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The Trouble with Chickens

By June 22, 2010September 22nd, 201111 Comments
by Erica Bowman

Glamorous tales touting the joys of chicken ownership are commonplace, but no one dares to tell the entire story… until now. I reveal the truth about these feathered fiends in this uncensored exposé.

Erica’s girls enjoying some social time outdoors. Photo: Erica Bowman.

There are dozens and dozens of articles that tout the joys of backyard chicken farming, and for good reason. To hear the gleeful, busy clucking of a small flock of chickens is a joy. To see the blissful little jig of the hen who has found a worm to eat is a joy. To taste a freshly laid egg with a golden orange yolk is a joy beyond joys. With so much good to say about chickens, a person might think that there is nothing distasteful, displeasing, or discouraging about chicken farming. That person would be wrong.

I happen to love my feathered friends, I really do, but truth be known, they do have a few foibles. It’s worth remarking upon them, not because I want to pick on the girls or discourage any would-be backyard farmers, but because anyone embarking upon the practice of raising free-range chickens should have the whole truth: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Using the automatic chicken door. Photos: Erica Bowman.

Chickens can devastate the garden. Like many a back yard farmer, my chickens are free ranging. This, of course, makes for the happiest, healthiest chickens and the most nutritious eggs. The nature of free range chickens, however, is that they have free range to go anywhere they want, (unlike the factory farming industry’s version of “free-range” which may consist of nothing more than a penned-in concrete slab outside of the chicken barn.) This can have some drawbacks, since these ladies WILL cross into the garden beds and leave a path of destruction wherever they go. Chickens LOVE what lies beneath cool mulch and will have no qualms about digging deep holes in your perennial border or bed of beets. Hold onto your hatchets, gardeners–there is a bright side. You can redirect them into your compost pile; they can do wonders for turning and stirring up the mixture.

L: organic layer pellets; R: quenching some summer thirst. Photos: Erica Bowman.

Chickens are costly. The organic layer pellets that we purchase cost about $20 per 50-pound sack. One sack lasts 15 to 20 days. This means we can spend $40 or more per month on feed in the summer. In the winter months, they have less of a free-range diet, and rely more heavily on the pellets. We also have to supplement the birds with grit in the winter months, when gravel is harder for them to find in the snow. (The chickens actually need small pieces of gravel to sit in their gizzards in order to grind up their feed and aid in digestion.) Conventional feed is about half the price, but why risk pesticide infiltration of your eggs? Just like us, the chickens are what they eat.

Chickens keep early hours. Basically, chickens rise with the sun and go to bed at dusk. If you have a rooster, you can expect to greet each morning with the sound of his crowing. Hens are quieter (unless they are laying) but they still like to exit the coop as early as possible to catch their proverbial worms. Like cows, they will go to bed willingly on their own as dusk begins to fall. Unlike cows however, they are tasty prey for foxes, raccoons, weasels, coyotes, hawks, and the like. In other words, the chicken coop door must be opened in the morning and closed at night. This can cramp the social life of almost anyone. Our solution was to put in an automatic chicken door opener with a timer. This door is set to open at dawn and close at dusk.

L: the chicken coop; R: a nice surprise. Photos: Erica Bowman.

Chickens make manure. There’s another word for this but I won’t speak it here. You would never have thought it possible that a bird so small could produce that much (ahem) waste- but they do. On the bright side, composted chicken “manure” is considered a potent fertilizer with an NPK rating of 1.1-.80-.50. Raw chicken manure will burn the plants however, so make sure it has been composting for 9 months to a year before using it in your garden.

Chickens can be broody. Like another B-word, this hormone driven “affliction” can bring the worst out of even your gentlest hens. Brought on by an innate desire to reproduce, sometimes hens decide to sit on their nest ad nauseum, regardless of whether or not they are even fertilized! When not on the nest, they tend to walk around with their feathers fluffed out as if completely possessed with a phantom motherhood. Hell hath no fury.

