Chickens came into my life in an unexpected way. I am a city girl. I was raised in the suburbs of New York City and later lived in the city and in Boston. I neither thought of nor envisioned raising backyard chickens. But my move to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts — Stockbridge, to be exact — and the little boy, Matthew, who would become my stepson, changed all that.
On a trip to Bozeman, Montana, we took a day off from skiing at Big Sky Resort. We thought a trip to a giant farm store would be entertaining as well as educational. When we arrived, Matthew leaped out of the car. As we neared the store, he proclaimed, “I hear them! I hear them!” In a flash, Matthew was cuddling a fluff ball of a baby chick. I could tell he was in love as he lifted it to his face to feel its soft down. You can imagine our surprise when Matthew belted out, “Dad, give me my $3. I’m buying these chicks!”
We didn’t buy those chicks that day, but I did promise that we’d get some when we returned home. Being a new stepmom, I had no idea — let me say that again, no idea — my seemingly clever solution to not buying the chicks in Montana, an intended false promise that I was sure Matthew would soon forget, would result in my love affair with chickens and an amazing bond with my stepson.
Raising backyard chickens has increased in popularity in recent years. An online survey of backyard chicken owners, by the Poultry Science Association in 2014, found that nearly three-quarters of the nearly 1,500 respondents owned fewer than 10 chickens. And the major reasons for raising backyard chickens were as food for home use (95%), gardening partners (63%), pets (57%) or a combination of all three.
Here are my “top fives” — breeds to own and reasons to raise backyard chickens.
Top breeds to own
I have bought my chickens from a variety of sources, from the local Agway or Tractor Supplyto mail-ordering them from Murray McMurray’s. Storey Publishing has a great book about breeds and raising chickens. Here are my favorite five:
Easy to care for
Chickens need a safe roosting spot at night to protect them from land and air predators such as coyote or owls. They need an area to peck around outside. Our chickens are free to roam, but you can build a caged area or get movable solar-electric fencing. The chickens need fresh water and chicken food. Local nursery or tractor supply stores carry chicken feed.
Our backyard chickens’ antics immediately melt away any negative feelings or issues I might be carrying from my daily activities. With a side-eye glance, the chickens quickly communicate to me how they love seeing the hand that feeds them. And, of course, what do I do? I feed them. I would be an excellent Pavlovian subject. Chickens have great personalities. They are playful and social. Last summer, one of our chickens, Honey Bunny, was in love with my husband. He was working on the barn and would hear rustling and out would pop Honey Bunny. She was so present during the project that she even managed to imprint her feet in the concrete footing. If that doesn’t provide a good giggle, I don’t know what will.
They become family pets
Many days when I arrive home, I am greeted by the joyful explosion of rapid wing-fluttering, running chickens. Who knew they could bond so strongly with human caretakers and be so excited to see us? The bonding happens at the human level as well. For me, chickens, like most pets, become family members. Adults and kids alike fall in love with the spirited personalities, joyful antics and the wonderful communicative noises of the chickens. While we all recognize the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster, the hens trill, purr and cluck — each in her own voice. I have learned to discern sounds of contentedness versus fear.
When you’ve got chickens, you’ve got eggs. And that means your neighbors quickly become your friends as there is nothing better than fresh eggs! The eggs also make great hostess gifts. My stepson had a great egg business for a while — he sold eggs to many neighbors and friends who both loved seeing this proud little boy but also enjoyed the rich eggs.
Who doesn’t love fresh eggs?
This may be the most obvious of all … but the eggs are perfection. Once you have had an egg from pasture-raised chickens that eat bugs, grass and the like, you will find store-bought eggs tasteless and anemic.
Their yolks are the color of the setting sun, their texture and fresh extraordinary taste are unparalleled. Poached eggs on toast are perhaps the best way to relish the perfection of the egg and its taste, while a frittata, in any flavor, offers a perfect simple lunch or dinner entrée.
Perfect Poached Eggs
Prep time: 1 to 2 minute
Cook time: 3 to 8 minutes
Total time: 4 to 10 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Toast of your choice
Salt and pepper
1. Boil water in a sauté pan with white wine vinegar.
2. Crack egg and boil until preferred doneness.
3. Placed on buttered toast.
4. Add salt and pepper, and savor each bite.
Prep time: 10 to 15
Cook time: 35 to 40
Total time: 45 to 55 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 potatoes, boiled and sliced
1 onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
6 eggs, well-beaten
1/2 cup cheddar
Chives, chopped for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Heat the olive oil in a medium frying pan, making sure the sides are well coated.
3. Add the potatoes and onion and sauté until nicely browned. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Add the eggs and sauté over medium heat for a minute or two until the eggs set up, remove from heat.
4. Sprinkle cheddar on top and place in oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven. Take a spatula around the edges and slide frittata onto a plate.
5. Slice and garnish with chopped chives.