Natural Life Magazine

Chickens in Your Backyard
By Sarah Miner

Do-it-yourself learning meets do-it-yourself food

Chickens in Your BackyardMy husband was mobbed when he came through the door one evening in late February. The kids and I had been waiting all day for what was in the box he carried under one arm, and he came home to a greeting worthy of a rock star.

“Shhh,” he said to our daughters. “Listen. What sound do you hear in the box?” There was only a short silence before we heard scratching and peeping through the cardboard. As he slowly removed the loose lid, our four new Ameraucana chickens were revealed: two pale yellow with spots, two with stripes and all of them as small as the eggs from which they hatched just three days before. Ameraucanas are a breed of chicken with fluffy cheek and chin feathers and that lay eggs with tinted shells; purebred hens lay blue eggs, while non-purebred hens might lay eggs of blue, green, olive or even lavender tints. On that evening, however, they were just tiny balls of fluff that started a wonderful adventure for our family. In each stage of their development from newly hatched chicks to laying their first eggs, the chickens were an experiential learning opportunity like no other.

Like many families, ours is part of the growing movement of people who prefer to eat local, sustainable food and to teach our children the importance of those choices. Eggs are an example of something easily purchased from a case in any grocery store, often originating from a large commercial enterprise, but that can be had for the same or lower cost by keeping some hens in a backyard coop. Even if the cost for a dozen eggs works out the same for organic, (outdoor) free-range eggs from either source, there is a priceless benefit that can’t be found in the store: seven months of learning while watching those little fluff balls grow up into a small flock of chickens right in the backyard.

The night the chicks came home with my husband, we held and snuggled them briefly before putting them into the brooder box in the kitchen. Our children, then ages six and two, had spent the previous two weeks helping to make the brooder, crawling in and out of it, pretending to nest in it, taking it apart and putting it back together again. They dug their hands into bags of organic chick feed, pine shavings and grit, feeling the differences in texture. We encased the box with plastic baby-gate sections to protect the chicks from our indoor cat (and, admittedly, our toddler) and hung the heat lamp inside to keep the chicks at a steady temperature without a mama hen’s soft down. A thermometer was inside so the girls could see how hot it was in the chicks’ new home and help us know whether the brooder was too hot or cold.

By the time the chicks arrived, the brooder was warm, food and water dishes were full, and soft towels had been placed over the shavings to keep the chicks from eating their bedding instead of the organic feed for the first few days.

Every day, we held the chicks out of the brooder and played with them loose in the kitchen for at least an hour to socialize them and keep them friendly. In addition to acclimating the birds to humans, our daily chick social hour taught the children to be caretakers of these fragile creatures and to use the gentlest of touches when holding small chicks. They watched the chicks eat, eat, eat and then fall down like a dead bird for a 90-second power nap. For the first few days, that sight was more than a little disturbing, but when the chicks jumped up from their naps and ran around to see what they missed while they were asleep, the children squealed with delight. Every day brought new joy of discovery. Flocking behavior, feathers, perching, flying! Sitting on the kitchen floor with chicks hopping up on laps and shoulders, playing tug-of war with tasty treats and practicing flying with their new feathers was the highlight of our daughters’ day and they soaked up answers to endless questions about the chickens.

With adult feathers and at nearly two months old, the chicks were ready to transition from our kitchen to the backyard. A family construction project to build the chickens a coop became a priority as they outgrew the brooder. I researched coop designs and dimension requirements, my husband designed and built it, and the kids measured, hammered and played inside to see how the chickens would live once it was finished.

Only a few months earlier, our older daughter had declared the weather studies in her first grade homeschool curriculum package to be too boring, so we dropped it to pursue science topics more in line with her interests. However, when we started observing weather on a daily basis as part of preparing for our chicks’ big move to the coop outside, she became fascinated with the subject. She checked the thermometer and watched the clouds. She noticed when the grass was no longer frosty in the mornings and other signs that the nights were warm enough for our chicks and their heat lamp to move outside and out of our kitchen-turned-barn.

April slid into May with the girls’ birthdays and a slow, gray, rainy start to Spring. For a few hours a day whenever it wasn’t raining, the chicks enjoyed time on the lawn in their cus- tom playpen. The baby gate sections from the brooder were turned into a long, covered, bottomless pen so that the chicks could enjoy the grass and bugs without the danger of being eaten by hawks or other animals. Soon, the chicks grew out of the limited space of their playpen and complained loudly in protest at being “cooped up.” They were ready to explore more of the lawn than a relatively small section at a time, yet still too young to be turned loose in our large yard with pet dogs and cats.

Thus began many discussions with the children about prey-predator relationships, dog packs versus chicken flocks and how we can use that knowledge to teach the dogs to protect the chickens instead of hunt them. A friend who was experienced in raising chickens gave us some techniques for teaching the dogs that the chickens outranked them in the family pack and we used them with great success.

