I write against the background sound of constant sweet cheeping–three baby chicks now inhabit a corner of our mudroom, just off the kitchen. We first raised chickens about nine years ago, when it was still something of a curiosity to do so in the city. Now backyard chickens in Seattle are so hip they’re almost passe. Neighbors are comparing breeds and coop plans, Seattle Tilth can’t offer enough City Chickens 101 classes to meet the demand, and that nice clucking sound is becoming more common on my walks through our West Seattle neighborhood. We think that’s just great.
For various reasons, we’ve spent a couple of chickenless year since moving to our new house. I’m SO happy to be raising chicks again. There are many reasons to keep chickens, and they vary among families. My own reasons-for-chicken-keeping list is a mile long, but I can boil it down (don’t worry about that phrase, chicks–you’re just for eggs!) to two:
1. I love chickens. I love how they look, how they walk, and how they tilt their heads to look you in the eye. I love their funny, fluffy shape. I love their unique chicken intelligence, which constantly surprises me. I love the soft, calming cluck-cluck sound they make. I love how, if you choose the right breed, chickens are sweet, docile, and friendly. I love how…well, you get the idea.
2. Gorgeous fresh eggs. There are few things more satisfying than gathering your own eggs, especially when they are the most beautiful, golden-centered, delicious eggs you have every tasted. And even though it seems like your dearest friends and family couldn’t possibly love you more than they already do, just try giving them a bowl of your homegrown eggs. More love in the world.
I could also add:
3. Children can take a great deal of responsibility for raising chicks and keeping chickens. When Claire was tiny, she would go out with her “eggs basket,” which she could barely pronounce, and gather the eggs to make blueberry muffins while Genevieve the Polish hen perched on her shoulder. Now that she is 10 years old, and becoming both a food activist and a baker in her own right, I believe sharing our household with food-producing animals helps to grow a sense of self-sufficiency, a broader sense of “home,” and a great deal of kindness.
There is another dimension to chicken-keeping that plays into the modern psyche. In a recent Homegrown Evolution post (great blog–check it out), I read a quote by the editor of Backyard Poultry Magazine, who said that whenever the economy tanks, their subscriptions soar. This doesn’t make common sense–after all, unless you are supremely resourceful, it takes some money to get set-up for a backyard chicken flock. The ongoing cost of chicken food isn’t that much less than eggs–and anyway, it’s certainly not buying eggs that is making or breaking us. The current popularity of chickens might have to do with the economy, but it can’t be just about money.
Wondering over this, I picked up the phone and called Backyard Poultry‘s editor, Elaine Belanger. “You’re right,” she told me. “On the surface, there is a myth that growing our own food will save money, and I get calls from these editors in New York who think that’s what it’s all about. But if you’ve raised chickens, you know that it’s something else.” In troubled times with multiple crises–economic, ecological, global insecurity, swine flu–there’s a longing for independence, self-reliance, security, food safety, and idyllic living. Chickens give us a hands-on, tangible sense of satisfaction on all of these levels–it’s an emotional satisfaction. But Belanger points out that the current resurgence in “homestead”-style practices, including chicken-keeping, pre-dates the economic crisis by about a year. I believe we have just come through a long political cycle in this country that has left us feeling empty, and desperate for authenticity. We are finding, and creating, meaning in the most truly grassroots of actions–those that begin with our own household grass (another chicken benefit–they are adept at grass removal!).
Is Belanger cynical about the sudden faddishness of chickens, when she’s been preaching this lifestyle for over 20 years? Not at all–she’s happy about it. Thrilled, even. And she’s quick to offer her own favorite reason for keeping chickens: “Because it’s FUN.”
There’s still plenty of time to get your own little flock started and all settled in before autumn. If you’ve been thinking about chickens, I want to encourage you to go for it. In the coming week or so, I’ll be offering inspiration, information, resources, coop plans, and (I can’t help it) a bit more Chicken Philosophy here at The Tangled Nest. Tomorrow: how to make a simple biddy box/chick brooder.