5 Crazy Things That Occur When You Raise Backyard Chickens


by Leah Zerbe, an online editor at Rodalenews.com.

I lived a pretty dysfunctional farm life growing up. The fields were filled with corn or soy commodity crops, not delicious, nourishing people food. My late grandfather’s pigsty and chicken coop were long-abandoned and falling apart, and no one particularly cared to fix them up. The farm was livestock-less, gardenless, and for all intents and purposes, we were living like your run-of-the-mill suburban family who just happened to be plopped onto a 65-acre chunk of land. In full disclosure, I did not learn how to plant a tomato until I was 27 years old.

None of this seemed particularly odd to me until I moved away, and lived in Philadelphia for several years, and started paying more attention to where my food came from. Then, the miracle: Harvest Local Foods’ Meet Your Farmer Day!

Once I shook the hand that harvested my rutabaga, it was a done deal. In less than a year and a half, my husband and I were living back on the farm, figuring out how to grow and harvest three acres of vegetables by hand, and, perhaps most rewardingly, raising about 40 amazing, entertaining chickens for eggs. Because of just one meaningful afternoon, I permanently traded in a life of fancy city restaurant dinners and Coach handbags for a life of dealing with dirt and chicken crap. And life is good!

Greg’s thinking, “Wait, I thought you were just a cat lady when I proposed to you.”

Learning to farm would not be nearly as fun if it weren’t for our small flock of heritage breed chickens.

(Note: This post isn’t going to explain how to raise chickens; there’s plenty of that on Rodalenews.com. This is about how raising chickens changes you!)

Here are 5 ways backyard chickens change your life:

1. You’re scared shi*less.

Sure, they’re just tiny fuzz balls of chirping cuteness. But day-old chicks are scary! It’s up to you to keep them alive, and I obsessed over this fact for a full two weeks. I didn’t sleep, partially due to the fact that we set up the brooder in a nearby spare bedroom. “Wait! Was that a distressed chirp? Is one hurt? Is one being crushed by the freak show Jersey Giant chick? Are they drinking enough water?”

You learn to wipe caked crap off of their backsides (otherwise, it can become plugged up and they die), sometimes you hold them until they fall asleep in your palm, and you generally just fall in love your flock in those first few days. Dark circles develop under your eyes. It feels like you’re a sleep-deprived new mom. You are. It’s worth it.

This same wave of uneasiness may return in a few weeks when you move the gawky, feathered, teenage version of the chicks into an outdoor coop. But eventually, you chill, and learn to appreciate the fact that your chickens are living better than 99 percent of chickens on the planet.

He’s not dead, he’s just sleeping.

2. You’re hypnotized.

Once you get over the fear of killing your chickens, you can relax a bit and enjoy them. Kelly Coyne, co-author of the upcoming book Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World, once told me her backyard chickens were “hypnotic.” She’s right. Expect household and garden productively to temporarily drop off—you’ll want to sneak over to your chickens, listen to all of their noises, and watch them grow and develop a small society amid the coop and your back yard.

3. You start to humanize them.

OK, here’s where it gets a bit weird. (And please, people, I’m hoping you all do the same with your chickens, or this might just be awkward!) Because chickens are so hypnotic, you spend a lot of time watching them. In fact, watching chickens became the default form of entertainment for my friends and me. During the first summer, we’d mix up a few cosmos, pull out lawn chairs, and try to pinpoint which human each chicken reminded us of…here are a few:

This Polish rooster was flamboyant and overly dramatic, and he reminded us of my cross-dressing former Philly hairstylist, Jason. When this chicken would run, it honestly looked like he was dashing about like a large man in high heels.

This little lady looked like a gawky teenager who was a clumsy freshman on the high school basketball team.

We couldn’t help but ID the frizzle rooster (above) as the chicken version of a Mummer, a Philadelphia tradition that involves musicians dressed in elaborate, showy costumes. To the right is a little stout, silkie hen. She looks like she’s straight out of the 80s and should be wearing a stonewashed jean jacket, and maybe a white Michael Jackson glove.

Yo buddy

4. Hens turn into roosters.

Here is something you really need to prepare yourself for…the worst-case scenario. We ordered zero roosters, and wound up with 10. That meant that one quarter of my flock would turn into aggressive, horny, out-of-control maniacs. That’s too many roosters per hens, and we had some tough decisions to make. When I ordered the hens, I didn’t envision having to ever kill any of them, but we decided to butcher five when I returned from a work trip. As if sent by the rooster gods, I ran into vegan activist Alicia Silverstone the day before we were set to butcher five of our 10 ornery roosters, took it as a sign, and by some luck, found a larger pastured chicken operation that actually needed a few good roos. We were able to avert slaughter. Do NOT count on this outcome. Be prepared to separate excess roosters, or be ready to eat them. Be prepared to be attacked from time to time, too. I have the scars on my leg to prove it.

