Six years ago you never would have pegged me as a chicken owner—and neither would I. But five years ago I learned there are a lot of good reasons to become more self-sufficient when it comes to sourcing your own food, and I eventually decided that a flock of chickens could be one small step toward food security.
Five years ago I learned about the forecasted peak in worldwide oil production, and I learned just how connected our food supply is to the oil supply—depending on the oil byproducts found in fertilizers, pesticides, and the fuel that helps transport California-grown tomatoes to our New England tables in winter.
In 2006, the neophyte group Harvard Local, started by Willow Road residents Bill and Sydney Blackwell, began reaching out to people to raise awareness about the subject. They began a film series that caught my attention, and I found myself at most of the film screenings they held. One was the documentary End of Suburbia. If you haven’t seen it, you should. (It’s available at the Harvard Public Library.) But be warned: it’s a frightening film. It frightened me to take action in my own life and to help spread the word to others. It’s what led me to co-found Bolton Local with a friend. But that’s a story for another day. Back to the chickens.
Two years ago, as I was getting the hang of growing foods I could store during the winter and on growing things like blueberries and mushrooms, the idea of having a ready supply of eggs began to appeal to me, and I set about learning all I could about keeping chickens. I knew several people who had small flocks, so I spent time visiting coops and talking to chicken owners about what it’s like to have chickens. Everyone I spoke to said, “Chickens are easy.” Articles I read on the subject seemed to confirm that it wasn’t too complicated.
First, the coop
I found that coops came in all shapes and sizes—and prices. They could be made for next to nothing from found materials; you could transform a small storage shed into a coop; or you could buy a fancy ready-made coop for prices ranging from $400 to more than $1,500. I found some designs that had elements I liked, but the ones I really liked cost more than I wanted to pay. So I designed my own coop for the six-to-eight chickens I hoped to have and cajoled my husband into building it, with my help.
Neither of us was particularly handy when it came to building or fixing things; in fact, we had never built anything more substantial than a small wooden box in our lives. And my husband hates doing that sort of thing, which explains the purple cloud of expletives that came with the coop-building project and is probably still floating somewhere overhead to this day. But, bless his heart, although he fussed and fumed, my husband stayed with the project and saw it through to the end.
The coop I designed stands on legs, about 3 feet off the ground. It has a 4x8-foot footprint and is about 4 feet high in the front and 2 feet high in the back. It has 3 nest boxes, two roofs, an entrance for the chickens, and a cleanout door for my use. It has no fancy windows like the ones you see in advertisements for ready-made chicken coops. There is a cut-out “window” in the middle of the cleanout door, which is covered in hardware cloth on the inside and has a wooden door on the outside. There is a small window of similar design at the back of the coop. There are things I would do differently, were I to do it again (which I probably won’t), but it’s a pretty decent coop.
The coop and the run, awaitng more chicken wire.
Although the buzz about chickens is all about free-ranging them, I decided against doing that, given our proximity to woods and a host of predators—including hawks, which frequent the trees that overlook the coop. I had heard too many horror stories about birds being lost to hawks and flocks being decimated by foxes and fishers. So we did the next best thing and built the biggest enclosed run we could in the space we had. It measures 4 feet wide by 25 feet long and is completely enclosed in chicken wire. It would be plenty of space for a small flock to play, hunt, and peck. Both the run and the coop are very predator-proof.
Self sufficiency: it’s about more than eggs
I started my flock with eight birds I got as pullets from a friend who had purchased them as days-old chicks in the spring.
My new flock, October 2009.
The birds started laying eggs within two months after I acquired them, and it was pretty exciting to open the nest box doors—built with our own hands—to find eggs.
Our first eggs!
I was on the road to self-sufficient sustainability. Or so I thought.
In the last two years I’ve learned a couple of important things about chickens: I have a lot to learn about the nuances of chicken health and chicken behavior; my chicken self-sufficiency is dependent on the feed store.
I also realized that the sustainability of my flock is dependent on knowing when to cull out birds that are no longer producing well, figuring out what to do with them at that point, and then replacing them, which, barring dependence on a far-off hatchery, means the presence of a rooster.
I’ve started down the road to learning how to meet each of those challenges, although not necessarily in that order. Last summer I participated in a chicken-butchering workshop. I wondered if I could really do it. Turns out, I could.
Chicken workshop 2010: I prepare a carcass for de-feathering.
This spring I purchased three month-old chicks from a local farmer, part of a batch he had ordered from a hatchery.
The latest additions to the flock.
Experienced chicken keepers I know told me new birds must be kept separated from the rest of the flock until they’re big enough to hold their own against the older birds, who would bully and peck at them until they learned their place in the flock. At the moment ours are segregated in the chicken run by means of a gate we built.
With each passing day, the “chicklets,” as I call them, and the big birds have grown increasingly curious about what life is like on the other side of the gate. One day the chicklets started roosting on top of the gate and eventually got bold and started flying over. (I was not expecting that!) One even made its way into the coop with the big birds for a night (and was none the worse for wear afterward).
Of a little more concern is that a couple of the older birds--despite their hefty size--have learned how to fly over the gate to chick-land and like to sample the food there. So now I’m trying to manage the gradual integration of the chicklets into the flock while keeping the big birds away from the chicklet food. (I’ve been told that it’s very important for chickens to have the appropriate food for their age and stage in life. A blip in the feed can cause a corresponding blip in egg production and quality.)
So now I know a little bit about integrating new birds into an existing flock, and I know I can butcher chickens. I still have to figure out about culling from the flock—when and how. As for butchering the birds I cull, I wonder if it’s worth the trouble for one bird at a time? Also, the birds I helped butcher last year were not birds I’d raised for two years. Would I feel differently if I had to dispatch one of my own? If I don’t butcher my chickens, what will I do with them?
Then, there’s still the question of the rooster. I’ve heard they can be mean, and I have grandchildren who love to go into the chicken run and pick up the birds. Can’t have a mean rooster in there. Others say that, if raised from a chick, a rooster is fine. I’ve heard that roosters are great protectors of a flock, but if my flock isn’t free-ranging, I’m not sure that’s a great argument for getting one. For me, it’s really about getting fertile eggs to help perpetuate my flock. But I’ve talked to people who say you should have an incubator to hatch them, because you can’t count on the chickens to do it. Huh? There’s a lot to sort out.
Someone I know recently said that there is an element of self-reliance in the idea of sustainability, but it can’t be of the Yankee I-can-do-it-all-myself variety. The concept of interdependent self-reliance, with people helping each other, is what will put communities on a path toward sustainability. So maybe I don’t need a rooster. Maybe I need to connect with other backyard chicken farmers to see if one of them might be raising chicks. Maybe there are others who might need to cull their flocks and could use some help. Maybe I don’t have to worry about becoming a full-fledged chicken farmer.