Life is Better with Chickens
My husband and I spent 5 years in our suburbian starter-home (which was a sweet little 900sq/ft 100 year-old bunglaow) before we wound up where we are now. We quickly outgrew our 1-bedroom house when we found out I was pregnant and at every house we looked at, "a spot for a chicken coop" was on my top 5 list of requirements. When we looked at our house and the little acre it came with, I knew the exact spot in the yard that would make my chicken dreams come true. After moving in, having Tucker and getting a little more settled, we made the leap to buy the chickens, or "the girls" as I call them around here. I read a lot of books, did a lot of research and there were still mistakes I made that blew up in my face. So I figured I'd share our successes, our blunders and the lessons that these little feathered ladies have taught me about life.
When you go to buy chickens you have two options - chicks or pullets. Hens usually don't start laying eggs until they're 5-6 months old so there's a little bit of a waiting period before you'll start getting your eggs. Chicks require close attention in the early weeks of their life in terms of providing them with the correct amount of light during the day. With my job, baby and small business, I wasn't attracted to the thought of caring for chicks for 6 months before we saw a single egg (you do you!). You also run the risk of getting a rooster in your chicks (you can't "sex" baby chicks when they're that young) and while most zoning laws have restrictions with roosters, you may not be able to keep it. And if you are able to keep the rooster, well good luck! We decided to go with pullets which is basically an "adult" chicken. You may also hear them called "started" pullets, too. You can find a farm locally to buy your pullets (this proved to be more challenging than I thought) or you can buy online and have them shipped. I personally got mine from Gaumer Family Farms in Sterling, IL. They sell pullets a few times a year and I highly recommend them. They post their hatch dates on their website and on their fb page and all you have to do is message them to reserve however many you want, then show up with either a big cardboard box or a dog kennel. They'll even make sure your chickens are different colors so you can tell them apart - since you'll name them of course. And just like that, Dorothy, Otha and Fern joined our family!
Perhaps the most important part of chicken raising is their coop. I was a little naive going into the "coop" part and was quite shocked when I saw how expensive they were. Since we were just starting out with our chickens and knew we'd be free-ranging them, we didn't get a huge coop. I researched coops for weeks, scoured reviews and decided to go with "The Chicken Coop Company." They're family-owned, live in the USA and are chicken owners themselves so they've mastered the important details when it comes to chicken coops. I ended up buying the leghorn cottage and it only took a couple hours to build. Choosing your coop really depends on how you're planning on raising your chickens. If they're not going to be free-ranging a whole lot, having a big run will be important. If you're planning on free-ranging them and they'll really just be in there to eat, lay eggs and sleep, you'd probably be okay with a smaller run. The rule of thumb is 4 square feet per bird inside the coop, about 12 inches of space per bird inside the roost, and about 1 nesting box per 4 birds. The listings on The Chicken Coop Company make it easy and will tell you how many birds the coop is suited for so it takes the guesswork out of wondering if you have enough space.
My place for next year is to build a bigger and "human-accessible" coop. It can be difficult to clean when you can't physically go inside the coop so I bought these plans off of Etsy: Chicken Coop Plans PDF File Instant Download | Etsy and I'll be sure to update how it turns out! I buy all my chicken "accessories" at Farm and Fleet and none of them have failed me yet. Pine shavings, food, water and separate containers for each are really all you need.
When it comes to choosing your breed, that's really up to you. Are you looking for birds with a specific temperament, to harvest or for their laying capabilities? We were looking solely for their laying capabilities, so we went with cinnamon queens. They're a cross-breed of a Rhode Island Red male and a Rhode Island White female. They're known for being sweet and docile. I like to call them the "Labrador retrievers" of chickens. They are ALWAYS at my feet and follow me everywhere, they're the best. Cinnamon queens are a "high-production" bird which is fancy for they lay a lot of eggs. Because of this, they require a higher-protein diet - which basically means you buy the $16 feed bag at Farm and Fleet bag instead of the $13 one. I also throw them some chicken scratch in the morning - you can find this at any farm store. It's usually full of extra protein (sunflowers, mealworms...etc) and it helps to keep them busy. One of the things that shocked me was how much water chickens consume so always make sure they have fresh and CLEAN water on hand.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons in raising any type of animal isn't how to do things "right" but rather what to do when things go "wrong." And they will. They 100% will. While I was growing up, it wasn't uncommon for us to have a one-legged or one-eyed cat. They'd accidentally get underneath a horse and break their leg (and my mom would have it amputated vs getting them euthanized because she has a bleeding heart for animals) or they'd get their eyeball poked out and we'd become the proud owners of a one-eyed cat (again with the bleeding heart). Not things you think of when you see a cute little kitten.
