Keeping Chickens: A 7-Year Overview

Our ongoing science project as a household has been this chicken experiment we started when the kids were three and nearly two. George finished building our coop just as the baby chicks, then pullets, had outgrown their laundry room lair. For weeks, we’d ferried them around the yard in a laundry basket, and they would stay nearby us, even in the front yard, lined by sidewalks and roads. Clearly they felt we – even the tiny kiddos – were their mamas.

Chickens have more personality than I ever knew. We’ve raised a total of 15, and each one has been distinctly and singularly weird.

How We Started
It was 2013 and I perused holiday craft options on Pinterest, looking for something super-easy for little hands. But instead of “turkey toddler crafts,” the internet gods gave me pictures of puffy chicks. I wish, I thought. A friend had recently gifted us a dozen eggs from her large flock, and I had cracked those pastel-hued shells with dazzlingly bright yolks reluctantly. They were too pretty. I watched the yolks stand up in the pan and an idea hatched, a part of my mind calculating, considering our yard while the eggs sizzled.

Fast forward past the holidays and I googled chickens on purpose. I lured George, into my plan, and we excitedly passed coop designs back and forth in our spare time. We picked a spot in the yard, paced it out, and he, with his engineering tech, drew plans.

We live in an old suburban neighborhood, the kind with an elementary school at the center of the housing sprawl and sidewalks spiderwebbing outward. Our neighbors are a mix of elderly couples who raised their kids here thirty years ago and young families. When we discussed our plans with neighbors, getting permission from those who shared our fences, we received puzzled looks. No one knew chickens could be kept in the backyard on the outskirts of Denver. Debbie, now 70, raved about how much she’d loved caring for her family’s chickens, but her memories took place on sizeable acreage in upstate New York, and 75-year-old Don’s in central Kansas. But we got eager, verbal confirmation from all that our chickens would be a great addition.

We wanted to build our own coop. Reviewing the options online felt short-sighted, so we toured local feed stores. While one of us confirmed the county’s backyard chicken regulations with a knowledgeable purveyor, the other raced our kids to eyeball the chick fluffs peeping beneath a heat lamp in the corner.

We browsed heritage chicken breeds, looking for gentle, beautiful birds who laid plenty of eggs. We bought books about keeping chickens and read together, marveling at how quickly those dandelion fluff balls became fully grown hens. We sourced local breeders and found one who raised all four types of chickens we wanted. We set up a growing space in a cardboard box in the laundry room. Come March, we drove out to the farm and came home with multicolored fluffs of our own.

Our children marveled, but at one and three were too small to contribute much beyond adoration. From the beginning we held those chicks several times each day, enjoying their peeps and chirrups, cupped so gently against our chests. One chick despised it, and boy was she fast! But the box wasn’t large either. I got her eventually.

Now George was building the coop on a deadline. While it took shape, a little at a time after work and over weekends, the birds, their strengthening wings flapping dust into every crack of the laundry room, graduated to a larger pen to prevent escapes. Daily the kids and I carried the chicks into the front or back yard in a laundry basket. They followed us around, cheeping, and pecked at everything, while we colored on the steps, watching. Their feathers were short, but starting to pattern, and they didn’t need to be under their heat lamp much anymore. The white bird bossed the others now and that particular bird’s cheeping grew noticeably more shrill. One day, only 10 weeks old, he crowed. I sighed.

Our county’s regulations dictate up to four chickens per yard, but no roosters. We could trade the rooster for another four-week-old chick farm chick, whom the older birds would doubtless peck to death, or find this one a new home elsewhere. By the time we rehomed him in mid-June with one of George’s co-workers, Jack’s crows were earnest and he’d sprouted an array of curving tail feathers.

The flock seemed undaunted by Jack’s disappearance. Now named, Estelle, Pearl and Dorothy stayed in the fenced yard most of the day now, practicing their moves. Mostly eating. I witnessed them playing dead, bodies flattened to the ground, beaks agape and tongues lolling, when a large bird flew over the house.

In the garage, our finished coop languished while we built its legs and the run fencing, burying wire below the ground to stave off diggers. Living across the street from the reservoir, we had no shortage of predators, and foxes napped in our garden’s shade.

One July day a group of friends transferred the coop from the garage onto its backyard legs and our chickens moved outside permanently. And just in time! Not a week later, they began to lay eggs. What an awful racket! We thought one was dying the first few times. Even from inside our house now, we can tell what’s happening out there. Perhaps not all chickens are like this, but many of ours clearly convey the difficulty of their job.

While they loved having a house, we initially had trouble gathering the hens up each evening. The kids and I chased them following our dinner, capturing each hen and dumping her inside the fence with relief. It often took us 20-30 minutes as the hens grew faster, smarter. Our neighborhood is rife with fox, weasels and coyote, and we worried for their safety after dark. Then one day we rushed home from a summer barbecue well past sundown. I pulled on wellies and headed to the back yard to catch the chickens, nervous to find a pile of feathers instead. I didn’t see them. They were already sleeping soundly inside the coop. On their own. I’d been wasting my time gathering them up when all I had to do was wait until dusk and close the coop door.

Keeping chickens has its share of trials – for instance the time I uncovered my garden beds after a trip, forgetting they were free, and they ate all six hand-sized cabbages in ten minutes. I’ve googled “chicken laying upside down with legs in air” and “tiny egg” and “double yolk” and “what is this beetle” and “when do chickens molt” and “aggressive hen” and “bumble foot.”

Yet it’s a joy to see freed birds strut across the yard, their feathered bottoms tipping up as they peck around. Chickens eat so many bugs! Ours tap on the glass at the back door if they run out of water or the wind closes their coop door. Even now, three entire flocks later, I haven’t tired of keeping them. It’s like they live on fast-forward. The cycle of chick growth, egg laying, and old age keeps us all entertained. Each time we begin a new round with a deep breath, but the same huge smiles accompany the same landmarks: bringing chicks home, delivering them into the coop, the first egg.

I never factored in the chickens’ cheery company, the idea that hens we raise from chicks would love us. Many enjoy being held. All will follow us around, chattering in a friendly way, even when the kids chase them. Their eggs, with soft, watercolor hues, are still the best I’ve ever eaten. Keeping chickens isn’t for everyone, but we love it.

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