When I talk to people about having backyard chickens, inevitably they ask “Is it for the eggs?” I’ve noticed my response is a combination of rant, reflection, passion and invitation. “Up until recently everyone had chickens!” I exclaim. “It was a good idea and I don’t know why we stopped.”
Having chickens makes me less self-centered, reminding me of the complex relationships we have in the eco-system - and how we nourish each other. Just as I feed apple cores to my indoor worms and then use their “castings” to feed my soil, and just as I nourish my SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) with sugar and black tea and then drink the resulting kombucha to replenish the bacteria in my gut, so I will provide my chickens organic mash and food scraps, and give them plenty of space to find bug treats, and yes, I’ll get eggs - likely enough that I can be generous with friends, trade with neighbors and feed my family.
I’m lucky. I live in Springfield Township and, like its neighbor Cheltenham, it was zoned agricultural back in the day and never changed. I can keep whatever animals I want in my backyard... as long as my neighbors don’t complain. So when I moved last November, I casually mentioned I was thinking about chickens (and pressed my luck “maybe bees, too”). Again, I was lucky. The woman next door totally gets it. Across the street, they jumped at the chance to trade home-baked bread for eggs and from down the street, a neighbor offered his woeful story of losing chickens to hawks and fox. The neighborhood kids asked everyday “Are the chickens here yet?”
In preparation for my backyard design, I visited a half-dozen coops in the neighborhood with an eye toward both maximizing my convenience and minimizing the probability of predator attacks. I found wooden slats on their way to the landfill, corrugated plastic political signs bound for recycling, and hardware cloth and poultry wire left over from The Home Grown Institute. I got latches and nails (and thoughtful advice) from our old-fashioned neighborhood hardware store – Kilian’s – in Chestnut Hill and passionately dove into constructing an 8x2 predator-proof tunnel that would connect the solid (used) Amish-built coop with the open-spaced, loosely-fenced 10x10 daytime playpen. Passion, however, has its dark side...  I lost count after 70 hot, sweaty, often lonely, mosquito-bitten hours of planning and physical labor. But even in the midst of the this-is-so-not-fun moments, I could already see how satisfied I would feel when it was complete.
And the hard work did indeed pay off!  It’s now been three weeks since the three gals (no rooster) arrived. They spent their first four hours in what I imagine was a slice of chicken heaven - scratching in my compost pile, eating bugs and discarded kale. In the early mornings, while I sleep in, they stroll into their predator-proof vestibule. When I finally get up and open their slot into the larger playpen, I watch them run around finding all the bugs that have taken refuge overnight in the cool dark crevices among the rocks and sticks.
They are different breeds but you’d think they were sisters, the way they roam, forage and nestle together and occasionally cackle at each other. I can see how they are related to dinosaurs and it both connects me to the past and piques my curiosity about the future. And they really do have personalities - a pecking order - and they do come home to roost. They’ve also given me a great excuse to get to connect with my neighbors and turn a bit of ludicrous lawn to better use.
Logistically, any question I could possibly have has already been asked and answered on backyardchickens.com, and members of the local COOP (Chickens Outside - and in - Of Philadelphia) are happy to help. It really is, as one happy chicken owner told me, like having fish... two minutes in the morning, two minutes in the evening and as much time during the day as I want to sit and watch them do their thing.
Wanna come see the chickens? The girls are not yet laying and may not until the spring, but that’s okay, because for me, having chickens is most definitely not just about the eggs.
Sarah Gabriel is the Managing Director of The Home Grown Institute, which offers “Up Close & Personal” workshops at her suburban homestead NW of the city. Visit thehomegrowninstitute.org for more information.
It’s Not Just About the Eggs
Thursday, November 1, 2012