One thing that I struggle with personally as a human is that I'm pretty phobic when it comes to the "infestation" type bugs. After my roommate in college brought home a cat that infested our apartment with fleas and after getting bed bugs from a hotel room, the thought of it paralyzes me. So you can only imagine my sheer terror when my hens and our chicken coop became INFESTED with poultry mites which are basically the chicken version of bed bugs. Like completely infested. And yes, it's as terrible as it sounds.
I went to grab eggs one morning and as soon as I picked up the eggs, I had tiny, microscopic red bugs that were scaling my forearm and some that had already gotten up to my elbow. They were everywhere. After a shriek, chucking the egg about 10 feet and trying to curb off a panic attack, I lifted the lid for the nesting box and saw tens of thousands of them. And the reason they were red? They were full of my chicken's blood that they'd spent days feasting on. So yes, when I squished all the ones on my arm, they exploded with chicken blood. Gripes. Erik had noticed that they were sleeping outside of the coop which is a potential sign of mites because they know they'll get bit if they go inside. If you're ever also met with a mite infestation - the thing that helped me the most is knowing that it's completely normal for chickens to get mites. It's not due to unsanitary conditions (although a clean coop is always important) but rather it means your chickens are pro's at free-ranging and they picked it up from either another animal, the grass, or a mite hitched a ride on their back. Mites are like bed bugs and retreat during the day to come back out and feed at night so they're easy to miss and you may realize them only once it's became really problematic (which was our case).
The two-part treatment that rid our coop of the mite infestation was permethrin spray and a permethrin dip for all three girls. Feel free to message me if you ever need the ratios but I spent four hours spraying their entire coop and they each got two dips, one week apart. The "dip" is filling a five-gallon bucket with a permethrin/water ratio and literally dipping them in it up to their neck. Then spending some time afterwards rubbing it into their feathers. Mites are easy to spot on the birds, too. If you separate their feathers, you'll see the little bugs at the base of their feathers (the quill). The hatch cycle for poultry mites is about a week so even if you treat the whole coop, you've got to treat again a week later to kill all the mites that have since hatched.
I felt absolutely horrendous as I watched their feathers continue to fall out, which happens with poultry mites. But alas. We survived. And so did the girls. It took a lot of time, research (and willpower with my own anxiety over the bugs) but I was kindly reminded of the very lesson that makes country living one of my most favorite things in the entire world.
Our chickens serve us daily with their beautiful brown eggs (that really do taste better than store bought eggs). But it's not without us serving them first. While going out to the coop in the -10 wind chill over the last week to chip ice out of their waterer or having to immerse myself in poultry mites isn't my favorite activity, it's the act of knowing I'm serving what serves me.
Our garden provides flowers and vegetables that we get to enjoy year-round. But we don't get the bounty from the garden without serving it first. It takes back-breaking hours of tilling, planting and the never-ending weed pulling.
There are studies out there that indicate that opportunities to serve others result in a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in life, leading to better mental and physical well-being. As a therapist, I'm here for it.
All this to say, it doesn't mean something's wrong with you if serving others isn't your thing. It simply means that if you do find enjoyment in such tasks, it can contribute greatly to your sense of purpose.
More than the food that they continue to provide us day after day, my three sweet little hens have been a constant reminder of so many life lessons that I hope to teach Tucker as he gets older. Living in the presence of animals was a constant in my life and I hope it'll continue to be a constant in his. Most often we purchase animals to enjoy their company and companionship and are often taken aback at the deep connection we forge and the lessons they teach us, all without them even having to (or being able to) say a word.
Tending to our chickens, stewarding the little piece of land we have and putting it all before ourselves are really the same values that our ancestors practiced so many years ago. My husband's great grandma was a midwife and after the births of her own children, she'd be back out in the barn milking cows by nighttime. Am I saying don't rest after giving birth? Hell no. But our ancestors were the ultimate example of what it meant to serve. Without big grocery stores and Instacart, their animals and gardens only "worked" if they did.
Perhaps that's why I feel so connected to my three little red-feathered friends, because I'm embodying a small piece of my ancestor's way of life.
Serving what serves me.
Without the expectation of reward or recognition.
But simply because they need us more than we need them.
So whether you're serving chickens, your family of whomever it may be - know that if that's all you do today, it's enough.
xo, Carolyn (and Dorothy, Otha & Fern)