In one corner of our yard stands a small house, painted brown with white trim. As I walk towards it, I am greeted by a familiar cluuuuck-cluck-cluck, as the hens eagerly look to see if I am bringing them food. I open the door, reach into the nest, and pull out an egg, still slightly warm. An egg always feels like such a marvelous thing. These three hens, who scratch and peck in our backyard and eat food scraps, produce these large, beautiful eggs that we eat. It is truly amazing.
My family has kept chickens for as long as I can remember. When we lived in the country we had a flock of perhaps eight or so hens and a rooster. Sometimes we even raised our own chicks. When we moved to town several years ago, we thought that we would likely not keep chickens again, but then some friends who were moving gave us their three hens because they were unable to keep them. Although we didn’t plan on keeping chickens in town, our hens have now become an important part of our household and of what I like to think of as the ecology of our yard.
Hens are wonderful and useful in many ways. Most importantly, of course, they provide us with fresh eggs. Three hens may not sound like many, but if they are all laying, that’s three eggs a day, or a dozen eggs every four days – more than enough for us. Sometimes we even have enough eggs to be able to sell a few dozen. I love to get eggs from our hens because I know that our hens are treated well – they have fresh air to breathe and water to drink, green grass to eat and walk on, and nice grass-filled nests to lay in. I know what is in the eggs because I know what we feed our hens. And I know that the eggs are fresh and have not travelled long distances to reach us. With store-bought eggs, you might not know those things. Also, I think our hens’ eggs are much more beautiful than store-bought eggs. Most store-bought eggs that I have seen are a boring plain white, whereas our hens’ eggs come in many lovely shades of brown and beige and are sometimes lightly speckled.
Our hens also help us out by eating food scraps, such as dry bread, leftovers that no one wants to eat, ends of fruit, bits of fat, and over-ripe berries (they especially love blueberries!). This means that we waste less food and produce less garbage. Without the hens, much of this food would end up in the garbage, because not all of it can be composted. I’m sure the hens also appreciate some more variety in their diet, and in return, they give us eggs and manure, which we add to our compost. Even the eggshells can be useful. They can be composted, and crushed eggshells can also help to repel deer or can be fed back to the chickens, providing them with the calcium they need to produce more eggs.
Most of the time our hens live in a mobile coop in our backyard, and we move them to a new location in our yard every few days. This gives them fresh green grass to eat and helps to directly fertilize our yard (the grass quickly grows back, greener and lusher than before). And since their house is mobile, we can move them to sunny parts of the yard in winter and shady parts of the yard in summer. We also let them out on occasion, which gives them a chance to explore, stretch their wings, get some exercise, scratch and dust in the dirt, and hunt for worms.
Some of my favourite times are evenings spent watching the hens running around in the green grass in our backyard. I never grow tired of watching of them. They have their own language of clucks and drawn-out querying notes, which I love to imitate. They seem to follow a certain pattern of movements around the yard when they are let out – first to the flowerbeds, to peck and scratch in the dirt, then to the ground below the bird feeders, then roaming through the grass hunting for worms and anything else that catches their eyes. Sometimes in the morning I will peek into the window of their house, and see a hen settled into her nest, preparing to lay an egg. Each egg always feels like a marvel. Although we have long kept chickens, I feel like I appreciate them much more now than I ever did before.
Do you keep chickens, or have you ever done so?