Egg laying and the glorious results. Photos: Erica Bowman.

Chickens will hide their eggs in secret stashes. The chickens are not oblivious to our wanton larceny. They lay eggs and we steal them. Understandably so, they occasionally create a new nest outside of the reach of the prying hands. For free-range birds, this can mean wooded leaf piles or shaded mulch dens.

Chickens can be targets for wayward dogs. It is innate in every dog to want to kill a chicken. I have known people to lose an entire flock to one of these best-friends of men. Unlike the other predators who actually eat their kill, dogs sometimes do it for fun. It’s important to have a watch dog like we do or fence in the yard to keep unwanted pooches at bay.

The watchdog standing guard over her flock. Photo: Erica Bowman.

Chickens can be lazy. Lying around like a bunch of “Ferdinands” sniffing the flowers (remember the peaceful bull who refused to fight?), chickens can occasionally decide to take the day off. It’s nothing to me, of course; less scratching in the garden if anything, but I sometimes wonder if this behavior reduces egg production. Some days we only get six eggs from thirteen hens. Then again, it seems like laying eggs can be hard work, so maybe I should just give them a break!

Hens lazing amongst the flowers. Photo: Erica Bowman.

Despite all of this, I am thankful that my chickens provide me with eggs, remove ticks from the lawns, turn my compost pile, create fertilizer, and offer hours and hours of free entertainment. I find that the good outweighs the bad, but not everyone would agree. Frequently I see signs offering flocks of chickens “free to a good home.” It’s evidence that some people dive right into the deep end of chicken farming without fully understanding all of the implications. It’s important to know ahead of time that in addition to being providers of delicious eggs and company, chickens are early rising, garden scratching, producers of manure that require daily care and protection. So my advice is to sit and weigh the pros and cons before getting the chickens and remember, caveat emptor.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • jeff b says:

    cluck cluck

  • mother Bowman says:

    the expose! they do make delicious eggs.

  • Frederick J Perez says:

    My neighbors raise chickens and have their stories as well. I’ll share this with them. Thanks.

  • Dorothy says:

    Sadly, I’m not an egg eater – but they look great and make everyone else very happy. And it’s lovely to see the chickens wandering around the yard,

  • Joan C says:

    I buy my free range eggs (now I know all the details) from my very, very good friend. I hope he keeps up all the work.

  • Jeanne Hersh says:

    So funny – Maybe I’m not missing something by not having chickens roosting in my garage – I am sending this story to all my Master Gardener friends – Thank you!!!

  • Rob says:

    The automatic door is great, you can stay out and know the flock is safe and sound.

  • Veda says:

    Well it is a learning experience, a lot of fun despite all the troubles, and the best part, of course, is the quality of the eggs–fresh and delicious! I look forward to having chickens again someday, but maybe when my son is old enough to help with them.

  • Mary Landon says:

    Except for the eggs, these chickens sound a lot like…..children! Early rising, produce manure, good company, need daily tending, feeding…..hmmmm, yes, many similarities!

    But I’m also glad that you have fun with them, and your dog is a sweet caretaker. The photo of the basking ladies in the flowers is too funny. I guess producing all those eggs is hard on a girl. Great photos Erica. Thanks for the bare naked truth.

  • Ann Carton says:

    I had chickens for about 10 years–Starting out innocently though my family had raised them during part of the depression I ordered an equal number of pullets and cockerels. A wise farmer said to me,” Madam your roosters will over-service your hens!” We culled and ate the roosters. Finally only two left in the hen house leading to a fight to the death. One played dead but when extracted from the hen house stood up and shook himself off. Our dog got into the neighbors hen house. Oh my! what do you say? Our eggs were delicious but the slaughtered chickens were tough and slow growing. I don’t think anyone has chickens any more around here, Probably zoning restrictions–too bad. Now that I’m a bite deaf the morning wake up calls would be a welcome.

  • Wellie says:

    Great article! We’re preparing to get chickens and it’s good to hear about the challenges as well as the up-sides.