You’ve read about it for years. Friends and family across the country have raved to you endlessly about their hens’ hilarious antics, their sunny dispositions, and their delicious eggs. You find yourself wavering, especially when you dash into the garden-supply aisle and hear the little peeps coming from brightly lit tanks in the center of the store. You’ve got enough yard space. Your local ordinances allow for it. Should you take the plunge and become a chicken owner? Absolutely! And, if you’re still not 100 percent sold on the idea, here are several reasons that should convince you to join the poultry-rearing club.
1. Endless Opportunities for Education
That A you got in high-school biology means nothing compared to what you’ll learn by keeping a flock of chickens—especially the first time you carry a just-fed hen upside down. (Note: Don’t carry your birds upside down unless you’re wearing work boots. And waterproof clothing). What comes out the other end is equally educational, as it will vary in color, shape and solidity every single day. By watching your birds, you’ll learn how they sleep, how they drink, how they eat and what they eat. Bid farewell now to the poor frogs that cross your hens’ path!
If you have children, raising chickens serves as an excellent means of learning about the great circle of life. You and your little ones can observe an incubating egg, watch a chick hatch, and witness a juvenile becoming an adult. Sadly, but necessarily, you’ll also have multiple occasions to increase your veterinary and mortuary skills. In between the egg and the afterlife, however, opportunities will abound for you to explore everything you knew about birds and discover much more you never possibly imagined.
2. Slapstick Chicks
You haven’t experienced humor until you’ve had a flock of your own. There is indeed a reason the term “bird-brained” exists, as you’ll discover the first time you watch a hen chasing a butterfly, brooding a rock, or trying to force her way through a fence. Try not to laugh too hard when you go to collect eggs and find five girls packed into one nest box even though three other nest boxes sit completely vacant. And if you happen to leave anything remotely scoop shaped—a wheelbarrow, a bucket, a baseball mitt—be prepared to find a chicken contentedly sitting inside it when you go to retrieve it.
Changes in weather only add to the barnyard humor. If it’s a sunny, hot day, you’ll find your chicken run carpeted with birds basking in the warmth, lying so incredibly still you might think that they’ve all perished from the heat. If it’s raining, your flock will either dash back and forth, ignoring their coop’s obvious shelter, or they’ll stand outside, glaring at the rain as they get soaking wet. Afterwards, they’ll mince around every puddle like fine ladies, doing their best to avoid drenching their feet. If it’s snowing … well, just try coaxing them out into that white stuff. You’ll have more success getting a finicky 4-year-old to eat their broccoli. The outraged protests your poultry will put on are worth filming for days in which you need a quick pick-me-up.
3. Perky Playmates
Chickens love to play. They absolutely adore all sorts of sports and games. Among their favorites:
- Chicken Ball: Similar to soccer, except with cherry tomatoes or grapes. Just toss one into their midst and watch them jockey for position, grab the “ball” and dash away with it while opposing players block and try to steal the ball back. Buy yourself a bunch of grapes, grab a lawn chair, and set aside a sunny afternoon to play.
- Tug-Of-War: Usually played by two chickens, occasionally by more. Save your pizza crusts or your stale bread, then offer it to your flock. Within seconds, there will be a bird at each end, yanking for all she’s worth to bring home the glory and a treat to the gullet.
- Keep Away: Very much an impromptu activity, often involving the entire flock chasing one sorry individual who unwittingly wandered into their midst while eating a sandwich, a bag of chips, or some other human food item.
- Capture The Flag: A favorite amongst broody hens who happen to be setting eggs near each other. The moment one goes off the nest to drink or eat, another swiftly steals her eggs, tucks them beneath her body, then acts all innocently when the other hen returns. Note: Silkies can play this game for weeks. For months.
- 100-Yard Dash: Which of your chickens is the fastest? You’ll find out the second you’re within their sight, especially if you’re carrying a feed bucket.
