Chasing Chickens: Summer on the Burbstead
“Mom, there’s a chicken in the front yard!” my son ran in from playing in the back yard to report. I left my guests for a moment and went outside to find two chickens on the loose. One chicken escaped our closed gate and was in the side yard. Another was all the way in the neighbor’s backyard. I got the one if the side yard back using my only chicken-herding technique: walk behind it in the direction you want it to go. Apparently chickens don’t like being stalked.
I headed over to the neighbor’s yard, counting on this method to work again. This would require opening the neighbor’s gate. I thanked God their two Great Danes weren’t out—and I was expressing gratitude on my behalf, not the chickens’—and hoped the neighbors wouldn’t notice. We never see them, and I have no idea what they might think of my suburban chicken-chasing antics.
To my great dismay, the fence was zip-tied shut. No doubt for the Great Danes. Now, I don’t mind jumping a fence one bit. But the zip-tied fence meant that I was not going to be able to use my one, sure-fire chicken-herding method. And I do mind catching and carrying full-size chickens.
Lest you think I’m some hardy, homesteading type of gal, let me set you straight. I am not comfortable around any animals except my own children. I can scarcely tell a weed from a plant. Actually, I can’t. I prematurely pulled a garlic plant Neil put in our front flower bed.
Sure, I pick up the chickens when they’re babies. Even toddlers. But after they hit that awkward, adolescent chicken stage, I try not to touch them. So here I am, chasing a squawking, flapping chickens around my neighbor’s yard, trying to dodge piles of Great Dane poop while my kids watch me.
And if you didn’t know, chickens are fast. Especially these free-rangers. I asked my son to get me a bucket to catch it in so I wouldn’t have to touch it. It quickly became clear that wasn’t going to work. My son offered to try. Good burbstead boy! I went inside to get his shoes (because poop), and when I came back the chicken was nowhere to be seen.
I imagined the poor, lonely chicken roaming the neighborhood, regretting his own wanderlust. I looked down the street but there was no sign on him. Oh well, I thought, there’s nothing for it now.
I described the incident to Neil when he got home. He went out back, counted the chickens, and insisted they were all accounted for. Gulliver had found his way home.
The Black Rangers breed was much more interesting than our previous breed. But the longer we had the chickens, the bolder they became. One day they climbed the deck stairs and pooped all over the deck. We had to start barricading the bottom of the stairs with lawn chairs. Three of them escaped the gate again before we realized they were squeezing under, and secured it with rocks.
But this was just the beginning of our chicken-chasing ventures. Neil arrived home from work on a 90-degree day with 15 minutes to load up the chickens and take them to the friend’s farm where he processes them. We chicken-proofed the back of our station wagon since our trusty Farm Focus was replaced with the $200 Scion XB, which has a lot less room in the back.
Neil corralled the chickens into the box quickly by putting food in it—something they don’t normally get on slaughtering day. He had only managed to get a couple to the car when our son jumped into the box when its door was open, and they all ran out. At that point they knew something was up and weren’t going to flock back into the box. Neil, wearing his winter boots that double as muck boots, tried chasing them but we quickly learned just how fast chickens are.
“If anyone can see this, they must be laughing their heads off,” Neil remarked.
Two days later our neighbor posted the theme featured above.
We worked together to use our chicken-herding technique, cornering them in positions Neil could grab them. After what felt like an eternity, he had wrangled them all into the station wagon and was off.
In related news, Neil “accidentally” purchased a chicken coup off a local auction site. It was a steal, and we could use it for our meat birds next summer, but getting layers is also on the table. If they’re as ornery as the male Black Rangers, I’m not sure I’m up for it. At the same time, it was a lot more fun having chickens that explored instead of just eating and pooping in the same place every day.
If you’re wondering, raising our own chickens costs about the same as buying whole chickens at the store, and much less than purchasing local, humanely-raised birds. For answers to all your burning questions about backyard chickens, including the price calculations, please see Are You Too Chicken? To Raise Backyard Chickens.
For more on our suburban “homesteading” endeavors, see Rocking the Burbstead: How We’re Homesteading on 0.1 Acre.
And why do we do this crazy stuff? Check out How Do You Uncube? A Philosophy of Hobbies.
Would you ever consider raising backyard chickens? What do you think–should we get layers for eggs?
Burbstead Update: Birds, Bees, and Sweet Peas
It’s summer on the burbstead! Time for an update.
