A backyard chicken coop is an obtainable introduction to farm life — and nothing beats a homegrown egg. President Lyndon B. Johnson raised Silkie bantams. Prince Charles raised Welsummers and light Sussexes, among others. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Robert Frost, President Thomas Jefferson, and Barbra Streisand all raised chickens.
What is it about chickens that appeals to so many of us so intensely that we want to bring them into our backyards, build them a comfortable and safe coop, and worry about their welfare in all types of weather? Is it their beauty? Is it their clucking and crowing? Is it their eggs, which enhance our daily meals and enrich our baking?
And what is it about hens, their roosters and their eggs that has contributed so much to our everyday sayings and remains such a significant part of our folklore? Is it the common conundrum that puzzles all of us: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
Or is it that so many great orators and writers have referred to chickens? Mark Twain is the author of “Put all your eggs in one basket — and watch that basket,” and in “As You Like It,” Shakespeare wrote, “Truly thou art damn’d; like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side.”
Chickens play a starring role in our vocabulary, as well: Birds of a feather stick together; scarce as hen’s teeth; don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched; fussy old hen; cocksure; henpecked; Chicken Little; the early bird gets the worm; no spring chicken — the list goes on.
I started raising chickens after visiting a commercial egg-laying farm in Massachusetts. I was so disturbed by what I saw — the cruel, inhumane conditions of the facility — that I vowed to always have my own coop, with enough egg-laying hens to provide me and my family with fresh, nutritious, organic eggs on a year-round basis.
As my needs evolved, I enlarged the chicken yards and built more coops. I now have four that house more than a hundred chickens — a melange of types and breeds that are really interesting to look at and fascinating to study.
The eggs, too, are varied in size and color, and because the feed is carefully designed for maximum, healthy production all year long, they all have brilliant yellow yolks, thick whites and hard shells.
I raise chickens for the eggs, but I also like that they allow me to practice animal husbandry on a modest, manageable and relatively inexpensive scale.
Many others are now discovering the joys of raising backyard poultry, which has led to an increase in national magazine, newspaper and television coverage. Every time I read something about a new breed or an undiscovered tradition, I find myself wanting to learn more, and to acquire more and more different breeds.
To keep my hens laying all winter long — and they do — I make sure they get fresh greens and kitchen-vegetable scraps every single day. (I bring them home from our company’s test kitchens in New York City and from my daughter’s prolific home kitchen.) I hang cabbages on large overhead hooks for the hens to peck at instead of their coopmates.
I have discovered great homeopathic remedies for chickens with head colds, sore feet and other ailments, and I use red heat lamps in their house during subfreezing weather, to keep them warm and to prevent their water from freezing.
Each year I read the new poultry catalogs, order 40 or so birds from hatcheries (such as Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa), and reinvigorate the flock with young blood. And each year, as the older hens and cockerels outlive their service, we have a coq au vin or a fricassee dinner.
The joys of farming come not just from the production of delicious, safe, wholesome foods, but from knowing that the animals that provide us with the food are treated with respect and care, and are given the proper environment in which to thrive.