The Backyard Farmer: Falling for a chicken

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Editor’s Note: In celebration of our farm life here in western Maine, today DailyBulldog.com begins a series of columns authored by Helen Smith.

Like so many people these days, I have recently been exposed to the bizarre, delightful and enlightening chore of raising chickens.

The author with Squatty Chicken.

This may seem a simple task to those who have never been immersed in a feather infested hut, surrounded by a cacophonous mass of fowl, but rest assured, there can be no other experience quite like it on earth.

My induction into this world of chickendom began this past summer – yes that span of six months of rain, you all remember – when I took on the task of helping out on Uncle Ivan’s free-range chicken farm. During this time I learned how to carry 10-pound chickens by their feet, how delightful their sense of humor is and how completely honest these simple creatures are. What I was not at all prepared for was to fall in love with one.

The first time I saw Squatty Chicken we were rounding up around 80 birds for processing when I noticed one floundering around off to the side. His legs were useless. Every time he would try to get up he would fall back down again, stuck in a squatting position, his feet jutting straight out from under him, his head tucked down into his neck so far that he looked like a cotton ball with eyes. The only thing giving away his secret chicken identity was his crooked cock’s comb and his quasi-legs protruding out in front of him.

Well, being the bleeding heart that I am, I took in the crippled bird and waited for him to fade away from whatever was ailing him. Well, that stubborn bird just kept on living. Before I knew it, Squatty Chicken was up on his feet now and then and hobbling about – albeit with a pronounced limp – eating, drinking and sunbathing all on his own.

I fed him from my hands and carried him around like a puppy, all the while promising Uncle Ivan that when the time came for Squatty to be processed, I would be ready and hand him over like a good girl. I lied. When I stood there, holding that chicken in my arms, looking at the crate, Squatty snuggling his head up under my chin, I crumbled. Clutching the bird to my chest I looked pleadingly at Uncle Ivan. Ever understanding, the chicken farmer smiled at me, his blue eyes twinkling, and said, “It’s up to you girl.”
These days Squatty lives a life of blissful freedom. He comes when called, has quite perfected the art of crowing – after many long nights of laborious practice – and lives among a happy gaggle of girlfriends whom he lords over quite masterfully.

What makes this little bird so significant to me is not his cheerful nature or his comical disposition, it is his relentless simplicity. Squatty Chicken has been a spiritual experience for me. Laugh if you will, but I have discovered, after many years of owning animals of all sorts, that chickens are the most honest of them all. They ask nothing other than what they need to survive, they work their hearts out for you to understand your complex capacity for thought when theirs is virtually non-existent let alone complex, they are immensely social, cheerful and, perhaps most important of all, if you have never seen a fat chicken run, why then, you have not lived!

So, how does one go about partaking in the delights of fat fowl running?

If you are thinking of getting a chicken or two, or 10 or 12, well, as far as farm animals go, they are far and away one of the easiest and least time and space consuming and a great place to start trying to raise food animals for your family. They can be housed in a variety of coops, ranging from simple to elaborate. These chicken houses are easy to build yourself with plans in countless farm structure books or you can purchase patterns online. They can also be purchased at a farmers’ union and a variety of online dealers already built and ready to take home.

Feed and water requirements differ depending on whether or not you are raising meat birds, laying hens, ornamental fowl or little chicks. Your local feed store will be more than happy to give you any information you might require with regards to the best type of feed for your potential new family member, or members. They may even sell you your first group of chicks. Adult birds can be had at reasonable prices through Uncle Henry’s or a farmer looking to get rid of a few older birds, these can make the learning curve a little less difficult, but are not as cute as fuzzy baby chicks, so it’s up to you there. Chicks will be available at your local feed store come spring, but can also be ordered and delivered straight from the hatchery to your door step.

You will want, most of all, to be aware of fencing and safety with your coops and chicken yards. Make certain that the birds are protected from predators (yes that includes Muffy the family poodle) by having reasonably tall coop fencing that goes all the way to the ground. Make sure you get your birds indoors at night if you can. If you decide that you want to free range your birds, remember that at night their coop is the safest place for them. They will stand little chance out in the yard if a fox comes along.

Choosing a breed is the fun part. Not all chickens are created equal, so make sure you know if you want a laying hen, a broiler, or an ornamental bird that looks really pretty but won’t do much for you in the food department. The American Livestock Conservation Society has a list of endangered and heritage breeds that are beautiful and functional and in need of rescuing, so check them out at the Web site below if you want to be a part of saving an endangered breed.

And so, my final word of advice to those considering purchasing their first birds this spring but are hesitant to take the plunge? Do it! It will be the best thing that you ever did for your soul, and who knows, you may just fall in love with one.

For more information on owning and raising chickens in Maine, visit: www.albc-usa.org, www.backyardchickens.com

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