Chickens furnish the eggs and many of the dinners I like, but they also remind me of the ammonia-laden fowl air I breathed as cleaned out the shed that housed 300 hens with a shovel and pitchfork on many Saturday mornings during my youth. And yes, I sometimes was henpecked (literally) when my parents required me to gather the eggs and carry out the chicken chores.
The monthly egg check was a reliable part of the income that kept our household afloat. I’m pretty sure my older brother got off easier than me with the chicken chores because he was typically assigned to such envied tasks as cutting the lawn with our riding mower.
Nonetheless, I credit him with helping me save our egg-producing flock one summer afternoon when I was four years old and he was six.
I spied a spotted skunk (a member of the weasel family with white spots on its black body and somewhat smaller than the more common striped skunk, but with similar ammunition) visiting our henhouse. I asked my brother to help protect our chicken flock by attacking the intruder with a spade and garden rake.
I pinned the animal against the chicken shed with all my four-year-old strength while my brother tried to chop off the varmint’s head with a spade. The offended skunk drenched me with its potent armament.
My brother and I didn’t exterminate the predator, but we surely made it regret its decision to invade our chicken coop. And I didn’t have to go to church services for the next three Sundays.
Our mother kept my smelly shoes in our attic for several years, perhaps hoping the odor would sufficiently fade so one of my younger brothers could someday wear the shoes. For years my brothers and I periodically checked to determine if the odor was still discernible, and it was. I reminded everyone that I was a hero, but my heroic status never got me out of the chicken chores.
I think I can say there are no dumb clucks in my immediate family, but you will have to ask my wife and kids if they agree. So, despite my childhood chicken travails, my children and I raised broilers for our consumption and to sell, but never layers, when we began farming in 1979 until our last child flew the coop to attend college.
Now Marilyn and I purchase our eggs from an organic egg producer. They have bright yellow yolks, remain fresh longer in refrigerators, and taste better than the store-bought non-organic alternatives.
We also purchase broilers from a lady whose outdoor-ranging and antibiotic-free chickens average six pounds dressed and have firm meat without any globs of unnecessary fat.
Raising a few chickens is becoming a common practice among many families who live in urban and suburban settings. A next-door neighbor to our son and his family in a Des Moines suburb keeps several hens to furnish eggs and maybe an occasional Sunday dinner for a family with several kids, who help care for the chickens.
A February 7, 2016 World Watch Magazine article indicates the trend toward raising a few backyard chickens is gaining adherents in Great Britain and in many continental European and American cities. About 200,000 small backyard poultry flocks exist in the cities of Great Britain.
Raising a few chickens has always been common in Asian and African cities. Quail, ducks, pigeons and hen turkeys also are popular with urban producers.
Many U.S. municipalities have developed ordinances regarding the number of poultry allowed per unit (generally between one and fifty–to curtail offending odors), noise standards (usually no roosters or turkey toms please), waste management (often the manure and bedding are used on the producers’ gardens) and facilities (usually a small heated shed and a fenced roaming area are required).
Most backyard producers keep enough chickens to supply their families with eggs or meat, and to share or sell any excesses. They recycle food and garden wastes through their flocks. A dozen hens typically produce 8-10 eggs per day, up to about three years of age, but declining as they age.
Only a small number of backyard flocks and commercial free-range poultry operations developed avian influenza during the recent epidemic that decimated the large commercial flocks raised inside mechanically-ventilated facilities.
While the backyard and small chicken flocks cannot supply the vast numbers of eggs and broilers needed for our country’s consumption of omelets, barbequed wings, chicken dinners, and pet food, the World Watch article claims small-scale poultry production is a partial solution to bird flu, not the problem.
I’m no expert in poultry production, but I think a few chickens are a worthy enterprise for families, especially kids, whether in the city or country. The caretakers learn about responsibility, rewards, managing environmental conditions, and they experience the benefits of nutritious foods.
Less occasionally they learn about skunks.
Dr. Mike lives on a Harlan, Iowa farm. He can be contacted at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.