I’m a chicken lover through and through. For nearly 20 years, I kept endangered chicken breeds as exhibit animals in a zoological setting. These birds were pampered and valued parts of the zoo’s collection and needless to say, they were not eaten. Following retirement from the zoo 10 years ago, my family and I finally got our own farm and my mind once again turned to chickens. It was clear from the beginning that I personally had to make a transition in mindset as an animal keeper and adopt a more practical approach as every farmer must. There was no cushy zoo budget to depend upon to pay for the upkeep of the birds and coops on our farm.
Heritage breeds were to be the focus of our personal chicken challenge. We thought that if we were going to raise chickens, we wanted to work in a meaningful way to help breeds in real danger of extinction. That meant hatching and raising around 100 birds each year in order to make careful selection of breeders for the following season. Generally accepted breeding strategies teach that it’s only the top 10 percent of a population that should be kept as breeders. That meant our chances were good that six to 10 birds will be good enough to be held back as breeders each year. What to do with the rest is where most people struggle because chickens, after all, can be very charming creatures. The last thing we wanted was a money pit for poultry, so it was clear we would have to eat a majority of what we produce.
We had settled on working with Buckeyes and were fortunate to be part of a Livestock Conservancy recovery project with the breed. A good friend and colleague, Don Schrider, hatched the Buckeye chicks for us. We were excited to receive the new birds but were confused that three of the chicks looked very different than the rest. As it turned out, in his infinite wisdom, Don decided for us that our daughter did need pet chickens, so he hatched her a trio of Silver Leghorns. She was thrilled and somehow managed to make us promise we wouldn’t eat these three. Reluctantly, we agreed but cautioned if she didn’t take care of them, the promise was off!
We raised the Buckeyes until they were old enough to begin judging their conformation and qualities. We kept the breeders we needed and the rest went to the processor. That first trip was not an easy one, but we felt it was our duty to do right by the birds, making sure their journey was safe and that they were handled humanely.
As the years went by, the trips to the processor became easier, especially when we could see the vast improvements that were being made within the flock. There came a time when every bird in our pen was a fine and productive one, thanks to careful breeding and selection over the years. Since then, we’ve sent hundreds of hatching eggs and chicks to many parts of the country, and a good number of new breeding flocks have now been established to support the breed.
Were our Buckeyes pets? Certainly, not. Did we love them? Certainly, yes. We felt what we were doing was meaningful and a great benefit to the breed by producing fine examples that met the breed standard and were productive as they should be.
When asked the question “Are chickens pets or food?” the answer in my opinion is “All of the above.” The choice between the two is highly dependent on what you hope to accomplish with your birds. If you want to be a breeder, it’s not practical or economical to keep a coop full of pets. Also, as any experienced breeder can tell you, you will always produce more roosters than you will ultimately need or can manage in one pen peacefully. If you want to just enjoy a few eggs and have the pleasure of watching your birds roaming about, then yes, chickens do make delightful pets.
As for our daughter’s Leghorns, two of the three still roam the farm and yes, we did keep our promise. These were to be our only “pet” chickens and we love them dearly.
Let us know how you’d answer this question on our Facebook page.