The relationship between chickens and cats required no intervention from us. Our aging cats took one look at these nearly full-size birds with beaks and claws to match and ran as fast as they could in the opposite direction. We felt a bit sorry for the cat who woke from an afternoon nap and found himself face to face with something that must have seemed like a velociraptor coming at him – a bird his own size. The dogs weren’t too happy with their new lowly status, but we watched the three species sort out the relationships into a peaceful sharing of space.

Meanwhile, as the chickens kept growing, their coop needed to be cleaned with increasing frequency and volume of fresh wood shavings. We talked about possible uses for the shavings from the coop and soon realized that starting a large compost bin would be an ideal solution for our household. The children learned about decomposition, bacteria and the cycles of life and nutrients in the environment.

Layering each week’s clean-out from the coop with kitchen scraps and dirt created a beautiful substance, clean and earthy, which was teeming with interesting bugs for the girls to see up close with a magnifying glass. Each week, we’d scoop out a shovelful of brewing compost from the bin to the grass, lay on our bellies and count all the different kinds of bugs and try to identify the “ingredients.” The pile grew and grew until we needed to have another conversation about what to do with all the compost. “Start a garden!” The girls cheered as they jumped up and down with excitement about their idea.

The baby gate sections, abandoned in the side yard since the chicks outgrew the playpen configuration, now had a new purpose: Instead of keeping the chickens in, they would now link together to keep the chickens out of the new garden patch with its tender seedlings. The chickens were more than happy to stay out of the new small garden as they were now free to roam the backyard during the daylight hours. Each morning, they hopped down from their perches in the top of the coop, walked down the ramp to the lower section, straight past the feeder and chicken water and out the door to explore the yard. We watched them learn to drink from the dog water, to dust bathe under the large flowering shrubs where the hawks couldn’t see them and to hunt bugs in the lawn.

Have you ever followed a chicken as it lives freely? Science class became an adventure in the yard, following a chicken and discovering what it did all day long. Summer arrived and provided long, warm days for observing our flock of omnivores. The girls crawled under the shrubs and into the dust bath wallows, feeling the cool dirt on their skin and in their hair. They sat on the lawn and watched the chickens graze on clover leaves and grass seeds, catch worms after a summer rain and race around the yard to keep the other chickens from stealing their catch, and listen to the new clucks coming from grown chickens who used to make peeps. The kids sneaked chickens into the house, even into the bedrooms, for snuggling in great piles of blanket nests.


The Multi-Function Chicken

Life Learning Magazine

Two of the hens laid their first eggs on the first day in August. One was a tiny, perfect powder blue egg smaller than a golf ball. The other was bigger, but lacked a hard shell. This was an amazing discovery and prompted many questions, most of which started with “Why…” and needed an immediate answer. Often, a young hen doesn’t have enough calcium stored up for the first egg’s shell, so it comes out soft and rubbery. This was a tangible way the children could understand an important concept of nutrition: A body needs enough nutrients to do its job. As the hen showed more interest in the ground oyster shell that was offered free-choice in the coop, she was able to consume the calcium she needed to lay all subsequent eggs with perfect green shells. Then the girls wanted to know what other nutrients were in eggs, so we looked up information on the nutritional profile of eggs and launched into comparing our eggs with store-bought eggs.

At first sight of what was inside of our chickens’ eggs, our younger daughter ran screaming from the kitchen and refused to come out of the bedroom. She had never seen eggs with yolks the same color as her orange marker and was deeply suspicious of what could make it that color. She wouldn’t taste it (tasted the same), refused to let it contaminate her plate of pale yellow scrambled eggs (store-bought, as she was used to), but did enjoy smashing eggs with a whisk in a bowl in preparation for cooking. Gradually, over the course of a few weeks, she started to believe me that the green grass made the orange yolks and consented to try them after seeing her older sister’s delight in eating “our” eggs. After a while, she felt that the store eggs were just too plain compared to the daily Easter eggs from the coop, for the three hens were gifting us with four eggs every other day in shells painted with powder blue, pastel teal and pale olive green.

As summer faded to autumn, our thoughts settled on what we had lived and learned. The kids will happily tell anyone how to raise newly hatched chicks, build a coop and figure out how many eggs the hens will lay in a week. They know why weather matters to the plants and animals, how compost makes a garden grow and how living things are connected. These seasons of learning were an unparalleled experience. What shall we do next winter? Perhaps we will find something new to live and explore or continue with the theme of chickens. The children would like to watch one of our hens to raise a brood of chicks next spring and, since the fourth chicken is a handsome rooster, we just might do that.

Sarah Miner lives in the glorious Pacific Northwest with her husband and best friend Jim and their two daughters Ashley-Rose and Carina.


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