Chicken: Man's Other, Other Best Friend
For the past six months I've been running a futile pro-puppy campaign against my husband. At thirty years old, I still haven't lost that childlike zeal for house pets, and even though the rational adult in me knows that the best dog we could have right now is NO dog, I still try to wear down my husband every chance I get. Hey, I wore him down enough to get a Wii (still working on Rock Band, though). Yet my husband remains steady and stalwart in his assertion that the family just can't handle one more unpredictable, incontinent, wood-floor-scratching, fun-time-ruining, paw-print-leaving, barking, slobbering, animal (our three small children are enough). It would take nothing short of a pre-trained dog sledding team of Alaskan Huskies, a tricked out dog sled, and a five acre farm in the country to convince this man that a dog is a good idea.
So, what's an animal lover like me to do? Cats are NOT an option. Reptiles and fish just don't love you back. Small rodents are an abomination that belong in science labs and/or sewers, not in clear plastic bubbles in people's houses. Naturally, we turned to chickens. I know chickens seem unlikely pets, but they make a lot of sense, especially to the practical-minded, like my husband: they produce eggs, they only require food, water, and lodging. They need absolutely no training, they provide excellent fertilizer for your garden, and they can be quite companionable, though not as companionable as a Golden Retriever. We figured that chickens would require much less money and effort, and would actually contribute to the support of our family. They seemed to be the perfect pets.
With visions of Martha Stewart-like domestic bliss in our minds, we set out to get our first batch of chicks. We found them on Craigslist, sent a rushed email, made an excited phone call, and made the pilgrimage to a small farm in Shelley. The chicks we bought were Buff and Blue Orpingtons, two dollars apiece, and had not been "sexed," therefore we ran the risk that some of them might turn out to be roosters. Knowing that we could only have five hens in town, my husband insisted that we buy ten chicks. After handing over the twenty dollars, we headed to the farm store, where we shelled out about fifty more dollars on a huge bag of "start and grow" feed, a heat lamp, a feeder, and a waterer. At this point I began to realize that the purpose of raising chickens is certainly NOT to save money on eggs.
We brought our chicks home, and took a little while determining the best place to keep them. "I just can't bare to have them in the garage," I said, so we put all ten of them in a shallow tupperware container right in our kitchen. The heat lamp was suspended by a shoelace and some dental floss, and we lovingly spread out four layers of newspaper for our new pets. They really did brighten up the kitchen, the constant chirping and flapping making us feel positively springy, even though it was still the middle of February.
The next two weeks were spent agonizing over what to name the chicks (Susie, Zen, Zoey, Babs, Edwina, Matilda, Happy Feet, Ginger, and then there were two that looked so much alike that we never really named them), and agonizing over the copious amounts of excrement that seemed to come forth with little or no warning, ceremony, or afterthought, and that caused us to change the layers of newspaper in the brooder multiple times a day. (Ten chicks: $20, food, water, and housing: $50, chicken poop sprayed across the walls of your kitchen: priceless.) We wised up about the newspaper, and purchased fancy cedar wood shavings and a chicken wire floor for the chicks to walk on. This greatly improved my quality of life. We also wised up and moved the chicks out of the kitchen, first down to the basement, and finally out to the garage, although we had to buy a sheet of blue foam insulation board to put around their brooder, just to be sure they were warm enough.
In addition to agonizing over names, waste management, warmth, and location, we also read every chicken-related website we could find on the internet, and believe me, there are a lot more of these websites than you might think. www.backyardchickens.com is a favorite, with people posting minute-by-minute chicken updates, chicken photos, and chicken questions. Apparently there is a large underground chicken movement in the United States and the UK, and we're proud to be a part of it.We've also noticed that raising chicks is quite popular here in Rexburg. Two of our close neighbors have chickens in their backyards, our good friends are starting their own chicken adventure, and the Valleywide Farm Cooperative can't seem to keep enough baby chicks in stock. Apparently, raising chickens is the new cool thing to do. We may even join the Orpington club and there has been some talk of turning our little brood into a group of award-winning show chickens. But we'll see, one three-toed step at a time.
After two months, about four of our chicks have turned out to be roosters. There was a brief period of panic when it was suggested that we could kill and eat these roosters. "But that would be a betrayal!" I cried. Luckily, because of this underground chicken movement, we were able to give the roosters a "good home" with kids, where we know they will be treated right and loved. We turned to craigslist, and within twenty minutes had found a suitable home for Babs, Matilda, Edwina, and No-name, now referred to as Barry, Rooster Cogburn, Foghorn Leghorn, and Little Jerry Seinfeld. After giving away these roosters, we decided to buy three more chicks, which are back in our kitchen again, and the circle of life continues.
Two nights ago we were at dinner with some friends, and found ourselves gushing over our chicks. I had sworn I would never be that kind of pet owner--you know, the kind that carries a photo of her dogs in Santa hats with her everywhere she goes? But I guess that's who we are now: chicken people. There are dog people, cat people, no-pet people (don't get me started on them!), and then there are chicken people. We have become insane chicken people, interviewing candidates for a decent chicken sitter when we go out of town, discussing the various benefits of different breeds, rushing to the farm store to see the new batch of chicks. We figure that by the time we build our chicken coop, the total amount of money that first egg will cost will be close to one thousand dollars. The way some dog-owners splurge on sweaters, collars, and vet bills, we splurge on electricity (to run the heat lamp), building supplies (to build a cute coop), poultry vitamins, and organic cracked corn. Is it worth it? I'll have to let you know when we taste our first egg. For now, the little puppy-sized hole in my heart has been filled with a small group of pecking, feathery hens.