Just yesterday, Neil took our chickens for “processing” at a friends’ house where he has access to a mechanical plucker and other handy equipment. We got back from vacation the day before and he tried to pack everything that night since, of his own admission, he always forgets something. Of course, the chickens are the one component he couldn’t pack until the morning.
A couple hours after he left I went outside to hang laundry. My two-year-old came with me to play in the sandbox. She wandered over to the chicken tractor as she had every morning. She’d given us a Stoic summary of what happens to the chickens the day before: “Sometimes my dad feed the chickens. Sometimes he kill them. Then we eat them up in the tummy.” So I wasn’t worried about her discovering the empty tractor.
“The chickens aren’t in there,” I warned as she headed over.
“This chicken need food,” she declared.
“Dad took the chickens to the farm,” I reminded.
“This chicken need food,” she insisted. For a second I thought there might be a dead chicken in there. What if one died in the night and he hadn’t had time to deal with it this morning? It seemed unlikely, but I looked over and, lo and behold, there was a live chicken walking around in the box.
Neil forgot a chicken! In the rush over going back and forth to load up the car, he’d left behind the last chicken.
Shoot, I thought. That’s going to be messy.
Vegetarians, cover your eyes. Luckily it wasn’t too bad, and it gave Neil a chance to try his hand at skinning rather than plucking. He’s considered doing a second round of chickens later in the summer when he wouldn’t have access to special equipment. He concluded that it was quite manageable. After all, plucking chickens used to be the wife’s job. Let’s just say I’m a city girl.
Guess how he hauled these chickens to the farm? In his trusty, rusty 2-door hatchback. One of the spending fallacies we most try to avoid is the “hobby accouterments” pitfall. It goes like this: I like biking, so I need expensive bike shorts, bike gloves, bike shirts, bike attachments, etc. Since we’re not racing the Tour de France we’ve stuck with basic safety equipment instead.
For the burbstead, the thinking could easily be, “I’m hauling manure, wood, plants, and live animals. I need a pickup truck.” This would be the perfect example of a values-based budgeting blind spot. We value these endeavors so it’d be tempting to justify a truck. Though Neil sorely misses his 1985 Ford F150 he’s resisted the urge to replace it since it’s much more vehicle than we need.
We promised to update y’all on our bait bee hive. So far, we’ve seen bees scouting it out, and even had bees guarding the entrance for a while. But those bees passed on this move-in ready apartment. Further research indicates the bait hive is on the small side. Maybe when Neil’s schedule clears a bit he’ll make a bigger one, but for now it’s in our friends’ woods.
Our snow peas and sugar snaps are ripe and the kids can’t get enough of them. They have to be the easiest way to eat vegetables, ever. We’ve enjoyed some strawberries and picked our first black raspberry yesterday. Tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, and garlic are planted. We’re already enjoyed this year’s harvest of asparagus. Herbs like mint, dill, chives, scallions, and coolantro (a heartier plant that tastes a lot like cilantro) are flourishing.
When we returned from vacation, our garden looked like it grew a lettuce Afro. After months of unlimited salad, the lettuce finally bolted. Neil pulled most of it and planted peppers. We’ll plant lettuce again near the end of summer and enjoy it in the cooler fall weather.
In Rockin’ the Burbstead, we mentioned our plan to double our garden space. Alas, that much manure is one thing the Focus can’t haul, and plans to use a friend’s truck fell through.
Instead we brainstormed an optimal alternative. In fact, it’s even better than our original plan. I mentioned to Neil that some friends are renting community plots, and the light bulb went on. Why not rent a plot for $8? We used to do this back in our apartment days. The soil is already tilled and water is included in the cost. The plots are 2 miles from our home, right on Neil’s route to work.
Since they’ll be slightly less convenient to tend, we’ll plant one low maintenance crop like corn. And this leaves more our of yard available for other uses.
How is your garden? What is your favorite part of summer?
Are You Too Chicken? (To Raise Backyard Chickens)
The first time Neil mentioned an interest in raising meat chickens in our (suburban) backyard, I thought he was crazy. But he seemed so excited about it and made it sound so easy that I encouraged him to give it a try. He promised the “processing” wouldn’t happen at our house and the chickens would come back looking like they were from the supermarket. That was five years ago and we’ve raised them every year since. But what’s the appeal of backyard chickens?
