Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Backyard Flock: The joy of raising chickens

Imagine stepping into your backyard and being mobbed by more than a dozen beautiful chicks. It happens to me every day. I would feel like a rock star, but for the fact that I’m talking about real chicks – the feathered kind. It is a fact, however, that they are beautiful, and each one special in her way.

We have been raising chickens in our backyard for over five years. We are not alone in this in Yellow Springs. A few years ago, I did an article about backyard flocks in the village for the YS News. At that time there were about a dozen. It was fun talking to the other poultry folk. I could detect the joy in their voices as they told me stories about their birds.

We started with a half-dozen chicks purchased at the Caesar’s Creek Flea Market on a balmy day in May, 2004. Amy, who up until that time had had a no-pets policy, couldn’t resist the little fuzz balls a Korean man was selling for six-for-five-dollars. I would have talked her out of it, but for the fact that my friend Terri Wehrley-Pyles had a flock of six in a shed behind her house. So, I knew it was doable. With out knowing much about it myself, I cautioned Amy that we would be taking on responsibilities that we weren’t in a position to foresee at the time. She claimed she understood.

We drove home happily with two barred Plymouth Rocks, two Rhode Island Reds and two Araucanas, each about the size of a canary, cuddled up in a cardboard box. Every time we hit a bump they would let out a chorus of peeps. All I knew about raising chicks back then was that you had to keep them warm the first few weeks. We currently have 13 hens of all descriptions. What I have learned over the years is that after the first couple months, they are pretty easy to care for, as long as you can keep them safe from predators.

If you treat your chickens like pets, especially by handling them a lot when they are still little chicks, they will behave like pets. If you don’t want to get emotionally involved with them, they will treat you the same way. Either way, they are a joy to watch. I have known farmers with flocks of a hundred chickens or more who have observed very little about their behavior. They don’t know what they are missing. Chickens are smart, funny and a bundle of curious instincts. It’s no wonder that so many chicken terms such as “pecking order” and “coming home to roost” have found their way into our everyday language. I read somewhere that they communicate with a vocabulary of some 30 different sounds and can recognize up to 300 other chickens.

One summer afternoon a few years ago, I dragged a lawn chair out to where my girls were scratching and pecking, and sat down to observe them with a beer and a bag of corn chips. Pee Wee, the little red hen of Rocky and Pee Wee fame, jumped up and sat in my lap. “Cuck-cuck-a-coo,” she crooned. At the age of almost six, she still greets me every morning as the rest of the flock scrambles for position around the feeder.

Look for this column to become a regular feature of the Blog.


Michael Kremer said...

I love hearing about the chickens. I'm looking forward to more installments.

Robert said...

Chickes make me smile. Thanks for reminding me.

Anonymous said...

Virgil -- look forward to hearing more about your chickens...didn't realize they had such personalities.
Susan M.

Kay Reimers said...

My sister keeps a flock of chickens in inner city Philadelphia quite successfully. Urban gardening is getting very popular. Once a big city guy, always a big city guy......

Yvonne said...

We animal lovers ALWAYS appreciate hearing about your chickens. My husband and I hope to get a flock eventually; he had a farm outside of Jamestown and has told me all about his chickens. I'm looking forward to it!