I was supposed to be a Polish hen…

“…now I’m all grown up, and I attack my owner every day.”

5. You start seeing chickens as gateway livestock.

Once you get the hang of raising chickens, you start to think about bringing other farm animals into the mix. For us, that meant adopting three goats as the chief organic weed management team at Potter’s Farm. They LOVE multiflora rose, a thorny invasive, and delight in eating poison ivy. Even if you live in a city, you don’t have to limit yourself to backyard chickens. If you need inspiration (and a good laugh), read Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.


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85 Responses to 5 Crazy Things That Occur When You Raise Backyard Chickens

  1. James Early April 26, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Hey Leah, Thanks for sharing your chicken stories. I’m going to forward this to my friends who raise chickens. I have not yet bit the bullet.

  2. Candace Walsh April 26, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    Leah, your post is hilarious! Thank you for sharing your experience. I would love to raise chickens, but my partner is not about it : ) I satisfy myself by giving my organic juicer pulp to my friend who raises chickens, and they love it! The eggs taste great–my friends give me their extras.

  3. Sadhvi April 26, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    Leah, your post was so enjoyable. My husband wanted chickens, so he build a house for them, complete with an automatic door so we didn’t have to feel bad about sleeping in. I named them all after my mom, Sally, so besides loving them, I get such a kick out of calling them and have them all come running! Chickens are something that I have come to enjoy, something that I didn’t think would happen!

  4. Leah Z. April 26, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Hi everybody! I’m so glad you like the post. I was nervous to raise chickens, but it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. And of course, they continue to hypnotize me. In fact, I was a bit late for work this morning because I was watching them hunt for earthworms after an overnight rain. The roosters actually pull them out of the ground and toss them over to the hens. It’s cute! Now if I could just get that one to stop attacking me…

  5. Lacy April 26, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    Oh, Leah, I am living vicariously through your escapades! What a great post! We DID think about some chickens in the heart of St. Petersburg, getting as far as learning they are allowed, but after babysitting a brood of tilapia for a friend, we opted for the swimming pool and the organic citrus trees for the mimosas while floating in the pool. Keep up the fun posts!

  6. bethany April 26, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    I loved this. I SO want chickens, but am scared to death! I hope one day I’ll have the guts to get them.


  7. Leah Z. April 26, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    @bethany Read a few good books, find a mentor in your area who raises chickens, and then take the plunge! You won’t regret it 🙂

    Books I love:
    City Chicks by Patricia Foreman
    Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens (3rd Edition) by Gail Damerow

    And here’s a peep story we recently wrote and posted on Rodale.com: http://www.rodale.com/baby-chicks

    Of course, we’re always here to try to answer any questions you may have, too!

  8. Christiane April 26, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    ooooh, yeah, you are so right.

    since last year I have 6 Altsteirer- chicken and 1 rooster—and I love them ;o))

  9. Carilyn April 26, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    Stupid question but — how do you deal with the chickens in the winter? I’m assuming you don’t bring them in the house just because it’s cold outside but do they require some kind of heating device where they’re kept? Is this dangerous to them (or to people)? Stupid question #2: do they require veterninary care?

  10. Leah Z. April 26, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    @Carilyn We tried to select breeds that would better be able to handle our colder Pennsylvania winters…so that’s the first step…find climate appropriate (preferably heritage) breeds. I only used a heat lamp on a handful of nights when it dropped below zero, and I am not totally sure that was necessary. We reused some greenhouse plastic and wrapped it around the wooden coop to make sure there were no drafts (but still kept ventilation open at the top of the coop), and that seems to help. They huddle together and stay warm. Some people put the coop up against an existing garage or home to help block winter winds, too.

    Most vets don’t know how to deal with chickens. The key is to raise chickens with healthy immune systems. Rodale.com columnist Jean Nick, aka the Nickel Pincher, taught me to give the chickens raw goat milk at a young age to build their immune systems. I also make sure they have fresh pasture by moving them every two weeks to fresh grass, supplement with Molly’s Herbals Immune Boost tincture, and add a little Bragg’s vinegar to their water. They are super healthy! If one does get sick, you just separate them (maybe in a dog crate) and treat accordingly. Gail Damerow also write a Chicken Health Handbook that’s a nice reference, and there are many herbal remedies online. Hope this helps! -Leah

  11. Carilyn April 26, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    Thanks Leah…a little more prep work, and I may get this started soon!

  12. Leah Z. April 26, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    Great, Carilyn! We’re here for support if you need it. You’ll love it!

  13. DedeJoy April 26, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    6. Your neighbors will have to help chase your chickens home to roost.

