When I was growing up in Iowa, my “alarm clocks” in the morning were roosters crowing and meadow larks greeting the dawn from their nests in the clover field in back of our house. It’s a sweet memory and such a lovely way to start the day. Now some folks are annoyed by the rusty, raucous sound of a rooster’s crow, but I like it. It’s a quintessential farm sound. And when I hear a rooster crow or chickens clucking, my heart warms. My mind conjures visions of sun rays at dawn, the bustle of animals in the farmyard, even the smell of fresh-mown hay and clean country air.
There is a romance around chickens that hearkens back to our roots as a country and farm life. Chickens were an essential staple on the farm and the frontier, for both eggs and meat, and served double-duty as pets for pioneer children. Back then, they were the ultimate "free range" chickens, free to run and scratch on the open range.
Today, there are fewer and fewer farm kids growing up in the world but, luckily, a lot of people are still hearing roosters crowing in the morning—even in the middle of cities—due to the wild popularity of raising chickens. Many municipalities across the country have even changed their zoning laws to allow city dwellers to raise chickens in their small city backyards.
There are lots of reasons folks want to raise chickens these days: the farm to table movement has really grown and consumers of eggs and/or chickens want to know their meat is coming from healthy sources. The humanity to animals movement has moved consumers to care about the conditions under which livestock is raised. Some folks just want to have a steady source of eggs for their family. Some parents want their children to grow up with animals and the responsibility of raising them. And some folks just like chickens as pets. (Believe it or not, they are affectionate and responsive pets.)
The domesticated chicken is more common that any wild or domesticated bird in the world—there were about 23.7 billion on the globe in 2018. They are a subspecies of the red junglefowl of Southeast Asia. From those wildfowl well over 500 types of chickens have been developed ranging from tiny to gigantic, black to white, brown to blue, purple and red, feathered tails 20 feet long to no tail feathers at all, immense fluff balls hardly recognizable as chickens at all, to chickens completely devoid of feathers. Humans have developed chicken breeds as diverse as the canine species.
Strangely, historians and archeologists now believe that humans first developed chicken breeds for cockfighting in Asia, India, north Africa, and Europe. Historians still debate how early chickens were domesticated. But very recent genome studies reveal that chickens may have been domesticated about 8,000 years ago, in southern China in 6,000 B. C. It’s believed that chickens were finally developed for food around 1,400 B.C.
Male chickens are known as roosters in the U.S. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and in the UK and Ireland as cocks. Castrated males are called capons. Males less than a year old are called cockerels, females less than a year old, pullets. And, finally, the babies are called chicks. Chickens generally live five to ten years, depending upon the breed.
Chickens are very social flock animals and they are communal in the incubation process of eggs and chicks. Members of the flock work out a “pecking order” and the dominant members eat first and choose their nesting preferences. Hens will sit on each other’s eggs and often fight over preferred nesting areas that may have eggs from several different mothers. Hens have also been known to steal eggs from other nests.
The rooster serves not only to inseminate eggs to hatch into chicks, but also as a guard and protector for the hens. He is also often very gentlemanly in finding food for them, then calling out alerting them to the food source. He will watch for predators in the sky or on the ground and alert hens when there is danger in the area. Hens, too, have been known to flock together to defend their nests or chicks against predators such as foxes or even hawks, pecking the intruder to death. But, far more often, it is the predator that wins.
Eggs generally take about 21 days to hatch. When the eggs are ready to hatch, the hen hears the chick stirring inside the egg and she softly clucks encouragement to the chick. The chick is born with an “egg tooth” used for breaking a breathing hold in the egg. But this takes immense energy, so the chick then rests, still inside the egg and consumes the remaining egg yolks and blood supply from the inside membrane to gain strength, then will break out of the egg shell. Hens are fiercely protective of their chicks and will protect them for several weeks.
Certain breeds were developed for meat, called broilers, or eggs, called layer hens. For broilers, chickens were selected for very fast growing, so a broiler raised under industrial conditions in which growth hormones, antiobiotics and grain feeding in very crowded conditions can produce chickens ready for slaughter in less than six weeks. Free-range and organic broilers will usually require about 14 weeks.
Egg laying breeds have been bred for their prodigious egg-laying habits. Some breeds can produce more than 300 eggs annually. The record is 371 eggs in 364 days. Intensive commercial egg laying concerns are hard on hens and their health and egg-laying ability declines. They lose most of their feathers and their life expectancy is dramatically reduced from a life span average of seven years to less than two years. In Europe and the UK, laying hens are slaughtered and used in processed foods. But in some other countries, especially the U.S., hens areforce moulted to improve their egg laying again. This is done by withdrawing food and sometimes water for 7-14 days. The starvation causes the hen to lose all her feathers but also starts laying eggs again, mostly out of a survival mode. According to the World’s Poultry Science Journal, about 80% of flocks in large-scale industrial houses in the U.S. were force-moulted today.
Chickens are generally very social and inquisitive, and contrary to some popular beliefs, very intelligent. Studies the last several decades have revealed that chickens are much more intelligent that ever imagined and that they can even perform simple arithmetic. Just like most animals, individual chickens have unique personalities. Some breeds are especially gentle and docile and show affection, such as Silkies and bantam varieties, and make good pets, especially for children.
Because Americans have started to discover the merits of chickens, especially as pets, chicken raising is now one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the United States. In 2018, more than 1% of American households raised chickens, including many urban families. In the last two decades numerous American cities have changed their zoning restrictions to accommodate families who want to raise chickens in metro areas.
One of the favorite parts of the chicken raising hobby is building a chicken coop. Chicken coops now come in an amazing variety (see photo montage) of fanciful designs. Structures once shacks are now chateaus, coops are castles, hen houses now whimsical havens.
The basic ingredients for a successful coop are simple: a roof, four walls, proper ventilation, water, nesting boxes, perches for roosting, a dirt box for the chickens to scratch and “bathe” in, and a grass expanse to feed and stretch their legs in. It’s helpful to have a larger enclosed pen that has wire mesh on top to keep predators out. Many coops are now on wheels (called “chicken tractors”) so they can be moved periodically to provide the chickens with new grass and bugs and keep them healthy. All the while, your chickens are providing wonderful fertilizer for your lawn. It is a noble pursuit, building a chicken coop. As the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright said: "Regard it as just as desirable to build a chicken house as to build a cathedral.”
Here’s a fun video, “Raising Chickens 101:”
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-The Wild Turkey
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