I buried several birds who were quite literally pecked to death by their sisters. It’s not pretty, and for a while it made me seriously reconsider eating eggs and having anything at all to do with chicken-keeping. But it also taught me a great deal about how to do it the right way. L and I are looking forward to having a coop at our next place, and continuing to learn how to live with chickens.
In honor of Calico and Brighty, I present you with this reading list for basic chicken-keeping.
Chickens in your Backyard
Gail and Rick Luttman
The classic. This one was written in the 70s, but let’s face it: how much has really changed in terms of the basics? Some friends of mine recently picked up a reissued copy with a snazzy, hip front cover, only to find that the language seemed a little dated. Nevertheless, this is a straightforward, friendly beginner’s guide.
Living with Chickens
Great color photographs and a somewhat proper, intellectual tone. Rossier’s from Vermont, but he comes across as a proper English gentleman, if I’m remembering this book correctly. It was one of several we borrowed from the library and kept on hand at the intern house, rotating library cards when one of us had had it checked out long enough. Includes troubleshooting for sick chickens, a must.
Entertaining, with lots of personal anecdotes from Kilarski’s experience as a novice and later expert chicken-wrangler. Geared toward those keeping small backyard flocks. Many online reviewers noted Kilarski’s recommendation that any rat problems resulting from a new coop ought to be cleared up with poison. These are valid concerns; Litt (see article) teaches that the best solution is to store all chicken feed in sealed, animal-proof containers, only setting out enough food for your birds as they will consume in one day–one cup per bird. Rats are associated with chicken coops only in as much as you consistently leave out tasty things for them to eat. As with many urban farming practices, pest problems develop when there’s an unhealthy situation– usually due to excess. (“Pests” come along to try to help us clear away waste and decomposition.)
Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds
Amazing full-color photos of every breed of chicken you can imagine, from the heirloom and classic to the exotic and truly strange. Fun coffee table material, and great for wistful, apartment-bound chickeneers.
A Chicken in Every Yard
Robert & Hannah Litt
Coming soon! (Publication date March 22, 2011.) This is the primer from the folks who run the Urban Farm Store here in Portland. Not having read it yet, I don’t have much to say other than these guys know what they mean and mean what they say. You know?