I came to urban chicken farming in 2009. Initially, I wasn’t all that enamored with chickens, per se. I viewed chickens in the same category as a garden; something living, and, if tended well, would offer a payout in return.
I was eager in my quest for a quality, self-sufficient food source that I could control. Reeling from the 2007 and 2008 losses of my son and husband, each to cancer, I’d been researching healthy sustainable food, intrigued about the topic of having high omega-3 eggs, superior to eggs purchased in grocery stores.
I decided to try my hand at chicken farming. I reasoned that if it didn’t work out, I could sell my designer coop, and give away the chickens.
My chicken venture began, as with most chicken farmers, with chicks purchased from a local farm supply store. I learned that chicks should be kept in a box, with a chick feeder and waterer, and most important, a heating lamp to keep the chicks warm. I learned it was critical to do a daily check of their little chick butts, for “pasty butt” – which could be fatal to a chick.
My first hands-on duty as an urban chicken farmer was so far, so good. I didn’t lose one chick to pasty butt. Since the chicks had to be kept warm, the box needed to be in a place away from drafts or critters, which, in my case, was indoors.
These eight years, I’ve raised chicks in a box in my living room, laundry room, spare bathroom and garage. The thing is, chicks in a box are cute and endearing for a few days. Soon enough, there’s a yearning for the day when they can be released to the outdoor chicken yard. Chicks in a box with heat lamp requires near constant attention to keep the feeder and waterer filled, replace the poopy bedding with clean material, and be vigilant about the correct heat-lamp temperature. The chicks’ weeks in that box, while adorable, guaranteers a cacophony of constant high-pitched chirping.
But it’s not just the noise that’s a problem, because as the chicks grew, so did the odor, as well as the frequency in refilling the feeders and waterer, and changing the soiled bedding. Chick box days were a daily routine of them gorging on chick feed, then drinking, pooping, running to and fro across the box in a flurry of dust and pine shavings, then sleeping in a fuzzy pile in the heat lamp corner. Each time I raised a new batch of chicks, I breathed a sign of relief, vowing, “What a hassle! No more chicks!”
Over time, older chickens would pass on, or, in the tragic event where two neighbor dogs massacred five of my six chickens, both ways of which required that I get new chicks for replacement. The hassle factor of chicks in a box aside, I’d increasingly come to feel unsettled about my urban chicks being raised in the orphan chick box, versus country cousin chicks raised by a mama hen.
Most chicken farmers will experience the issue of “broody hens” – where a hen feels the urge to sit on eggs for weeks in anticipation of hatching chicks. Some breeds are more prone to being broody than others, such as Buff Orphington, Australorp or Silkies. Other breeds seem to have evolved completely away from the instinct to sit on a pile of eggs. Over the years of my chicken wrangling, I’ve always had at least one hen that is desperate to sit on a clutch of eggs. ‘
Btw, I had a revelation about why chickens persist to lay eggs in one box, rather than choose to lay eggs in an empty box. I believe it’s so they can create a clutch, or pile of eggs, for broody hens to sit upon. My broody chickens were clueless that the clutch of eggs would never hatch without a mating rooster.
Here in Redding city limits, roosters are prohibited, and there’s a limit of six hens per household. Convincing a stubborn broody hen of the futility of sitting on infertile eggs is nearly impossible. I’ve had chickens over the years who will insist upon sitting on eggs for many weeks. I will often remove the eggs, and bring her out of the coop, only to have her dash back inside to sit on eggs. I’d been advised by other chicken farmers to plunge the broody hen in cool water, bringing down the core hormonal temperature that is inciting her to sit on eggs. This method did little than get the hens riled up. Ever heard the expression, “madder than a wet hen”? Yeah, that. A wet hen is a furious and indignant hen!
It was last year that my fluffy yellow Buff Orphinton, “Sunflower” was going for a record amount of time sitting on eggs, waiting to hatch. My nephew and his wife have country chickens, complete with roosters, and were gracious enough to give me some fertile eggs for Sunflower to keep warm. The first batch was destroyed by the other hens. (Maybe they were suspicious of eggs that smelled of another flock.) The second batch, a little clutch of five eggs, was accepted by Sunflower, which she diligently sat upon for 21 days. On a cold rainy day, I heard high-pitched peeping in the chicken yard, and saw two little fluffy yellow and black twin chicks standing under the protective wings of Sunflower. The remaining three eggs didn’t hatch, and were discarded.
It was a touching sight to see Sunflower in her mama-hen mode, so diligent and protective of her twin chicks. I watched as she methodically scratched the dirt, and stepped back for her chicks to rush in to retrieve tiny bugs or seeds. Everywhere Sunflower went, so did her twins. The high-pitched incessant peeping of the chicks reminded me of the days when toddlers wore bells on their shoes, so mama would always know the location of the baby. It took just a few days before the chicks were copying Sunflower in scratching for meals. They would often hitch rides on her back, as she strutted proudly around the chicken yard. When risk of perceived peril — whether by another hen venturing too close, a blue jay raiding the feeder, or if the wind kicked up a cold breeze — Sunflower would utter a distinct clucking sound that compelled her twins to scurry to her, disappearing under mama’s downy mass of yellow feathers.
I marveled at the comparison of all the things I had done before in my best attempts to raise chicks in a box, realizing that Sunflower did such a superior job of keeping them warm and safe, fed and watered, and teaching them the ways of the chicken world. Besides, they had the love and dedication of a mama hen, as opposed to humanoid species, regardless of my kind intentions.
