Sharon Chesnut, Chicken Whisperer

chickens

Q: Thanks for being my chicken expert, Sharon. I really appreciate your insight. Could you tell a bit about your chicken history?

I am always glad to chat about chickens . . . not sure about the “expert” part, but 30 years of experience with them has been fun. My grandmother lived with us when I was very little and she as the real expert; taught me how to catch them, feed them, pick up eggs, and how to make them go to sleep by tucking their heads under their wings  . . . all the fun stuff.

So when we moved to Shingletown to try the country life, it seemed a natural thing to do. This was during our “let’s raise our own food” experiment, so we started with a dozen laying hens and 120 fryers. Following that interesting period, we have just had a dozen or less laying hens.

Q: How many chickens do you have now? What’s your oldest chicken?

At the moment, we have 6 chickens, 5 laying hens and a very large handsome rooster. That gives me lots of eggs for eating, baking and giving away. (When I had 12 or more, I sold the extras.) You were asking how old – they were 1 year old this month, and have been laying eggs starting last fall (the rooster was supposed to be a hen, but we have kept him around because he really is gorgeous and very docile – not the usual feisty type).

I usually start a new group of chickens about every 3 or 4 years, or sooner if egg production really slows down. I have been lucky to be able to give them away to friends and neighbors as I don’t like to stew something I have gotten to know that well.

chickens2

Q: You and I both live out in the boondocks where critters roam. I’d hate the thought of having my chickens eaten by coyotes or whatever. What’s your advice for a critter-proof chicken house?

As for their living quarters, 30 years of trying to outsmart the wild critters has paid off. The chicken house is a metal shed we converted for them many years ago. A large yard is attached to that, and is completely fenced with wire buried about 10 inches deep, with the top completely covered with fencing, as well. So the only way the critters can get in is to really spend a lot of time trying to dig in; they typically quit when they hit the wire. I have had a couple of really persistent ones come close, but I check regularly and re-do the wire where needed. I just have to remember to be vigilant about checking the fence line and remembering that apparently my coyotes and raccoons have nothing else to do but try to outsmart me. this year I am ahead of them. Of course, it is only April.

By the way, I do let them “free range” whenever I am home, and they really seem to like that. They cover the entire property looking for bugs and whatever, and also get to be in the garden, depending on the season.

Q: Is there like a basic chicken starter kit? A bare minimum number of chickens? Do they need friends? Sorry. I’ll let you answer.

A basic starter kit – hmmm – maybe 6 to 12. That allows for a few accidents when they are really tiny. It is fun to order them via the USPS (they always call right away and let you know the chicks have arrived). Also, I check with all the local feed stores first. I keep them in my greenhouse or tool shed, under heating lamps, until they are a few weeks old and have feathers before they go to their real home.

Most important is getting the house and pen ready as they grow really fast and the wild critters seem to know that they may soon be available. About needing friends, it is my experience they aren’t too picky. There is definitely a pecking order in place, which is fun to observe.

When they are in “free range” mode they will come to wherever I am and just hang around if I let them. I have trained them to do this by just throwing grain their way on occasion. Being their friend can also be somewhat annoying if you are trying to grill or have a glass of wine on the deck; they are perfectly comfortable coming up to check things out. But they are easy to put back in their pen – will follow me anywhere if I call them and have food in my hand.

Q: I’ve run into such wild responses when I mention my interest in getting chickens. A doctor friend said chickens are filthy, and talked about a child patient who got sick from walking in chicken poop. But I also know many people – mainly women (hi Jacki, Kimberly, Roberta, Sarah . . .) who love their chickens and sing their chickens’ praises. Maybe this is really a question for your husband, the psychologist, but why the extreme reactions?

I know some people are concerned that chickens are dirty, and they certainly can be if they don’t have access to a yard and dirt to “dust” themselves. Also I think it is important to keep the chicken house raked out and refreshed with clean straw frequently. I warn visitors as to what areas are OK to walk and where to stay clear – their pen is “off limits” as they are my composting partners and that is where I throw scraps and they do their work.

Q: Ever heard of a solar chicken door?

Have not heard of the solar chicken door – would be fun to see how that works, and convenient. Currently that is my job (putting away and letting out) but I really don’t mind most of the time. Is sometimes a nuisance to line up someone to check them daily when we are away, but seems to work out.

Q: If I just want eggs for cooking, do I need a rooster?

Regarding the rooster question, you only need one if you want fertile eggs or if you want baby chicks. Almost all hens get “broody” and want to hatch a catch of eggs, but they won’t hatch if there hasn’t been a friendly rooster around to make them fertile. I usually don’t have a rooster as they are frequently really aggressive and of course very loud. My current guy is really unusual … and I don’t care about the eggs being fertile.

Q: Any cautionary chicken tales for us?

I encourage people to try chickens, but to start small, and make the enclosed living area the most important priority. It is really very maddening when you look out the window in the early dawn and see a raccoon carrying off your favorite chicken because you didn’t take care of the hole in the fence or left the gate open.

Q: What chicken breeds do you recommend?

