Buying eggs in the supermarket may seem like a convenient way to supply your household with one of nature’s most nutritious foods. But in the 21st century, thousands of Americans have decided to cut out the middleman and go directly to the source, establishing their own little backyard flocks and suddenly discovering the many pleasures of owning chickens.
Chickens—comical, comely, companionable—have become the number-one backyard pet in the United States, finding homes in neighborhoods from elite Silicon Valley in California to rural havens in Connecticut.
The tristate region is no exception, where avian aficionados affectionately embrace their broods. “I will never be without chickens again,” said Leslie Watkins, an artist who makes her home in Norfolk.
Watkins said she discovered the birds when she decided to create a garden around Dandelion Cottage, her charming little homestead in Norfolk. “I wanted something alive in the garden,” she said.
As with many other chicken lovers, Watkins wanted to experiment with living off the land. With the help of her flock of bantam chickens, her so-called Garden of Eatin’ produces almost all of her own food supply in season, with the remainder being sold at the weekly Norfolk Farmer’s Market.
A friend encouraged Watkins to get bantam hens and she has been happy with the choice. She quickly became enamored with the spunky little birds and learned to enjoy the complexity of chicken culture.
She learned that chickens are no dumb clucks. These are social animals who like to spend their days together, scratching for food, cleaning themselves in dust baths, roosting in trees and lying in the sun. When the sun sets, they dutifully put themselves to bed, retiring to the security of their coops.
Experts report that chickens can comprehend cause-and-effect relationships and understand that objects still exist even after they are hidden from view. This puts chickens’ cognitive abilities above those of small human children.
“Chickens have been domesticated for 7,000 years,” said Watkins. “That’s a lot of down time and they have spent their spare time coming up with incredible rules and regulations.” Every chicken knows his or her place in the flock’s social hierarchy and it is said they can remember the faces and social standing of more than 100 other birds.
While some towns and cities have banned the birds from their residential centers, citing noise, smell and potential health risks, chickens can be remarkably good neighbors. Noisy cackling is not the norm (except when in danger or when roosters feel impelled to crow) and their coo-clucking is soothing to the soul. If a hen is nesting she clucks to her unborn chicks who chirp back to their mother and to one another from within their shells.
Chickens have more than 30 types of vocalizations to communicate with each other and are so sophisticated that—like Paul Revere—they have different calls to distinguish between threats approaching by land and those that are approaching over water. “They have a different sound for each predator,” said Watkins, “and different sounds for different types of treats.”
Chickens even pass cultural knowledge from generation to generation. “I am on my fifth generation of my chickens,” said Watkins. “My oldest is 15. When you have mothers and grandmothers in the flock, they teach the babies what to do.”
People who have spent time with chickens know that each bird has a different personality that often relates to his or her place in the pecking order—some are gregarious and fearless while others are shyer and less approachable. Some chickens enjoy human company; others do not.
In Ashley Falls, Jeremiah Bickford, Amy Truax and Truax’s young son, Jacob, have enjoyed the company of a small flock for the past four years. They got the chicks through the mail and kept them in a large pen in the basement under a heating lamp as they established themselves in their new home. The chicks were all handled daily to socialize them to the human touch.
It worked. Out of the 12 chickens they originally purchased, eight survived to enjoy a healthy, well-adjusted, free-range adulthood. “In backyard chicken rearing there is a certain law of averages,” said Bickford. “You are going to lose some. You have to understand things are going to happen and be okay with that. We lost a couple to hawks and a fox. Even skunks will kill a chicken.”
Some of those “things” that happen can have a happy outcome, however. The family recounts the day that one of the chickens was chased into the road by a strange dog. Feathers flew everywhere as a car came to a stop. The chicken disappeared.
Sure that their pet had been killed, they searched to no avail and sank into sadness. About a half an hour later, the car reappeared and a woman got out with the chicken in hand. She explained that they had driven to a nearby pizza restaurant for lunch when the chicken appeared from under the car. After a chase around the parking lot, she was given a ride home.
Referring to the 2015 Geico commercial about a hobo chicken, Bickford said, “That’s what free range chickens do.”
“The ladies,” as Truax calls them, are social, often coming to the back porch to beg treats—they love fruit and scraps from the kitchen. When Truax appears in the backyard with a bowl in her hand, they hike up their skirts and race toward her for whatever treat she will offer.
If allowed, they would come into the house but, denied that privilege, Truax said that one chicken found another way to socialize. “I was reading on the couch on the porch one afternoon and one of the ladies hopped up beside me. She settled down and just sat there with me,” she said.
Bickford and Truax say the chickens will live to a ripe old age, remaining pets after their laying years are over. But that was not the original goal. “All our birds are dual-purpose birds,” said Bickford. “The idea was maybe we were going to eat some. So, I chose heavier-bodied, reasonably good layers. We got two of each kind of six different varieties. The only thing I would change is I would get only cold-weather birds. Cold weather breeds have thicker feathers and smaller combs. The one week of really cold weather we have each winter can give them frost bite.”
“We have delusions of being a little farm,” Bickford continued. “We have Jake and wanted to show him the whole farm scene. There’s no financial benefit—if you take the cost of the coop, the grain and everything else into consideration, it’s still about $10 an egg—but it’s kind of nice.”
“It’s nice to feel self-sufficient,” agreed Truax. “We have a woodstove, a backyard garden—even though the d--- chickens ate the garden—and we have their eggs.”
Kitchen scraps go to the birds, who in turn produce manure that can be used as fertilizer in the garden. “You have to age chicken poo before you can put it on the garden,” Bickford reported. “So, it goes from the coop to the compost pile to the garden.”
Besides the psychological pleasures of watching the chickens’ antics, the stress-reducing sound of their coos and cluck and the better quality of their eggs, there is a hidden benefit to their presence. “They are constantly eating bugs,” Bickford said. “They really clean the ticks out and, honestly, their scratching and manure improves the lawn.”
The idea of eating the birds quickly faded. Each of the ladies was given the name of a ’90s super-model while the rooster, acquired a year later to save his life, is called Russell Crowe.
“Your friends have names and we all know you can’t eat your friends,” said Truax.
“I would have them even if they didn’t give eggs,” said Bickford. “The little sweet noises they make… I confess I have been known to kiss my chickens good night.”