When another chicken, or for that matter, even I ventured too close to the twins, Sunflower would emit a guttural rapid clucking, head down, feathers plumed out, ready for battle. It took just a few dust-ups with the other chickens before the auntie hens knew that Sunflower’s twins were not to be messed with, and a warning to keep their distance. Daily, as dusk descended, Sunflower would rush, with twins following close behind, to get into the coop before the other hens.
I was curious about how far this hen-chick relationship would last. Would they always be close-knit? As the weeks went by, I noticed the chicks straying further from their mother. If an auntie hen ventured too close, the twins would run, squawking in alarm, to Sunflower for protection. After about four weeks, at dusk, Sunflower would lead the twins up the ramp to the coop, get them settled in one of the nesting boxes, and then immediately leave the coop to forage with her sisters. If one of the twins dared pop its head out the coop door, Sunflower would rush back to hustle them back into the coop. Eventually, the chicks no longer hung around Sunflower, but were inseparable with each other.
It was amazing to see such young chicks being unbothered by the other hens. In the past, when I raised box chicks, it was very difficult to introduce youngsters to the flock, even when they were nearly as big as the hens. The older chickens would viciously attack the young chickens when I put them in the same pen. Here, with Sunflower raising the chicks, she’d established her chick’s safety via threat of a mother’s wrath.
More weeks went by, and the twins, which were lovely Copper Marans, with sleek black feathers and vivid orange collars, were completely on their own. I observed that the twins seemed to have a maturity and confidence at their young ages that I’d never seen with my box-raised chicks. They both realized that the 6-foot-tall fence was no obstacle to getting to greener pastures, and daily would fly over the fence to forage in the grass. Sunflower was cured of her broody instinct for that season, and I was looking forward to the gorgeous dark brown Copper Maran eggs the twins would be producing. I began noticing that one twin was growing taller than the other, and woke one morning to hear the unmistakable, yet adolescent raspy crowing coming from the chicken yard. It was then that I named the twins: the short one Sister and the tall one Thor. I’m happy to report that Thor is enjoying the life of of protecting and servicing a harem of lovely hens on a beautiful chicken farm in Happy Valley.
This spring, Sunflower resumed her previous brooding behavior. This time, I didn’t waste a moment. I got a clutch of six eggs from my nephew and his wife. Each egg, marked in pen, with “3/17” as start date, and to distinguish from eggs laid in the nesting box by other hens. I marked my calendar for 21 days, and eagerly anticipated the arrival of six chicks.
I told my granddaughters about the pending chicks, and asked that they help with names for the babies. Through many cold days and nights during one of Redding’s rainiest seasons Sunflower persisted to sit on her clutch, which was getting taller with eggs sneakily added by other hens during her brief jaunts to get food and water. Day 25 came and went. I Googled chicken sites about overdue eggs. Some cited instances where chicks could hatch a week late, so I waited, and Sunflower waited. One cite claimed that if there was an unpleasant odor, it meant the chicks hadn’t developed, and wouldn’t hatch. Day 30, Sunflower persisted in sitting on her growing pile of eggs. By this time, her nesting box stunk to high heaven. I felt sad for her that she’s sat so long on a pile of duds.
I knew the only way to get her to quit was to get chicks. The sun was going down as I drove to a farm supply store that luckily had chicks left over from Easter. I looked for the tiniest, newest chicks, and chose three little yellow fluffy girls. The farm store guy said, “Nope, can’t just buy three. It’s a law. You have to buy at least six.” I tried arguing with him, but he held fast, so I bought six chicks and rushed home to Sunflower.
By then, all the chickens were roosting on their perches in the coop, and Sunflower eyed me warily as I lifted the lid to her nesting box. I had this idea that I should put the chicks under her, along with the stinky eggs, so they would be imprinted with that smell. One by one, I tucked each chick under her fluffy backside. I hoped they wouldn’t panic and run out of the coop, freezing overnight. I hoped, and said a silent prayer, that Sunflower wouldn’t banish them from her nest.
The next morning, at sunup, I raced outside to check on Sunflower and the chicks. Before seeing anything, I heard the unmistakable incessant cheeping of chicks. There they were, mama Sunflower, surrounded by the tiny yellow chicks, picking at the seed block. I rapidly counted. Six chicks. They were all accounted for! As I approached the fence, Sunflower, bent over, head down, with her guttural warning to me, as all six of her brood scurried under her for cover. I don’t mind admitting that I got choked up in seeing the success of Sunflower’s adopted chicks. I thought of how lucky this little six-pack of chicks is in being able to experience the natural way of being raised by a mama hen, and not in the hard knocks life of an orphan box under the glare of a red heating lamp, with no mama.
The mother part of me feels immensely satisfied in helping keep the natural order of mama hens and chicks. I can relate to the mama hen in her nurturing ways and patience, and also when she is firm in her instruction. Sunflower’s fierce protection of her babies knows no limits. She will take on any opponent that dares to mess with her chicks. Watching the six-pack grow each day, and take on new skills, such as jumping on the rungs of an old chair, mimicking the scratch-scratch-peck rhythm of searching for food, or even play-sparring with each other, warms my heart.
As dusk descends, mama Sunflower leads the way up the ramp to the coop, with high-achiever chicks close behind, and the distracted dawdlers taking their time, eventually to join mama and sisters in the nesting box.
Each morning, I check on my flock, and do the count, two, four, six, and smile.The life of an urban chicken farmer is sweet. Oh, and the eggs? They’re amazing!