When I was a kid growing up in the sticks of Alaska, I used to read "My Side of the Mountain" over and over and fantasize about a sustainable lifestyle. I’m not much more exciting as an adult, honestly.
And though I do try to spend less of my time building forts and trapping wild animals (don’t worry, I was woefully inept at trapping), I never really stopped being so punk rock about food and self-sufficiency. I went to the feed store to get my first batch of chicks when I was 9, selecting for overall cuteness factor. I got home with a cardboard box that we hung a light over, and watched as those fluffy little crumpets morphed into fierce and tiny dinosaurs. The would patrol the yard, chasing the cats and eating everything in sight.
After a few months, the magic of FRESH EGGS happened. I was in love.
About 8 years ago, I kind of overhauled the way I ate -- I started cooking everything from scratch, no fast food, less sugar. Everyone is painfully aware of how shitty food is these days; not considering weird lab-created processed foods, staples like vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy and eggs can be poisonous and cruel. Everything about how and what we eat has become such a big-money industry, and it’s being driven by dollars not health.
After watching "Earthlings" again (shudder,why, oh WHY do I do this to myself?) I got to thinking that I should start raising chickens again. It took me awhile; there was this block: that chickens are hard to take care of, and are “farm” animals and would be so much more difficult than having cats or a dog. This is so inaccurate.
If you’ve ever had a pet, you know that it’s work. It takes time, money, attention and love to raise up a critter that doesn’t haul off and bite the hell out of people all the time. Chickens are no different -- you have to feed, water, and try to snuggle them, and they also are crap factories. Just like cats, babies, dogs and boyfriends. Except they are also kind of like velociraptors! If your boyfriend is like a velociraptor, I don’t even know what to tell you.
But if you’re a vegetarian that gets a lot of their protein from eggs, or just desire to know where your food comes from, or just love the idea of hens mincing around your yard eating bugs, let me convince you. Overall, chickens are pretty damn easy. Except roosters; don’t bother with them. They are assholes.
1. Eggs from the grocery store are disgusting.
I know you can get cage-free, hormone-free, Atheist-raised chicken eggs in some cities in specialty stores. Not the case for most people. Eggs at your average grocery store are the product of some pretty gross factory farming practices, (yes, even organic eggs), can be literally months old, and have been soaked in some kind of cocktail of chlorine, mineral oil or ammonia.
The eggs themselves are you know, eggs. Nothing to get excited about. But while most battery hens eat corn, trash, and bird scraps, chickens actually like to eat most green things. Mine clip my grass, weeds, and you know, any seedlings I accidentally leave out. I also feed them whatever vegetable/starchy scraps I have from the kitchen.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a chicken whipping around a spaghetti noodle. You will pee your pants.
But the better chicken diet = better eggs, the kind people get passionate about. They’re chock full of antioxidants and beta carotene and taste vaguely cheesy. All of a sudden, baked goods, quiches and flan make a lot more sense.
2. Don’t support Chicken Torture.
I was vegetarian for about 8 years, and part of that was because my boyfriend at the time thoughtfully put a bunch of really graphic factory farming books in my carry-on for a trip. I read them cover to cover, both aghast and saddened by the way we use animals as if they have no capacity for suffering.
I’m not going to harp on about how terrible chickens have it, but it’s pretty fucking terrible. They clip off their beaks, y’all. I’d gone vegetarian to stop supporting factory farming, and I knew that still eating eggs and milk was part of that. I’m too Catholic to take that kind of guilt.
3. They are relatively easy to care for.
Like any pet, chickens have pretty specific needs: Chickens like a dry coop to roost (wet hens are totally a thing!) access to food, water, a place to scratch around, and that’s about it. Most battery hens are usually confined four to a 12-inch by 14-inch cage. While chickens are social creatures and this clearly not ideal: In reality, hens don’t need that much space, and anyone with a side yard or small backyard would have enough space to keep chickens.
People ask me what I do with the poop (obsessed much?) but I’ve always just either composted it or given it away. You’d be surprised how many people are looking for sweet, soil-building manure for their tomatoes and potatoes.
Laying hens do need a special diet, but it’s easy as pie to buy chicken feed specially formulated for layers. You can then add treats to it, like table scraps. Like the rats of the poultry world, chickens will go full-on Templeton on some old popcorn and spinach stems.
4. Chickens are seriously adorable, rewarding creatures.
While chickens aren’t cuddly per se, they are endlessly entertaining. They will team up and ruthlessly chase down grasshoppers and dragonflies, take dustbaths and make really weird noises. Chickens have loads of personality -- they can be trained to come when you call them, will recognize your face, can even learn tricks. And while they do need to be attended to frequently, they don’t need a boatload of attention, and won’t crap in your shoes if you come home late like stupid boyfriends. Plus, they make trash into really amazing food! Bird Wizards!
If you’re interested in keeping chickens, a terrific website with quite possibly the sweetest community outside of XOJane, is Backyard Chickens, where they have basic coop designs (hell-o weekend project!) and heaps of information.