Question #2: Why raise chickens in suburbia?
I prefer chickens over dogs simply because they leave less mess then dogs and produce eggs. You can train them to do be tame and come when you call them (sort of like dogs) and they rid your property of ants and other bugs. Currently we have ten adult chickens which lay almost daily and then five young chickens that I’ll rotate into the flock as layers in late summer.
Perhaps though the most important reason one should raise chickens, besides helping the biodiversity of ones garden, is the connection to our past. Some neighbors revolt against the joyous sound of a hen after she lays an egg. But many neighbors of the Greatest Generation rejoice as this noise immediately connects them to their childhood. They thank us for taking advantage of our large backyard by raising our flock of 15 as it brings the sounds of their youth back to them. One of my 80-year-old neighbors even requests that I bring a hen over every so often to scratch around her own small yard, dropping manure to fertilize her flowers, rid her yard of bugs, all while making her laugh as it runs around chasing dragonflies.
In my own case study of neighbor reactions to our chickens I must also include the Baby Boomers to the south who have repeatedly called code enforcement to try and get our flock condemned and removed. These folks smile nicely to our faces and yet called so many times that a poor enforcement officer came out to take pictures of our coop and run. The officer just shook her head saying, “I don’t see why they are so upset. Your birds are cleaner and quieter then large dogs in the neighborhood.” Perhaps the Boomer generation, which grew up at the start of the sterilized concept of surburban living, consider themselves the keepers of this sacred culture.
Perhaps this couple as well as others who raise eyebrows saying, “Are you the ones with the chickens,” resent how keeping chickens goes against the strain of suburban culture. Our culture tells us to farm out our farming to others. Thoreau worried while rising early on Walden Pond and building and reinforcing his cabin how one day most men would not be able to build their own homes. He could forsee an America where every task would be hired out to a different hired man and the typical American left a specialist in minutia.
Keeping chickens brings back old skills of animal keeping that we farmed out to industrialized farms after World War 2. In talking to my older neighbors, the dear ones in their 80s and even 90s, they remember the day when most families (even in new suburban homes) could keep a small cow in the front yard. Before refrigeration Jersey cows were bred smaller so that each family had one they would care for in order to get the family milk. Our family could only dream of such a luxury. I know it sounds crazy but there are many articles in “Mother Earth News” and other organic farming magazines that describe what a family living on just a ½ acre could do with a small cow. If the cow’s manure was properly managed one cow could make that ½ acre burst at the seems with produce for the year. Now imagine the reaction of my neighbors to such a menace.
On our .4 acre plot of land we are greatly blessed by earth that two organic famers tilled and the fifty years before us. We purchased the home from a family of five children who were raised here by a couple who loved organic gardening. Therefore, at least 1/3 of the land has been reinforced by trucked in compost each year and tenderly nurtured and tested for the correct soil composition. Hence my garden is thriving and all I had to do was let the chickens help me turn it over last Fall and plant new plants this Spring.
If you wish to join us in this world of suburban chicken keeping here are some tips that might help you do well both with the neighbors and other creatures. Most beginning chicken books will tell you all the tools you need for chicken keeping and rearing. So my notes will simply help you deal with the lesser known or thought about issues of, “how to go against the suburban culture while living in it” side of chicken farming.
Firstly, it is wise to get your chickens from a known hatchery that sexes the chickens for you. While it is fun to buy heritage chickens (or chickens that have long pedigrees that need reviving) they are often bought from small farmers who cannot sex their chickens. In suburbia one rooster can ruin your entire relationship building with all your neighbors. No amount of free eggs and produce can make up for the 3 am morning call of a rooster (who will keep repeating himself for a ½ hour or more). Instead, when you get your hens from the local farming coop you have a 95% or more chance that they were sexed right. Usually when the young chickens turn 4 months old is when any hidden roosters come into full voice. Your local farming store will likely take back any surprise roosters and perhaps “cull” them for their own purposes. But small heritage farmers rarely help you with surprise roosters so you will be stuck trying to find a new home for them. Or in one case, I must confess, you might be driven to driving out to the middle of farm land holding a rooster in your lap. You might be so crazed by the morning call of the rooster you cannot get rid of that you may just toss that rooster out into an orchard on the outskirts of town. I’m just saying, this hypothetical situation might just happen to you. To avoid this, just buy hens from a hatchery that knows the hens from the cocks (yep that is their name).
Next, keeping hens in suburbia works best when you get children involved in their upkeep. Chickens are small enough that even a toddler can help chase them back into the pen. Gathering eggs should almost always be the job of one of your small children as it is a chore they can actually do well. Expect some broken eggs but you can use this small chore to build confidence in the smallest of children. “Thank you! You helped make breakfast by gathering and cleaning the eggs.”
Also, most of your child’s friends have never seen or held a chicken or found a real egg. To increase the joy of chicken raising in your suburban community educate each child that comes to visit. Our policy is that guests always get to keep the eggs they find. We keep enough chickens that we can afford to share our eggs with visitors. The joy of one who opens a coop door to find an egg for the first time can be counted upon. Even more joyous is my own joy watching this inevitable reaction. “Go ahead just take it. It’s yours.” There is also a lot of humor awaiting your life as you watch the giggles and fears of adults and children alike if they find a hen sitting on the eggs. “Go ahead. Just knock her off the eggs. She won’t hurt you.”