Mad About Science: Chickens


By Brenden Bobby

Reader Columnist

As the old adage goes: They grow up so fast.

One minute you’re cuddling an adorable little ball of cheeping fluff, the next minute a confused- looking dinosaur is pecking you in the eye.

Such is the life and times of the chicken.

So if they’re not going to stay cute and little forever, why keep them?

I can give you four good reasons.

1. Eggs. Even if you don’t eat eggs, it doesn’t take Warren Buffet to turn a profit from a steady stream of delicious eggs. Your neighbors will appreciate knowing the source of their breakfast, and everyone will sleep soundly knowing that’s one dozen less hens crammed into an industrial farm’s cages.

2. Meat. While definitely not for everyone, the butchery of chicken is one of the easiest ways to fill a freezer, next to rabbits. If butchery turns out to be your passion, pursue it and arm yourself with sharp knives, hot water and a whole lot of knowledge. A smart butcher is a happy butcher.

3. Pets! Your neighbor might have a $3,000 poodle, but you have a flock of colorful birds that will eat out of your hand and poop out breakfast for you. Plus it makes a cool conversation piece at dinner. You know you have that one chicken friend (me) who won’t shut up about their farmyard exploits. At the very least, their stories are usually pretty good.

4. Therapy. Believe it or not, these weird little dinosaurs are phenomenal therapy. Actual licensed therapists have used flocks of chickens to calm and soothe patients suffering from anxiety and depression. I can’t explain it scientifically, but there’s just something about watching and analyzing all of them going about their daily tasks that calms the mind.

So, thinking about adding to the family? Thought about what purpose you want your bird to fill?

If you want to become your area’s egg tycoon, poll your neighbors. See what eggs they like. Do they like brown eggs? White eggs only? Do they like to be surprised? No preference?

Some of the best brown egg layers are Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Black Australorps and Barred Rocks. These are universally seen through just about every feed store every spring. Orpingtons are very hardy in the cold and do well at surviving our insane and unpredictable winters.

If you want strictly pearl-white eggs, you’re going to want a flock of Leghorns. Yeah, that Leghorn, just like the Looney Toons character. You will have to take a little extra care of them in the winter, though. They have big floppy combs that need to be rubbed down with petroleum jelly to keep them from catching frostbite. They are reliable layers and they drop some beautiful eggs and are well worth the extra work.

If you’re looking for something more adventurous, try an Easter Egger, Ameraucana or a Marans. The first two lay pastel green eggs, and the latter lays very dark brown eggs that are a sight to behold. If you get a little bit of everything you can offer a unique kaleidoscope of eggs for sale and be the talk of the town.

Thinking about meat birds? Rotisserie chicken is delicious… Farm and Feed stores and hatcheries alike list the best breeds as “Broiler” to avoid confusion. Certain breeds, like the Cornish Cross, will literally eat themselves to death, so you have to carefully monitor their food intake. It’s a lot of work, but if you have the time and patience to butcher them you could save hundreds on your grocery bill through the winter, especially if you incubate your own chicks.

If pets and therapy are more your thing, the world of chickens is not lacking in awesome diversity. Polish chickens rock stellar afros. Silkies are basically fluffy cotton balls that can fit in the palm of your hand. Sultans are calm and striking birds that look more like cockatoos than chickens. Even the previously mentioned Easter Eggers can look very striking and beautiful with different patterns of plumage and big fluffy cheeks (I kid you not). My personal favorite is the Silver Sebright, a bantam breed with beautiful laced feathers. Google it and be awed!

Be warned, though. Your first ornamental chicken is a gateway drug that will lead you down a rabbit hole you won’t soon escape. Not that it’s a bad thing. Raising kooky animals is fun!

Grown chickens take some care, especially during winter. You just can’t set and forget them. They need a place to sleep and stay warm and safe (a coop), they need regular food and water, and they need some space to trot around and scratch. The only time you want your chicken in a cage is when you’re moving them somewhere briefly. They can’t live in a cage, just like we can’t.

Their coop needs to be cleaned out regularly. If you think it’s unsanitary for you to be around, it’s definitely time to clean it up. If you garden, you should compost what you shovel out. There’s black gold in them hills (of poo)! If you have neighbors or friends that garden, they’ll pay primo for compost, especially if they know where it’s coming from. Just be sure you let the stuff season and compost, don’t put fresh poo on your garden, especially if you plan on harvesting the plant for food within 90 days.

If shoveling food for them is getting cumbersome, you can set up an easy feeder that can last for weeks. Cut six feet of six-inch PVC pipe, attach some couplings to form a U at the bottom and fill ‘er up. Each one can hold anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds of feed, and most of our Farm & Feed stores have all of the parts readily available this time of year. Don’t forget to put a cap on the top so rain doesn’t spoil the food!

Not everywhere allows chickens to be reared in backyards. This is definitely a question for your neighbors, since every place is different. The rules in Hope won’t necessarily apply to Sandpoint, and Sandpoint’s rules won’t apply to Newport. Lots of towns have been retracting language in their legislature barring the rearing chickens in recent years. Communities have been coming together to appeal their local lawmakers to let chickens in, and it’s been working for a lot of small towns. There is one case, however, that is almost universally unacceptable.

Roosters. You’ve heard horror stories of them, and if this is your first time raising them you’ll probably deny that your favorite one is a rooster. It’s just growing faster!

And then it crows.

As a responsible chicken owner, you must face R-day head on. If you live out of town and your neighbors really aren’t that bothered by the crowing (egg bribery mutes even the loudest crows.), maybe you can dodge the bullet, but if you’re in town I guarantee you’ll start getting noise complaints and police visits. One of two things will happen:

The rooster will be re-homed, or the rooster will be euthanized.

My personal philosophy is that if the bird must be euthanized, you might as well do it yourself and get a meal out of it.

However, if it’s a sweet animal, doesn’t fight, doesn’t peck, and doesn’t beat up hens, ask around on several of the poultry communities on Facebook. Sometimes people are looking for roosters to diversify their flock, or they are in need of a big meaty protector (or hawk bait).

You can do a pretty successful job avoiding this altogether by being aware of the language used at the time of purchase, when you’re buying baby chicks.

Pullet means young female chicken. Batches of pullets are sold together when you don’t want any surprises, and you just want eggs. A roo may occasionally slip the filters and end up in here, but some hatcheries may reimburse you. Farm and Feed stores usually can’t reimburse you.

Cockerel means young male chicken. It will eventually grow into a crowing rooster. They’re great for stability in a farm setting, but they’re loud and have the chance to be aggressive.

Straight Run means the gender of the birds are a complete mystery. You could bring home a bucket of 10 roosters or 10 hens or anything in between. This is most commonly seen in bantams and ornamental breeds.

Sex Link means the gender of the birds is determined at birth. They’ve been bred in a way that females appear as one color and males appear as another so you won’t get any surprises.

If you’re still missing some info, I invite you to stop by the library and check out one of our books on raising your own poultry. My personal favorite is anything from the Storey’s Guides series. They cover everything from hatching your first egg to butchering your first flock to raising the perfect bird for show. Best part about it is it’s free to check out, as long as you promise to bring it back!

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