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hens, what are they good for?

our red hen eating grass in between patches of snow

little red hen

Eric at Root Simple wrote a post last week wondering whether it made sense for them to be keeping chickens. I was surprised to read it: they wrote a whole book on "the Urban Homestead". And here I am going around saying that everyone should have at least a little flock—not least our friends who will soon be moving out here to the country slightly more spread out suburbs. So why do we keep chickens?

Reason 1: for eggs. We can get great local cage-free eggs at a reasonable price at the farm around the corner, or expensive pastured eggs at Whole Foods, or, seasonally, local super-expensive eggs at the farmers market. All of which are fine, but how much easier is it to be able to pick up hyper-local, free-range, sometimes-organic eggs right in our own backyard every morning? How much do we pay for them? Um, I'm not quite sure. But I don't think we pay much more than $30 in feed a month, and we're getting maybe 120 eggs per month this time of year, so around $3/dozen? We spent some money on the coop too, but not much, and a long time ago.

Reason 2: as pets. While our hens don't have names—well, not names that we know, anyway—we feel like they're not just livestock. Like, when they stop laying we'll be happy to keep feeding them in recognition of their service. And the boys would be more than happy to hold them and pet them, if they would ever let themselves be held and petted (I guess we didn't socialize them super well to people). I still don't like when they get in the house—but they're part of the full prayer-time roster ("...and Rascal, and the chickens").

Reason 3: as lifestyle accessories. Seriously! We can't call ourselves suburban homesteading hippies if we don't have chickens around the place. And they really liven up the property: visiting kids and people walking by on the street alike seem to appreciate them.

our different-colored hens eating spilled scratch

bad photo, pretty hens

Even the work involved in their care is a positive in my book. Sometimes I even wish there were more of it!

Of course, there are downsides. The permitting process in our town is a little annoying (not to mention costly). And this time of year, as the hens' wake-up call inches backwards past 6 am, I sometimes wish I could feel a little less like a farmer. But never for long. One issue I've heard from a lot of people is trouble with predators, but we've been lucky in that regard. I built the coop pretty secure, with multiple latches to the doors... but in all our years of chicken keeping I don't think we've seen any serious attempt to break in (and now Harvey leaves the nesting box lid unlatched almost every day). We have lost two hens to hawks over the years, but that doesn't seem unreasonable. Maybe Rascal keeps away other potential—more persistent—predators.

So while I won't say categorically that you should get chickens... if you've got any sort of yard at all, I don't see any reason why you shouldn't.


I love our chickens, but it'll take a while to break even, if that was what we were trying to do. I think the one mistake we made was trying to increase the size of the flock too quickly. When we were given 4 extra hens, we had all kinds of behaviour problems from our hens. They put a lot more effort into going into our garden beds, for example, despite being well fenced out, and kept coming into the house. Eug got very cross with them. When we sent 4 to live with our neighbour (who had been buying those hens eggs anyways) and the behaviour problems all resolved.

While we don't have predator problems with the hens, we do have a very clever mongoose who comes and steals eggs— the only alternative would be to shut the chickens up all the time, so we just live with it and hope that, in the scheme of things, we'll get better at it and our kids will be better farmers than we are. So yes! I love chickens.

Yeah.. I don't mind that much them coming into the house, since they never stay long, but their persistence in getting into the garden is annoying. Now that our garlic is starting to come up (!!!) I want them to stay out, so I've been working on the fencing—adding a string along the top of the fence so they can't fly up to perch on it then down the other side. But there are still spots they're sneaking in, so boo.

From a purely economic standpoint, I don't really know if we're breaking even either. The initial permitting was pretty expensive, and I didn't account for that. On the other hand, the good eggs at Whole Foods are $4.99 a half dozen, so we're definitely beating that.

And I was explaining to someone at work today that I don't worry about the kids eating our cookie dough because I know our eggs are good.

I can't imagine dealing with mongooses (mongeese?). Would a dog help keep them away?

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