- It’s a ton of fun. Hoards of neighborhood kids visit the adorable baby peeps each year. It’s become a tradition for our playgroup to come and hold the fluffy yellow chicks. Thus it’s a fun, free activity we can share with friends.
- It’s a great hobby. Everyone has hobbies. We like ours to be a.) inexpensive and b.) productive. So while there is some cost involved (see FAQ below), it’s money we’d have to spend on food anyway. And rather than golfing, joining a pool, or taking up other costly summer pastimes, raising chickens is a kid-friendly, educational, natural activity that produces a useful and healthy commodity. Hobbies that produce rather than drain resources are another angle to increasing your usefulness instead of your lifestyle.
- It’s a learning experience for our kids. Our 3-year-old says “Cows give us milk. Chickens give us chicken.” Not only does see where his food comes from, he learns that this is normal, not gross. Feeding the chickens is his morning chore, from which he learns responsibility and maybe a little empathy, too. Every morning he whined that he didn’t feel like feeding the chickens. (And every morning I didn’t feel like finding everyone’s socks and shoes to get outside right away.) But I always told him they relied on him for food, and what if I didn’t feel like feeding him breakfast? “Then I’d be hungry,” he’d say, and out he’d go without further fight. Once outside he really enjoyed feeding them. His little sister even mimicked him by carrying tiny buckets of food to their feeder. So cute!
- Quality control. Knowing where our food comes from, what they’ve eaten, and how they’ve been treated is a real advantage.
- Like gardening or living like Grandma, it’s also a way of connecting with nature and how food was raised in the past. Once we found the shoes and got out the door, we all enjoyed being outside first thing in the morning. Doing faux-farm chores is therapeutic for suburb-dwellers like us.
- It’s a skill. Without being hard or technical, learning how to raise food is a useful skill to develop.
So that’s why we like it. Here are some FAQ on how it works:
- Is it cheaper? The start-up costs made the first year’s chickens some rather pricey poultry ($40 for the chicken tractor materials, $40 for water and food dispensers). Since then we’ve only purchased the chicks, food and vitamins, and a heat lamp bulb, bringing our total cost for 13 birds to $83, or $6.38 a piece. At around 6-7 pounds each they are cheaper than grocery store chicken, and much less than we’d pay for fresh, organic, responsibly raised meat.
- Do they taste better? It’s hard to compare to other fresh chicken since we never eat plain chicken. In my opinion they taste much better than frozen, solution-injected chicken. They are also more pleasant to cook with, as they lack the slimy feeling of typical supermarket poultry.
- How much care do they need? The chickens spend 2-3 weeks in our garage with a heat light. This is the brooder stage. Neil makes a pen out of a discarded box and fills the bottom with pine shavings. Then we transfer them to a box in the backyard called a chicken tractor, which protects them from raccoons and other predators. It has no floor, so the chickens get an all you can eat salad and bug bar every day. We replenish their food and water and move the box to fresh grass each day. Their life span is 6-8 weeks, and during the last couple weeks they need food, water, and a box move twice a day (3x for water when it’s hot).
- How are they processed? TMI alert: don’t read if you don’t want to know! Neil takes them to a friend’s farm where they use the modern, humane method of bleeding them out before they are dipped in scalding water and plucked using a mechanical plucker. Then their organs, neck, and feet are removed, and Voila! They look like they came from the store.
- Is it legal? Our city allows all farm animals, and another family on our street has them, too.
- What type of box do they need? Neil built a 4’ x 8’ box out of 2” x 4” boards, reinforced in the corners with 1” x 3” boards, to keep it light and mobile without adding wheels. It’s constructed from the cheapest wood you can buy, and scraps. Fits no more than a baker’s dozen of birds.
- Do they smell? My baby’s poop smells way worse than theirs. I can’t detect the scent unless I’m moving the box, and it really isn’t offensive. And that’s coming from a super-smeller who can hardly stand Neil if he eats too much garlic.
- Neil adds: We buy all roosters because they are cheaper. They come in the mail… the regular USPS mail, in a box, it’s hilarious. They don’t lay eggs because they are male and they wouldn’t anyway because in 6-8 weeks they don’t reach maturity to do so. Layers are a whole different game. Ours crow at the end of the 8 weeks but it’s a pathetic teenager crow. If you want more information to get started, get this book from the library: http://amzn.to/1HoX7Q2
Would you consider raising backyard chickens? Any questions for us?