Getting a catalog from McMurray’s Chickens is really fun. There are so many breeds to choose from. I think I would try a smaller breed next time around. I currently have Arracaunas that lay the pastel colored eggs, and then a couple that lay brown eggs – they all taste the same to me. the big breeds eat a lot. I am thinking about trying to order breeds that are endangered” _ I read somewhere they need people to raise some.

Sharon Chesnut lives in Shingletown with husband John (and their chickens). The Chesnuts own and operate Parent Infant Programs and can be reached at sharonc@parentinfantprograms.com.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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8 Responses

  1. Avatar Renee Casterline says:

    Doni & Sharon,

    Thanks for this story. My husband and I have 19 10-week old chickens, and tonight a teacher friend is dropping off 9 week-old chicks from a classroom project. We love the chicken experience (even though we've already lost one). When my husband gets off work the first thing he does is go out to visit the chickens. He's also had a lot of fun designing and building their hen house and roosts. I really appreciate Sharon's tale of letting her chickens out into her yard and I want to try it. We've got a lot of space (and probably lots of bugs) for them to enjoy. My husband is nervous about letting them out, but I think they'll be okay, especially now that I've read Sharon's story. We're looking forward to eggs in a few months (we're going to sell them) and we're happy to be part of the growing movement of backyard chicken farmers. Even with our limited time with chickens, I encourage anyone thinking about trying it to go for it. It's fun to get to know chickens, and I think it slows your life down just a little bit.

    Thanks again,

    Renee

  2. Avatar Dennie says:

    I knew that egg incubator should have been saved for Bruce at the flea mart.

  3. Avatar JoAnn DeGroft says:

    I added chickens to my gardening hobby 3 years ago and found that:

    It was not that easy to get them back into their coop in the evening, even with food, unless I got them in the habit of being picked up at a very young age. I found it was important to handle the chicks alot.

    They will eat bugs in the garden but also scratch up and dig the dirt around the plants and will eat all your vegetable plants down to the ground.

    To start with, I would recommend the tried and true varieties they offer at our local feed stores, they are inexpensive and you have the local person to ask about feed, etc.

    Because I did not want to go the "$75 tomato" route with my chickens, I picked up a good book on raising chickens, and have succeeded in that the hens pay for themselves in egg sales plus contribute to my gardening budget.

    I agree a half dozen is a good start, according to my chicken book, each bird will need 4 square feet of coop floor, a 10" x 10" nest , and 7" of roost pole (inside for sleeping)

    For 12 hens, I have a 4ft x 8ft coop situated for shade and shelter from rain with a 4ft x 8ft covered porch where I put their food and water, and then the attached 8ft x 8ft aviary. The aviary should have been a little larger, so I let them out on supervised field trips, and also added a solar powered light in the coop which is a great help to work in there and extends the daylight in the winter which makes them lay more eggs.

    Enjoy your birds!

  4. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    I have always heard that the secret to growing chickens is to be extra careful when planting them.

    Seriously though, my sister-in-law's chickens love Easter every year since the kids always seem to lose half their jelly beans. Then the chickens learn to peck bright red and pink things. Then they attack my sister-in-law's painted toe nails.

  5. Listen to "Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer" every Saturday at 9:00am EST on http://www.americaswebradio.com. It's a nationally broadcast radio show all about keeping backyard poultry and living a self sustaining lifestyle.

    Thanks for listening!

    Chicken Whisperer TM

    • Avatar Bruce Greenberg says:

      Cool, all the way from Atlanta! Welcome to A News Cafe in Northern California. Feel free to share any chicken tips with us any time. See you online.

  6. When my girls were little, we got started with chickens as way to introduce animal husbandry to them and add a little life (and bug/snake) patrol to our garden. The girls loved the little chicks and were very happy with the grown birds as well – they loved to go collect the eggs, and would pat and handle the hens without any fear. We had a little Speckled Sussex named Ginger – who was as sweet and shy as could be; two Auracaunas (some people call them Americanas, I think) and a Barred Rock – who was big and bossy with the other hens but very friendly with us. My husband liked to use their shed feathers for his fly-fishing hackle. We gave our chickens away to a friend when we moved to Northern California, but I am ready to have more. I like being able to grow my own protein (and have their funny companionship) in the garden. I also found ( following advice from a book titled The Big Book of Garden Hens) that if you were careful about when you let your hens 'free-range' in the garden, I had little plant damage. Specifically, the hens had to be yard-bound when the veggies and annuals were still young and tender. Once the plants got to a certain size, my hens mostly left them alone. Chickens are a great addition to a garden – and their poop and bedding is a great addition to your compost!

  7. Avatar Jo Giessner says:

    What fun! I just came in for a lunch break and to check my email and enjoyed this item. I've been out cleaning the barnyard, mostly goat pens, and have been chatting with my chickens and calling them my cleaning crew! As I rake a pile of hay and poop, they come along and chatter and scratch and get all the bugs. Of, course, by the time I'm ready to load my ATV wagon, I have to re-rake the pile, but it is a much more enjoyable experience to have a hen and rooster crew helping!