It’s been at least four years since we got our first chickens. I had a few clear ideas when we started our suburban free range adventures; I expected eggs, and I expected the chooks to walk around eating bugs, grass, and weed seeds, scratching their own poop into the dirt, fertilizing and improving soil texture – nature’s little biological tractors. I got all that in spades and I’m delighted*. But I didn’t predict these interesting factors, so I wanted to share. By the way, this rundown includes a potentially disturbing description of carnivorous chicken behavior, so skip the VORACIOUS RAPTOR bit if that bothers you.
One: chickens have personality.
Some are indifferent to people, some are incredibly flighty and nervous, others friendly. Some are dopey and vapid, others are wily and always looking for adventure and escape. Some are loud and complain all the time, others you barely hear from. Some are big eaters always on the lookout for food while others are more… peckish (ha!). Some of our ladies want nothing more than to sit eggs and mother babies, most want nothing to do with it. We’ve kept at least ten different breeds and we’ve noticed breed traits clearly influence temperament, but even within that range it’s easy to see they are definitely individuals.
Two: chickens are funny.
We have belly laughed at our girls more than I ever thought possible. They’re incredibly inquisitive and get themselves into all kinds of shenanigans. I challenge you not to laugh when someone leaves the back door open and you walk in to find your flock looking around as if inspecting your décor. We’ve seen a cluster of them try to stand on the same skinny sagging branch and repeatedly push each other off like a bunch of schoolyard hooligans. They investigate containers and fall in, fall off railings and try to pretend nothing happened, and sometimes hop around each other all puffed up in playful frolics. They also love to flop in the sunny patch of dust and fluff awkwardly around in it – typical bird behavior, but it never fails to put a smile on my face.
Three: chickens can be spoiled.
Our girls help us recycle our household waste by eating a wide variety of our leftovers; things like veggie scraps, last bits of breakfast or dinner, pizza crusts, and stale bread heels supplement their scratch daily. But if you give those ladies something sweet and juicy, like melon rinds or the fruit salad that sat out a little too long at the picnic, they tend to remember it for at least a day or two and turn their snooty beaks up at more typical fare like steamed broccoli. Fortunately, it’s not a forever thing, and just like kids, when they get truly hungry they WILL eat – both the chicken scratch and other leftovers – quite happily.
Four: chickens are voracious raptors.
Okay, technically they’re neither flying birds of prey nor pack hunting dinosaurs – but they show distinct similarities to both when they encounter small scurrying things. They go from bosomy matrons to galloping carnivores in seconds flat. And we’re not just talking bugs. We’ve seen our chickens rush and scare off jays, and chase down, tear apart, and devour lizards, small snakes, and mice. We even found one a few weeks ago in the process of eating a tiny bird. We didn’t see the hen CATCH it so we don’t really know how that went down, but that was a little disturbing. For the most tenderhearted this could be a trial, but I work from home, we garden a lot, and we’re very observant and aware of our chickens and we still don’t see it all that often, so it’s entirely possible this wouldn’t be an in your face element. Also, chickens will rush in like mad for a big juicy potato bug. So yay, because ew, POTATO BUGS.
Five: chickens are SOOOOO people.
They are, like us, both cooperative and competitive. If there’s a threat, they band together and raise a ruckus, and the rooster (or sometimes the most aggressive hen) will take on anything to protect the flock. Otherwise it’s a “me first” scramble for the goods. We like to call it chicken football when the ladies find something they like and start squabbling over it, because they don’t stand there and duke it out, the quickest just grabs a tasty morsel and runs. The flock chases after the quarterback, and all manner of hilarious fumbles and interceptions ensue. The smarter ones tend to range at the outside of the pack, and are likely to notice the yummy bits the star player didn’t grab and seize the chance to enjoy them in peace. See? People. By the way, just chickens running in itself is a laugh.
We have a simple coop we cobbled together from construction leftovers, a big self filling water bowl connected to a hose, and a chicken feed dispenser that holds a couple pounds of food we fill up about three times a week. Pretty low key for a flock of little comedians who work for chicken scratch and provide all the eggs our family needs. There are many informative resources out there about getting started with a flock, so if you’re on the fence about them, check out the sites below and find out whether chickens work for you and your lifestyle. Watch out for information overload; if you really want to move forward without getting in over your head or spending too much money, don’t research a hundred rare breeds, and don’t study the intricacies of hatching and raising chicks. Find out what breeds are available and popular in your area. Ask around, a neighbor or friend might have leads for you, or help you with starting your flock. Chickens shouldn’t be kept solo – they’re very social – so see how it goes with at least two but preferably three or four pullets. These are young females, basically the chicken equivalent of tweens. They go through an awkward teenager phase, then start to take on more of a hen shape and start laying somewhere between two months and four months of age. Keep it simple at first, you can always level up.
*Full disclosure: I love it all except that they are insatiably curious about everything we do at ground level, so I can’t plant ANYTHING without blocking them out for a few weeks until they forget something happened there. And by the way, roosters are jerks. Pretty, but total jerks. I know, not surprising, right?