By Rod Moser, PA, PhD
I learn a lot about people during the peripheral conversations in a medical office. I love talking to people, so before jumping into the reason I am seeing them today, I like to just have a casual exchange. I am searching for that narrow degree of separation that all humans on this small planet possess.
Never in my life did I imagine I would be discussing backyard chickens with my patients, but more and more people are raising poultry nowadays for fun and the eggs, of course. I usually get onto this topic by simply asking if a child has any pets. We talk about dogs, cats, cockatiels, hamsters, iguanas, ferrets, turtles, and, yes, chickens.
Backyard chickens are not really pets, but to some people, they are part of the family. I’m often shown pictures of smiling kids holding a chicken. This triggers conversations about egg production, washing eggs, where to get the best feed, and various chicken breeds. We chicken farmers can strike up quite a spirited conversation.
As a child, I would often get chicks (peeps) or baby ducks around Easter. They were so cute at the Five and Dime stores that you could take them home for just that…a dime or a nickel each. I kept them in the backyard and feed them grain from the local mill. I would watch them grown until the point where they mysteriously disappeared while I was at school. Most would go to my Ukrainian step-grandmother who would turn them into a meal and a feather-filled blanket. As long as I didn’t have to see them killed for food, I was fine with it. I did not eat them.
My biological grandmother had lots of free-range chickens. They would wander around her house, eating bugs and often digging up her flowers. It was fun as a child to go out and collect the eggs in a basket, so I can understand why modern families would like to share these experiences with their children.
Some communities frown on backyard chickens, but mostly those ordinances are directed more toward the noisy roosters. In my first batch of 14 chickens (too many, I might add), I had two roosters. One disappeared after I let him out very early one morning and he met the morning rounds of our local coyotes. I suspect he ran away. That’s my story and I am sticking to it. The other rooster quickly took over the morning serenades, so I had to take him to a local park, where he could cavort with the feral roosters that live there. I assume he is fine.
The remaining girls would lay a dozen eggs a day; too many for any family. Our grateful friends and neighbors would take the eggs in exchange for the egg carton coming back. A few of the girls met an untimely end by hawks or coyotes when I would let them out during the day, leaving a pile of feathers in their wake. I felt very bad about this, so I stopped letting them out unless I was there as a shepherd. My herding dogs (three Shelties) help me keep them safe and herd them back in the pen when I have to leave.
After two years, many hens will simply stop laying, though they will continue to voraciously eat and poop long after their egg-laying days have biologically ended. My remaining eight chickens had a brief, eggless hiatus over the winter, but now, as three-year-olds, they are back to laying a dozen eggs every other day. This is still too many eggs for us, but I still bought four more replacement peeps at the feed store.
The new ones are Ameraucanas — a breed that lays eggs with green or blue shells. I add black flax seed to the chicken feed to increase the amount of omega-3. The baby chicks are still living in my garage under a heat lamp until the weather is warmer and they are fully feathered. I plan on introducing them to the old girls gradually and with careful supervision, fearing that the old girls may not befriend them easily. Chickens have their own pecking order, so to speak.
In addition to the abundance of fresh eggs, the chickens have also provided me with an endless supply of manure for my compost pile and garden. I designed the coop (named C. Everett Coop out of respect for the former Surgeon General) so that I could clean it out with the tractor. It is still a stinky job, but one that cannot be ignored.
What can I say? Backyard chickens are fun. If you enjoy 12-egg omelets and homemade fertilizer, chickens are the way to go.