4. It’s Easter 365 Days A Year
Remember that wheelbarrow, bucket and baseball mitt? Hopefully you inspected it before putting it away, because that comfy scoop shape is irresistible to hens with an egg to deliver. So is any soft, mulched spot under a shrub, any indentation in a tall grassy area, underneath your children’s playfort, within your neighbor’s garage, beneath your deck, and inside your tool shed. In short, don’t knock yourself out building a bunch of nest boxes. Your girls will lay their eggs wherever they please.
If you’re lucky, they’ll use a nest box. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll need to go on an egg hunt once or twice a day. If you’re truly unfortunate, you’ll find those stray eggs, but only after several months have passed. On the bright side, you’ll be set for Easter!
5. Free Fertilizer
The grass is always greener wherever your chickens have grazed, but not because they’re like Demeter, with wheat and flowers blossoming in their footsteps. There may be buds bursting to life where your birds have roamed, but it’s for reasons utterly undivine: their manure. That’s right… eggs aren’t the only thing chickens produce that’s chock-full of goodness.
Chicken poop is an excellent organic fertilizer, full of nutrients that benefit your plants. Because of the high nitrogen content of chicken manure, you’ll need to compost it first (usually about six months) to keep the nitrogen from “burning” your botanical babies and causing them to wither. Once it’s ready for use, chicken-manure fertilizer will make your lawn and garden the envy of your neighbors—except, perhaps, those neighbors who found eggs in their garage three months after the eggs were laid.
6. Can You Hear Me Now?
That odd-sounding sneeze? That incessant beeping? That squeaky-toy squeak? That thunderous rumble? Believe it or not, those noises all originate from your birds. Chickens have an incredible range of vocalizations, one that far surpasses the gentle storybook cluck. There’s the boisterous “I laid an egg and you didn’t” ditty, the “I found a tasty bug” ballad, the “Where’d everyone go?” lament, and the “Don’t you dare take my egg” alert, plus all sorts of sounds in between. If you happen to have roosters, you’ll also have the privilege of becoming acquainted with the dozens of different calls your boys can make. Among the playlist: These are MY Hens, Not Yours; I’m a Fine Rooster, Look at Me!; and the ever-popular It’s 5 AM and its sequels, It’s 6 AM/It’s 7 AM/It’s 8 AM/It’s 9 AM/It’s 10 AM/It’s 11 AM.
7. Who’s The Boss?
The term “pecking order” owes its existence to the chicken. Like wolves, who have an Alpha male and female and specific ranks within the pack, chickens have a remarkably complex social structure that would make an anthropologist’s eyes boggle.
The Queen Hen
The head hen is most definitely the queen. She eats first, perches first, leads her pack of sycophants on strolls of her choosing at times of her choosing, and heaven help the hen occupying the nest box when the queen decides it’s time to lay. Her gang of girls received their approval rating because they knew enough not to challenge her—or they challenged her and got pecked viciously until they understood their place in the group.
The Queens’ Court
Further down on the totem pole are the hens who were too diffident or frightened to try for a spot in the cool-girls’ club, as well as those whom the head hen decided weren’t worth her while. Ousted queens often populate this group, creating their own cliques separate from the current monarch’s court. At the very bottom rung are the juveniles who haven’t quite figured out how things work and the new arrivals, who are getting their bearing and simply waiting for their opportunity to mount a coup, changing the flock’s social structure once again.
The Command-Roo In Chief
Roosters have a less complicated order: There’s the commander, one or two lieutenants, and everyone else. If the head rooster happens to be a young cockerel, he may learn the hard way that he is not the leader of the flock. After all, the term “hen-pecked” had to originate somewhere!
Watching your chickens interact and defer to those of higher rank—or boss around those of lesser rank—can definitely distract you from your own family and workplace dramas. Fortunately, feathered squabbles can easily be settled by tossing a handful of grain or corn into the pen, something that would undoubtedly raise eyebrows if you tried it at the office. (Note: DON’T!) Even if the chicken bickering continues, the sight of those balls of feathered fluff waddling towards you in hopes of a treat—a pizza crust, perhaps, or the sandwich you suddenly remembered you were holding—is bound to bring a smile to your face.
Disclosure: Several pizza crusts were tossed out to my birds during the writing of this article.