For three years, I waited to push send on my mypetchicken.com shopping cart. I read books, researched breeds and coops, free range vs. pasture rotation vs. predator proof penning, puzzled over exactly what I wanted, how many, the types, and the eggs, oh the colorful eggs! It's no secret that there's a little bit of farmgirl lust in me. You can read my essay about goats here or this blog post where I confess my secret cow milking fantasy. But the timing was never right, until last summer when we returned from our year abroad. I finalized my shopping cart, and hit CHECK OUT.
What has followed has been such a year of adventure and birdnerdom. I ordered our first batch to arrive during birthday week in early September. Since that original order, we have added to our flock many times, including fun pet chicks for each child (they chose two Silkies, a Buff Brahma and a copper Marans--Welcome Poppy, Nugget, Posey and Fancy Pants.)
Poppy, one weekThis was followed by an accidental impulse order from the feed store this spring since we didn't have any Buff Orpingtons and who wouldn't want a few more Easter eggers? (Welcome Sunny, Cleo and Pai).
Our Spring Chicks--Sunny, Cleopatra and Pai
Then this past month, when our Silkies Nugget and Poppy went broody, I drove 40 minutes in the pouring rain, and bought them fertile eggs to hatch. (Welcome Bright, a Wheaten Ameraucana and Clara, a black copper Marans.)
Last week, we adopted Orphan Annie, a rejected 3 day old barred rock from a friend, bringing our total chicken count to (cringe) 17. Seventeen chickens.
And I don't even consider myself a bird person.
But there is something about my girls. Maybe it's because we purchased unique, distinctive chickens that created the possibility for us to bond. If I walked outside to feed and clean and care for a random flock of seventeen Red Stars, indistinguishable from one another, I imagine I wouldn't feel the same attachment I do to my girls.
But we know each of our hens, their personalities and quirks, their habits. Good Girl is my faithful early morning layer, a quiet and fair leader of the flock. Magda has a bit of a mean streak, but lays gorgeous olive eggs. Posey and Fancy Pants are besties, never more than a few feet apart, so that I felt Fancy's devastation and betrayal the day Posey made a play for a coveted upper level roosting post spot, like one of the medium popular girls finding a rare entré into a posh clique, leaving Fancy running around the yard crying like Posey was dead to her. (Good news: Posey was promptly ousted by Prima and returned to her former second post status.)
Ding-Dong and Siren like to forage at great distances, way down by the stream. Prima dawdles at sunset; she prefers to be the last girl in at night. Nugget wants to hatch ANYTHING, and is very willing to be a lap chicken and ride on the swings. Poppy doesn't have many friends, but she'll do whatever Nugget does.
Quinn (left) takes Nugget on our evening walk
Raising chickens turned out to be surprisingly easy. We converted the 6x6x6 playhouse connected to our swingset into their night coop with minimal cursing and marital strife. We removed the slide and covered the windows with black coated hardware wire. We stained and mounted some AC Moore craft crates on their sides as nesting boxes and some 1x4 as roosting posts, and bam!--we had an elevated, predator proof coop.
See below, where our crazy kids run outside barefoot in a blizzard to check on the girls and collect eggs.
Our middle son is an early riser and lets them out in the mornings, where they spend the day wandering the yard and woods, doing their chicken thing. After a significant amount of research, and because of Sampson, who doubles as what the chicken world calls an LGD or Livestock Guardian Dog, we have decided that for us, free range works best. It means we have to be home at dawn and dusk daily. Despite Sampson's best efforts, there is the potential for predator loss. But ultimately, in the debate of quality over quantity of life, this is where we have found ourselves.
The girls put themselves to bed at sunset and we count heads and lock the coop door at night. Throughout the day we are endlessly entertained by their hilarious antics and the chicken politics, as they roam about, eat ticks, bugs and compost, dig dust baths under our rhodies, and lay their eggs.
EGGS, GLORIOUS EGGS!
This is by far my favorite thing about the girls, other than sitting out with my coffee and watching them be chickens, is the eggs. Oh the eggs! I selected girls so that our egg basket is distinctive and colorful. No boring, red stamped, pale yolked white eggs in our house. In fact, Siren, my Silver Lakenvelder is my only white layer, and I find her egg beautiful because of its distinctiveness.
While most venture back into the coop to lay, a few of them have gone so far as to offer us kitchen door service, climbing into the box where I keep my gardening tools and depositing their treasures there. Fancy Pants will pant and puff there for awhile, and she'll let you know if you disturb her by passing by.
I have a strange passion for animals doing what they want to do, and it benefiting humans. (You can read about my foray into goats/poison ivy management here.) The girls are happily out chickening every day, running free, catching bugs, fluffing up their feathers in flowerbed dust baths, and then trotting up to the coop to lay their eggs with a faithfulness that defies the best egg predictions on the websites. Most of my girls, even the rare breeds, are laying daily.
As a mother, I feel good about feeding my kids a protein source as fresh and close to nature as I possibly can. And it never gets old. My kids run out to collect multiple times a day, if I haven't beat them to it, proudly announcing the egg and its layer as they drop it in our basket.
And even though we can eat some eggs (I used to buy 36/week!) we have more than enough to share. Enter the idea of Hoffmans' Happy Hens. My kids love knowing who was responsible for their breakfast, and order them by name, "I'll have two scrambled eggs on a bagel, um, I'll take a Freaky and a Ding-Dong, please."
When we started getting almost a dozen a day, more than we could eat, we offered them for sale--fresh, free-range eggs. (There is usually a wait list.) We thought other people might like to know where their breakfast came from, so we wrote biographies of our chickens, and took some sunny morning glamour shots.
These inserts go in the tops of our egg cartons, like a box of chocolates, identifying the source and the personality of each of our gorgeous eggs.
Truly, they bring me a ridiculous amount of pleasure and I am only sorry I didn't venture into chickendom sooner.