The Perils of Poultry

There seem to be two schools of thought on raising backyard chickens: There’s the “small flock management” approach, and the “raising chickens as beloved pets” approach.

If you’re sort of a homesteader type raising a small flock for eggs and meat, these birds are not your pets and the instructions you get on how to raise them include a sort of “you win some, you lose some” approach. Do this, do that, and sure, a few of them are going to die, so be sure you raise some extra. What I read into this attitude is “You know, this may not be the best advice on how to get all your chicks safely to adulthood, but it’s the most expedient.”

At first, I understood this approach. I figured we would name the birds, and of course we would do our best to take care of them, but I knew we might lose some so I was trying to be very pragmatic. In fact, Scott was leaning towards getting three birds, but I wanted to get four, figuring, “oh well, we might lose one, so this way we’ve got a back-up.”

Then we brought the adorable little chicks home and of course they became our pets, and suddenly expediency was not our top priority. That leads to the second approach, “raising chickens as beloved pets.” If you follow this approach, you raise them by hand with great care, study up on chick nutrition, worry over every little thing that goes into their greedy little beaks, monitor them constantly for signs of ailments, and build a palace with Fort Knox-like security to make sure that the varmits don’t make off with one of your precious hens in the middle of the night. You also evaluate every piece of advice on chick-rearing to see whether it is eventually followed by, “Oh, and of course you can expect to lose a few.” Well, we only have a few! So we expect to lose NONE!

In my view, there is not near enough reliable information on the “chicks as pets” approach. The people who write chicken books, even if they are trying to write a book on backyard flocks, tend to be Experts, which means that they are experienced farmers who are hardened to the realities of chicken life.

This is why I found this recent e-mail from Katy, who raised her hens from chicks last year, so helpful. I’m reprinting it in its entirety here. Thanks, Katy, for your words of wisdom and warning. I’ll be out back with the barbed wire all afternoon.

“I think you guys are already way ahead of where we were when we first got our chickens. We got a little carried away and weren’t cautious enough. We fell in love with all the different breeds and ordered our chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery, and they require that you order a minimum of 25. So, we began by brooding 25 tiny day old chicks in our bathroom. A few were DOA-too weak to make the overnight journey, and many others died within the first two days. So, there were thirteen that survived. We named them all and obsessed over every little development. We converted an old shed in our backyard for their coop. A few weeks after they moved out to the coop, we began opening the coop door to let them out to explore and play in the sun. It was great-they would run around as a group and then stretch out on their sides with their wings spread and their legs straight out behind them-sunning themselves. They started taking dust baths immediately. Our first casualty was a little japanese bantam we named Sushi. A vulture of all things got her. I thought vultures only ate carrion. The vulture came back every day for the following three days-but we kept the chicks inside for awhile. We had only ordered one rooster, but they sexed some of the chicks incorrectly and we ended up with four cockerels. They were gorgeous, but too loud and aggressive (with us-not each other). We ended up giving three away for someone else to keep as pets on their farm-keeping just one-a little bantam Rhode Island Red that we named Ruby.

We have lost three hens to dogs. Dogs that live down the road from our house and got loose on several occasions. During the day, our chickens roam free. They stay within our backyard-and put themselves to bed in the coop every night (we close the door behind them). They are so happy with that freedom, but it makes them very vulnerable to daytime predators. The first time we lost one, we built a covered run off of their coop-but by then they were so accustomed to having the entire backyard and all of their favorite spots that they were absolutely miserable and just paced back and forth and “barked”. I couldn’t stand to see them so unhappy, so we let them out. We have flexible schedules and work from home a lot, so we try and keep an eye on them. We lost one to a hawk. Raptors are a problem. They don’t necessarily strike often-but don’t underestimate them. We naively thought that hawks couldn’t possible bring down our largest Brahma hen. Every time we’ve lost a chicken, it has been more heart-breaking than the last. Each one truly has its own personality.

We have managed to save our chickens on three occasions. Once, I got to one of my hens moments after a hawk had struck-it was actually trying to carry her away. I thought she was already dead, but after about ten minutes, she stood up and began walking again. She had a tiny puncture wound, and was in shock for the rest of the day, but by the following day, she had recovered. One of the reasons we kept one rooster is that he keeps all of the hens together and will immediately begin honking and barking if anything goes wrong. He will also attack a predator-even though he doesn’t stand a chance.

POSSUM-twice we have awoke in the middle of the night and rushed outside when we heard the chickens’ distress calls. Both times it was a possum. We made it in time, but were humbled by our oversight-because we had missed two holes in the coop that were obviously large enough for a possum or raccoon to squeeze through. Possum are incredibly tenacious-you don’t want to have to deal with killing one (unless you actually have a gun and can do it quickly-we didn’t)-but they will come back again and again if they think they might succeed.

I think it’s great that you guys are starting with just four hens-and that you are handling them a lot so that they will be tame. We regret that we didn’t do this more when ours were babies because now all but one of them are nearly impossible to catch. They are comfortable standing right next to us and eating out of our hands, but as soon as we reach for them, they panic and run. This has made it very difficult for us to round them up once we’ve let them out for the day. If we see too many hawks hanging around and want to get them back in their coop where it’s safe-it isn’t easy. If I were to start all over, I would have waited until we could afford the time and money to build them a very nice, very spacious, grassy run attached to their coop-so that they could still have the benefit of sun and shade, fresh bugs and greens-but safe from dogs and raptors.

Anyway, sorry for the very long-winded answer! Your chickens are obviously in very capable hands and can live a long, happy life.

Best, Katy”