By Jeffrey Bradley / January 1, 2013
Besides chickens, what other loyal, well-behaved pet will give you fresh eggs? This once-pedestrian bird is riding the crest of an urban trend. Keeping chickens at home is increasingly popular, leading to books about the subject and segments on TV shows advising others on how to get started.
Ascribe the trend to back to naturism, a reaction to inhumane agri-business, or simply to wanting pets with benefits. Chickens have become a fixture of big-city "greening" efforts. Self-sufficient but friendly, chickens come in an array of colors, shapes and sizes, from the fifteen-pound Jersey Giant to feisty little bantams. They lay speckled, brown and even green eggs. The very essence of eggdom, this "free range" produce has a dark amber yolk and texture like nothing to be found at a store.
If you want to keep chickens and you have a backyard, you're in business. Just make sure that local statutes permit it. Forget the image associated with keeping chickens of rusty chicken wire pens and patchy front lawns. Now, you can order a designer coop online. Or build one yourself.
A homey shelter should be the focus of subtle attention, not your neighbors' complaints. And it must be predator-proof, as critters of the night -- including dogs -- find chicken as tasty as you do. Birds stay healthy and happy by not overcrowding them. Two or three in the average backyard do fine. More, and your landscape may come to resemble trench warfare. But never consider keeping just one. Gregarious, flocking chickens find one is the loneliest number.
Making chickens and gardens co-exist takes some time and effort. Evergreens, fast-growing ground covers and matty sedges used imaginatively will protect those precious off-limits flower and vegetable beds, as well as regular fencing, and look better, too. If a chicken planned a garden, it would probably contain shady bamboo, shrubs and palm trees, some vines to hide in, and hardy, colorful perennials to nibble.
You will want to prevent your chickens from crossing the road by enclosing the areas where they run with a perimeter fence. And they will test the defenses with that relentless curiosity of theirs. In return, these busy fowl will "mow" your lawn, turn the compost, chase down pesky insects, fertilize the soil, and offer odd antics for you to ponder. Feeding them table scraps also cuts down on garden foraging.
However bright, alert and capable your birds, you still must manage them. Work to find a balance that enhances their quality of life and leaves the garden thriving, with only an occasional supervisory glance from you. Chickens not only add an exotic element to your environment, but relaxation as well, by you observing their non-stop antics.
You want to talk personality? These birds have it in spades. They will put on a show just attending to their daily business or by running up the path. Who knew they could be free-spirited, adventurous or loyal?
Generally, the more outre breeds (striking Silkies look weirdly fluffy) need more upkeep. Good beginner breeds like Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Barred Rocks, and Americanas -- Bantams, too, if space is an issue -- are docile and friendly. Grown birds mix well with most other pets. They will come when called, if hand-fed.
Their quirky, distinct personalities delight children and help emphasize the values of patience, responsibility and caring. But stick to hens; they will announce when they have produced (eggs). Roosters are fearless and watchful, but they're racket machines.
Although the process can be challenging, the benefits of keeping chickens outweigh any downside. Obnoxious and willful they can sometimes be. But their very real appeal undoubtedly lies in their aliveness, their birdiness. And they will become pets. Given their reptilian background -- Tyrannosaurus rex DNA recently revealed chickens to be that monster's closest living counterpart -- it is strange to realize how easily people become attached to their chickens.
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