Lessons learned from Backyard Chickens

It’s been two years since we drove up the Mabel Lake road to a small hobby farm to pick up our two fledgling Plymouth Rocks, Keelee and Hailey. I’ve learned a lot in those two years, including some unexpected lessons in peacekeeping and community.

backyard chickens2

On a little fieldtrip while I work in the garden….

I had decided to get some backyard chickens, despite the mixed message I was getting about the legality of it all, for the wholistic benefits for our family. I wanted the girls to know where their food came from, and to build some of my own self-sustainability skills. I’d never farmed any kind of animal, and I figured two little cluckers wouldn’t be much work.

It turns out that I was right on all counts. The girls now know where eggs and meat come from, although they’ve reacted in different ways. Sugar wants to become a piscatorian when she grows up, and Spice wants to have her own farm and slaughter the animals to sell and eat. Ok, then.

backyard chickens passive solar coop

My animal husbandry skills have come a long way… I’ve built enclosures, including our passive solar chicken coop, checked the cluckers daily for eggs and kept their food and water fresh. The gooey side of chicken raising has been a bit yuck. I have my sister, the first to have chickens, on speed dial for such things.

Twice my hens have had mites, and I’ve had to dust under their wings and wipe down their blowholes. Ew. As much as I enjoy talking to them, I don’t really like handling them. They feel like a store bought chicken breast warmed up and wiggling. I’m not eating a lot of chicken these days, either, btw.

What didn’t I expect?

dogs and backyard chickens

Well, it was very hard at first to get the dogs acclimatized to the pullets. Maggie especially, our cocker spaniel, tried with all her might to lunge at the chicken tractor. We have to sit beside that enclosure with the dogs on the leash, on and off, for days. Finally, the only thing that trained Maggie to leave them alone was the citronella bark collar. We put the collar on her, and when she lunged at them (and barked) it sprayed citronella in her face. After a few times of that, she lost interest. Yeah for citronella. (PS, we sell these miracle workers at our clinic.)

backyard chickens3

This morning in the back yard….

Now, as you can see, the chicken and the dogs peacefully coexist. Our naughty cairn terrier Laughlin is a huge defender of the alley, barking and running up and down the fence when people pass by. Keelee and Hailey don’t even look in his direction, they are so used to it.

Sometimes I open the gate of their hens’ yard and let them run around our lawn and garden. The dogs pay them no mind whatsoever; however I have to say that Keelee does peck Laughlin a little if he comes in to steal her food.

There are way more people with backyard chickens than I ever imagined. Within a two minute walk of our house, there are at least three yards with chickens. And we are right down in an urban residential neighbourhood, by the way. Backyard chickens are indicators of a larger sustainability movement, and we’ve met some interesting people just by having cluckers in common. For instance, we found the best caterer when my friend with the organic grocery business offered leftovers to the caterer and myself (for our repetitive garden garburators). There is also a certain social caché to having chickens… People know that you are extremely committed to local food, even if you have to be a little subversive about it (all true.)

Hmmm… What else?

I didn’t expect them to be so loud. Dang it, I bought Plymouth Rocks because they are supposed to make eggs and live a super long time (four years) and they were supposed to be a quiet, winter tolerant backyard breed. Poppycock. I have the most obnoxiously loud chickens ever. I couldn’t keep them from the neighbours if I tried to! Fortunately, none of my neighbours give a rip. I think when I put the clothesline up seven years ago, they knew what they were in more. Every time I come out in the yard, the hens start yelling at the top of their lungs. Just for me, btw. They know who the sugar mama is.

But seriously, the neighbours don’t care. In fact, we’ve had five different neighbours look after Keelee and Hailey when we are away, even for weeks at a time. Many have thanked us for the opportunity after… Not only for the eggs, but the chance to care for animals in a way they haven’t done since their youth. (And a huge thank you back!!)

Arnica Rowan backyard chicken

Lastly, I didn’t expect to like them so much. I thought “livestock is livestock,” very different than pets. But I can say honestly that my two Plymouth Rocks have become my pets. I visit them every day out in the yard, have a chat with them, and care for them. My daily visits in the fresh air and sunshine have also been a small dose of nature therapy each morning. The days I spend a little time outside chatting with the chickens always get off to a better start.

I hope this little article encourages more of my friends and readers to consider backyard chickens. A great mentoring resource, if you don’t have a friend with cluckers on your block, is AlbertaChickensEtc, an online community with over 20,000! Members in western Canada, all who have backyard chickens.

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