The girls on the prowl in the orchard. Woe to any bug they find!
I’ve had chickens on and off now for over twenty years (the off periods were the one or two times the fox got into the hen house) and I’m here to say that if you care about any of the following — green living, minimizing your waste stream, sourcing food locally, organic produce, composting, organic pest control — then you need to get yourselves some feathered ladies to help you with your quests. Chickens are, to put in mildly, the best friend a gardener ever had, and here’s why.
• Chickens eat almost everything, and when I say everything, I mean it. Left-over pasta, garden weeds, vegetable refuse, spoiled food of any kind, dried out yogurt, bug infested grains — anything in fact that you might eat, and much you wouldn’t, say, like a turkey or chicken carcass left over from making soup. Yep, that’s right. Chickens don’t shy away from eating their cooked fellows. They love it in fact, and eat all of it, even the bones. Oh, and they eat egg shells too: gives them calcium to produce new eggs. In short, if you keep a small flock of chickens, your household food waste stream is eliminated, and converted into fresh eggs for your table.
• And let’s talk about those eggs: bright orange yolks (not yellow) and whites that will almost whip themselves. If you haven’t eaten really fresh eggs, then you haven’t eaten eggs. In fact, this is perhaps the only downside to keeping your own hens: you’ll never eat those pale, pathetic store-bought eggs again — which by the way have been sitting around on average for over a month before you get them, plus whatever time they spend in your refrigerator. They don’t go bad, per se, as the egg is designed to hold itself vital for weeks, as the chicken only lays one egg every other day or so, and waits for a clutch of 8 or nine before deciding to sit. The problem is taste. After a while both flavor and color become seriously degraded.
• Chickens are the most avid bug eaters you’ll ever find, so if you have a problem with ticks, slugs, grubs or other crawling pests in your yard, simply let your flock out for an afternoon and the girls will take care of the problem for you. Caveat: if you have cultivated grounds, you won’t want to let them free-range unsupervised, as they will scratch up mulched beds and unearth new seedlings. My chickens live in a fenced enclosure 40′ x 60′. In the center stands a cedar chicken coop with a door that automatically opens and closes at sunrise and sunset. My 30-odd girls (and two roosters, one named Big Red, seen in the center of the top picture while still a pullet) roam about this enclosure freely during the day, and once or twice a week I let them out to roam in the orchard, where they eat bugs and any fallen fruit. If they are not disturbed in the coop or frightened by predators, they return to the roost every night by themselves.
• Chickens are remarkably easy to care for, and suffer few health problems if given plenty of water and good food. On average, my chickens live for three or four years, and each produces and egg every day or two for most of their lives. Eventually, they go barren, and if I were a commercial producer, the non-layers would be culled, but I figure what the hay. They’ve given me food and pleasure, and deserve to live out their lives in peace. Eventually they just konk out, and they wind up fertilizing a tree or shrub in the garden. Occasionally a predator arrives, too, which is sad, but part of the natural order of things (and many dangers lurk if you are a chicken, from hawks, to minks, to foxes, to coyotes, to raccoons, even untrained dogs) Small losses I suffer in sadness, but if the toll begins to mount, I step in and remove the predator. Chickens generally take care of themselves, and my main duties are providing supplemental grain to the feeder once a week or so, making sure the auto-watering device is on, and collecting the eggs (which I sell by the way, for $5/dozen) The only major task is the quarterly clean out of the coop, which becomes tricky mid-winter if there is a lot of snow. But I don’t mind this job, as chicken manure is some of the most nutrient rich around, and makes a wonderful “hot” additive to speed organic breakdown in the compost pile. (Don’t apply it directly to crops, however, as it is so nitrogen rich it can burn plants.)
• You don’t need a grand set up to start. Mine has gotten rather grandiose, thanks to time spent on the “Victory Garden” and years of improvements, but all you really need is a shelter, and an enclosed run. There are a million sites on the internet these days to help. Here’s ONE. You do however need to check your local zoning laws; most places allow hens, but some restrict roosters. A quick call to your town hall will give you the answer.
Well, the fire is cracking in the kitchen fireplace, and I’m off to make a lovely little omelet for lunch with my own fresh eggs and produce. A terrible way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I know, but then again, you could easily share this fate with me, and I heartily suggest you do!