It’s the latest trend, but there’s more to becoming a backyard chicken-keeper than picking up some chicks and putting them in that old rabbit hutch, sitting empty since Old Hoppy died. It takes planning, money, and even a bit of soul-searching. Don’t misunderstand, introducing chickens to a garden makes sense on so many levels; a flock of hens milling around just outside the backdoor is a natural, time-honored extension of the kitchen. They’re feathered composters, egg-producers, pest-gobblers – they’ll even eat mice! – and garden fertilizers. But, all the benefits aside, backyard hens will cramp your freewheeling lifestyle, guaranteed, and the costs of establishing the coop and run can add up. Along with all the wonderful stuff keeping hens add to one’s life, there are some unpleasant realities to consider before your chickens come home to roost.
Cost: Figure on about $1,000 to get set up with a predator-proof coop and run, feed, first aid kit, books, and other accouterments. Soft-hearted chicken-keepers may see some pretty hefty vet bills down the road, too.
Predators: Everyone loves a chicken dinner! Depending on location, backyard hens are subject to predation from raccoons, skunks, possums, owls and hawks, coyotes, stray dogs, weasels, fishers and minks, snakes, in the South, ‘gators, and in the North, bears! You must do the homework, study coop designs and build a henhouse and run that is secure from above, the sides, and below. This means investing in strong materials, time, and labor. It also means that you may get a front row seat to the food chain in action…usually in the middle of the night.
Home Vet Care: Chickens die. A lot. They get sick and injured and drop dead in the night for no apparent reason. They become egg bound, their crops and feet get infected, and they get worms. To avoid spending a small fortune at the vet, stock up on some great books (I’ve written one!), put together a first aid kit, and prepare yourself for home chicken doctoring. This is where the soul-searching comes in: just how much kitchen surgery are you comfortable with? How easy will it be for you to euthanize your favorite hen, or worse, your kid’s favorite?
Keep these items on hand for at home chicken doctoring: All-natural non-stick/olive oil spray, antibiotic ointments, blood stop powder, dog nail clippers, Epsom salts, eye droppers, flashlight, gauze, hemorrhoid cream, needle and thread, Vaseline (petroleum jelly), wooden pop sticks or tongue depressors (for splints), electrolyte powder or drink, rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer, scalpels, self-adhesive would tape, syringes and hypodermics of different sizes, toothbrush, tweezers, scissors, veterinarian antibiotics, and oil of oregano.
Vacations: Finding a hen sitter can be challenging, so you may have to say goodbye to spontaneous weekend getaways.
Still want backyard hens? Great! Spring is a perfect time to get started.
Choose a location: A spot that is far enough from the neighbors so as not to disturb them, and close enough to the house so that the route in winter from kitchen to coop isn’t tiresome. Under a tree is nice for some shade in the summer heat, but it will also be easy access from above for predators, so keep that in mind.
High Fences: Don’t get hens unless your property is fenced in all around, from ground-level to a height of about six feet. It’s vital to keep the hens in your yard and out of the neighbors’ yards, and gardens, and pools, and…well, you get the idea. A fat, well-fed hen isn’t likely to roam or try to scale a tall fence, but for extra assurance, wing-clipping is a good idea in that first season, until they’re totally sold on calling your yard home.
Cock-a-Doodle-DON’T!: Do not get a rooster, unless you live out in the country. They’re noisy, can crow thought the night and all day long, and everyone for about a three block radius will hate you. And no, you do not need a rooster to get eggs. A hen will produce eggs (ovulate) without a rooster hanging around causing trouble.
The Garden Dilemma: Backyard hens are great for the garden. They kill pest bugs, dig up cutworms, gobble up slugs, weed seeds and sprouts, all while dropping nitrogen-rich fertilizer as they go. However, they love to eat garden produce as much as we do, so letting a gang of feathered hoodlums into your posies and vegetable patch can end in heartache. Fences, wire cages and bell jars can protect what grows in the garden.
Rent a Hen: Why not try the hen-keeping lifestyle on for size? There are a few services that will set you up with coop, hens, and feed for the summer, so you can see how it fits. After a few months, you can send them back or keep them. Rent the Chicken has branches throughout the U.S. and a few in Canada.
Pets with Benefits: That’s what backyard hens are, and they do take some time, money, and effort. But, just watching the wonder on a kid’s face, collecting a freshly laid egg, experiencing the taste of a real egg, or snuggling with a lap-hen (there’s one in every flock)—it’s all so worth it.
The Best Eggs Ever: No eggs will ever taste as good or be as fresh as the ones laid by your very own flock of backyard hens. In the summertime, you may have more eggs than you know what to do with. Here’s a recipe perfect for any meal of the day…
Sweet Lingonberry Jam Omelette
Serves 2 for dessert or breakfast
Recipe by Signe Langford, courtesy of Douglas & McIntyre
- ¼ cup (60 mL) homemade or excellent-quality store-bought lingonberry jam, at room temperature
- ⅓ cup (80 mL) mascarpone, at room temperature
- 1 Tbsp (15 mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3 free-run eggs, separated
- 2 Tbsp (30 mL) super-fine vanilla sugar, divided
- Pinch fine sea salt
- 2 Tbsp (30 mL) butter, divided
- 2 tsp (10 mL) icing sugar for garnish (optional)
In a medium bowl, add the jam, mascarpone and lemon juice and stir well to fully combine. Set aside.
Place egg yolks and 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of the vanilla sugar in a medium bowl and whisk until pale, creamy and beginning to thicken.
Place egg whites in a large bowl that has been wiped out with a drop of lemon juice and a clean kitchen towel. Add the remaining tablespoon (15 mL) sugar and a pinch of salt, and using electric beaters or a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the whites until stiff peaks form.
Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whites into the yolks until well combined, being careful not to collapse the whites.
Place a 10- to 12-inch (25- to 30- cm) skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of the butter, melt and swirl around the skillet. Pour in the egg mixture and spread out to the edges, patting it down a bit. Cook for about 2 to 3 minutes, or until the eggs look just set. Do not let the omelette brown.
Using either an offset spatula or egg flipper, slide around the edges and underneath to make sure there are no stuck bits. When you’re sure the omelette is loose, set a plate on top of the skillet and flip it over; the omelette should drop onto the plate. Wait a second and listen for the soft “plunk”!
Return the skillet to the heat and add the remaining butter; melt and swirl the butter, then slip the omelette back into the skillet. Continue to cook for about 2 to 3 minutes, or until the egg looks just set.
While the second side is cooking, spoon the jam-mascarpone filling over one half of the omelette. Tip the skillet, and with the help of a spatula, slip the omelette onto a serving platter, then fold the omelette in half. It won’t be perfect—it shouldn’t be perfect—the filling should be peeking out suggestively!
Dust with icing sugar if you care to and serve immediately.
Photos by Signe Langford