Chickens: The Gateway Livestock
Jul 02, 2014 09:31PM
By Jules Cox
Backyard chickens are a big trend right now. I am here to warn you: chickens are a gateway livestock. You may think you’ll just enjoy having a few chickens and eating fresh eggs, and sure, it starts that way. But those fuzzy-bummed dinosaurs we call chickens lead to so much more, like ducks and turkeys, goats and sheep, beekeeping and drought-tolerant native perennial gardens, heirloom vegetable production and membership in heritage sheep breeders associations. One day you’ll look up and realize you’re contemplating buying a llama, and you’ll wonder how you got to where you are (and where one goes to buy a llama anyway), when it all started with just a few innocent chickens. I can tell you, because it happened to me.
We’ve had numerous chickens over the years, but my favorite hen was also one of the first. We got three little bantam (that means miniature) Cochin/Silkie (that means adorable) chicks one Easter, thinking it’d be fun to have them in a coop outside. Cochins and Silkies are sweet tempered chickens who make good pets, the websites said. Websites with names like MyPetChicken.com and BackyardChickens.com. These folks know the goods they’re pushing. Hickory, Dickory and Doc did indeed become adorable feather-footed fluffballs who laid little eggs and happily clucked in the yard chasing grasshoppers when let out of their coop, which was little more than a rabbit hutch with a chain link run attached. They were great.
Then Hickory, a brown hen with a big black poof of feathers on her head, started sitting on the nest all the time. All. The. Time. She barely got up to eat or drink. I realized that she had “gone broody” - she was determined to hatch herself some chicks, regardless of the fact that there was no rooster around to fertilize the eggs, and rarely any eggs to sit on, as I gathered them fast. She was so moody and unpleasant and unhappy that I finally let her sit on some ceramic eggs for a little while, and one night, stealthily switched out the ceramic eggs for newborn chicks. In the morning, she was delighted to wake up and discover her new babies nestled under her wings.
So, now we had more chickens. These were easier to raise, since Hickory raised them; no dealing with a brooder box in the house or a heat lamp. Watching her with her babies, I fell in love with chickens all over again. She taught them to scratch for goodies in the dirt, chase insects, roost in the coop, and run to her when danger loomed. I was sad we couldn’t keep a rooster in our suburban backyard; the roosters were so beautiful! And then Hickory could hatch her own chicks! Luckily (from a certain point of view) my interest in chickens had led me to hear about all kinds of other livestock. As a hooker (that means I crochet), I loved the idea of spinning my own yarn. I learned to spin. Which naturally led to wanting my own sheep. So I leased a pasture, and bought a few little Shetland sheep. Like ya do.
I loved my sheep, but I longer for them to be close. I wanted to sit out and watch them, like I could with the chickens. I wanted to know their personalities. And oh, do chickens and sheep have their own personalities. Hickory was a bossy granny type. Dickory was a complete moron, but very gentle. Doc was comical, friendly and loud. My ewe Doileag was pushy, courageous, protective, and too wily for her own good. Bonnie, another ewe, was half wild, cautious, and a spaz. The chickens liked me. The sheep didn’t. I needed them close, so I could convince them I was their buddy.
So, we bought five acres in Mansfield, and populated it with the sheep, a few goats, a donkey, and an enormous Great Pyrenees dog. And chickens, of course. I could finally have a rooster! I acquired a young Cochin/Silkie named Baxter, a beautiful bird with a high, clear crow. He strutted around his pen, proudly looking after his hens. He ran off anything that went after his hens, and we’d find the evidence of midnight intruders the next morning: tufts of hair from a wild creature, a clump of tail feathers missing, a dead snake, a generous smear of blood with no injuries on any of the chickens. This tiny bird was a ferocious guardian, but he was gentle and sweet with his hens. When I threw out kitchen scraps, he’d run over, inspect them without eating, then call the hens over, and keep a lookout for danger while they feasted. I was fascinated by him.
We have three pens of chickens now, with four roosters. Dickory’s tiny brain led to her demise via dog, but the bantams now have some of their own daughters in their flock, this time hatched by Doc - Dracula, Hippiegriff and Frankenchicken. Wolfman and Ghost are the new roosters, raised together so they don’t fight. We now have Easter Eggers, too - Bruce, Cream, Griffin, Spectre and Phantom. This last hen cannot be contained, and pops up all over the place on the farm. I call her my pullet surprise, har har har.
Hickory still hatches chicks for us. I had just given her some Black Copper Marans eggs to hatch when it got very cold; I brought chicken and eggs inside and put them in the master bathroom shower. My husband, the tolerant man that he is, said nothing when he pulled back the shower curtain the next morning and found Hickory contentedly clucking on a pile of hay. There are seven eggs of her own in her nest right now; I collected them, and when there were enough, gave them back to her, so they’d all incubate and hatch at the same rate. She clucked excitedly over the nestful of eggs she suddenly had and settled her old body over them like it was the most comfortable thing in the world. I sat with her and stroked her back and shared her happiness.
So now you’ve been warned. Chickens are great, it’s true. Fresh eggs, insect control, a very easy outdoor pet, adorable, and amusing to watch. They are utterly ridiculous, and take themselves oh so seriously. I don’t think I will ever be without chickens again in my life. But they’re addictive, and they expose you to so many more dangerous, time-consuming, money-eating, life-changing activities and animals. There’s a whole world out there of animal behavior and relationships and back-breaking, hand-numbing work, and by getting into chickens, you’ll find yourself exposed to all of it. Sheep, goats, other poultry, equines, alpacas, llamas, cattle, pigs, even camels. If you can resist that and content yourself with just a few backyard chickens, good for you.
But for my part, well … there are duck eggs in the incubator.