My adventure with chickens started in 1996, when nine chicks arrived at the Freeport Post Office in a pizza-sized box and changed my life.
My second son, Ben, wanted chickens as his third-grade Cub Scout project. I picked up the chicks after a frantic call from the postmaster. I could hardly hear him over the sound of peeping in the background, and not just from my chicks. There were a dozen peeping pizza boxes when I picked up my birds and headed home.
We had a large cardboard box set up with a light and thermometer in the kitchen, where we could all peer through holes cut in the sides and watch our little chicks peck at food and each other. They slept with abandon, sprawled flat out. I spent a fair amount of time checking the temperature, raising and lowering the light bulb to make sure the little birds were kept warm but not parboiled.
So that was the start of our backyard bird experiment. We built a small chicken house and pen, and put the chicks out in the house at six weeks. We allowed the birds to free range, which caused a dramatic decrease in the tick population and an increase in our fence-building activities. It became clear that we had to fence in the gardens, to keep the chickens from digging up new planted seeds or eating shoots and seedlings.
Suddenly, all the chicken sayings started to make sense. There is a pecking order. Birds of a feather do flock together. Chicks are truly chicken. And there are featherbrains in this world.
At six months, the chickens started laying. The first eggs were tiny, but store-sized eggs started appearing regularly and nine chickens laid enough for Ben to start an egg route. The eggs were so much more colorful and delicious that they weren’t hard to sell, and many people at work and in the neighborhood were weekly customers.
That was 18 years ago, and we’ve gone through many flocks of chickens since then. Every other year, we’d order six or 12 new chicks. We tried golden and silver laced Wyandottes, New Jersey Giants, speckled Sussex, buff orpingtons, light Brahmas, barred rocks, comets, partridge rocks, and an aracuna rooster. The newly-arrived batch of chicks often contained a rooster, from a gigantic barred rock to a very pretty light Brahma. The roosters were always terrific to have with the chickens, because they guarded the flock, kept them together, and even fought off the occasional predator.
How long do chickens live?
So far, six years is our record. Sometimes, they succumb to a secret illness and wake up dead. Sometimes, a predator will take a chicken or two. We’ve had foxes, raccoons and even a skunk attack our chickens, and one day, our flock survived a double attack from a fox and a hawk. The biggest damage is always done by dogs. Twice I’ve lost most of the flock to someone’s pet, who would never hurt a fly. Maybe not, but they’re hell on chickens.
My advice to people who want to keep chickens as pets: Go for it. A flock of a dozen will cost you about $22 a month in food, but for the first year they lay, you’ll have enough eggs to sell to pay their upkeep. Buy chicks that are already immunized, and you probably won’t have many vet bills. Enjoy your chicken’s different personalities. Gently handle and “domesticate” the chicks from Day 1 and you may develop a flock that will follow you around and sit in your lap, like our first flock.
Make sure they have good air circulation, but can stay warm in our Maine winters.
Develop an easy way to provide daily water, even in winter. We shut the water off to the outside, but just carry a milk jug out to the chicken house, which is attached to our garage. A rubber stock pan allows us to bang out the ice for refilling. Or you can get a de-icer.
Chickens need 14 hours of light a day to lay. Hang a light bulb on a timer.
Make sure they have enough room and that the pen is dig proof and protected from airborn attacks.
Provide perches at different levels, to accommodate the pecking order.
Free range your chickens for garden bug control and viewing enjoyment. They are so interesting to watch, and when chickens run, you will definitely see the chicken-dinosaur connection.
Introduce your friends and neighbors, because chickens need care and shouldn’t be left more than a day or two, even with a watering system. You’ll need to call on someone when you leave town.
Chickens make great pets. They have distinct personalities, come when called, follow you around outside, show curiosity and trust, and give you a connection to the past, when everyone had a flock. They provide eggs that will make you a believer in small-scale farming. And, they’re fun.