    My neighbor (two doors down) keeps chickens in his yard. He had to eat the rooster because it was waking up the other neighbors. I liked the rooster and didn’t mind his crowing in the mornings. I thought it was kinda cool to hear that sound in the middle of the city. Sometimes, his chickens get out. I have drafted my dogs into service to help me herd them back home again. Good times, chasing the neighbor’s chickens down the street.

  14. Leah Z. April 26, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    DedeJoy…I hope your neighbors are giving you free eggs!

  15. Theresa Loe April 26, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    Excellent post Leah! I’m so glad you are writing about this as it is something near and dear to my heart as well. As you know, I just produced an entire episode of Growing A Greener World TV on the subject so that we can get more people turned on to the subject. It is especially great for kids to have a better connection to nature, earth and their food source.

    Please keep posting on your chicken adventures!

  16. Kalikai Farm April 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Everything you write has been so true with my first experience raising chickens this spring. Out of the half dozen chicks I got to start, one turned out to be a rooster (so far, a sweet boy; however, the spur nubs are definitely there!).

    They’re about 9 weeks old now and have transitioned out into the coop already. Each day of their lives so far, I’ve been very deliberate about handling them individually. Some are more “flighty” than others, so extra attention is given to them.

    Just this morning, I sat leaning against a walnut tree, watching them scratch and peck in the yard. You are right — they are hypnotizing; before I realized it, half of the morning was gone!

    I’m having so much fun! And, I figure, by mid summer, I’ll have some eggs to show for it all.

  17. Judy Songer April 26, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    Enjoyed the article. Chickens ARE the gateway animal. We are now raising chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and rabbits all on our urban acre. Their care and the gardens have made me one busy lady, but hey, I don’t have to pay for a gym membership anymore.

  18. Ken April 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    Wow, I felt like I was reading something I wrote myself. I, too, moved from center city Philadelphia to the country and got my first chickens last spring. Everything you say is 100% true. The one point I would add is that chicken keeping is highly addictive. Once you raise a few, you quickly want more. I started with 25. I let a broody hen hatch 5 more over the winter and just bought another 12. Now, I just have to resolve my mean rooster issue. Thanks for a great piece

  19. Duane April 26, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    Humanize them- for sure. We named our 3 silkies Missy, Prissy and Sissy. They were named after Missy Ellior, the Prissy character in Blade Runner and Prissy was, well, just prissy.

  20. Angie April 26, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    Leah is right, give in to a few chickens and it is a slippery slope to full mini-farm. If you have an addictive personality beware. I started with 2 roosters and 1 hen that I accepted from a neighor without much thought. I now have 40 chickens, 15 ducks, a donkey, a pair of sheep and 2 lambs. My husband and I seriously consider separate vacations because we worry so when we are gone. Don’t even ask about the vet bill. I have killed my own chickens but paid $36.00 to have a hen’s leg set because I felt guilty when she got in the line of fire of a overgrown zuchinni I was launching from the garden, named Zuchinni, of course.

  21. susan s April 26, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    Love your tale–but when you said “hens turn into roosters” I thought you might have meant it literally–it happened in our flock! A while after we lost our rooster, one of our hens started to actually physically become a rooster: comb, wattles, spurs and even began to crow–as well as being more aggressive….so, so weird!

  22. Jessica April 26, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    So very true.

  23. Jen April 27, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    Chickens and children also mix very well! My daughter had the choice between a Belgian Horse or a chicken for her third birthday and she chose the chicken! It was adopted as an old layer and in no time she had it eating out of her hand and taught it to put its beak down so she could plant kisses on it. We had to move away from the farm but I still dream of the day I can enjoy some chickens again!

  24. Amanda April 27, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    Anyone near the Lehigh Valley area of PA on May 14th should come on out to the Rodale Institute for our Eggs from Your Backyard workshop: http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/node/2584. It is just one of the workshops taking place during out Spring Open House: http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/spring_open_house_2011. See you at the farm!

  25. Terry Golson April 27, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    I like to say that having chickens is like having the ocean in your backyard, it’s always busy, but at the same time mesmerizingly calming. For those of you without your own flock, you can see mine at http://www.HenCam.com. And I have day-old chicks in a brooder, here! http://bit.ly/eBQQV8 BTW, yes, they are a gateway drug to other livestock. I’ve got goats, too. Luckily, or not, no room for more animals with hooves.

  26. Lori Weber April 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    We live in a small farming community. Our village is very small and we are surrounded by farms, although we live in a modern subdivision. One of our neighbors wanted to start raising chickens in her back yard, which is completely fenced in, and our village board declined her request because of the fear of bringing in the coyotes closer to our subdivision. Some of us are very disappointed that our village board is not progressive enough to recognize all of the benefits of raising backyard chickens.

  27. Melissa April 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    Wow! You could not have said it better. All those things have happened to me over the past year! I can completely relate!! Come visit sometime and meet the girls and boy!


  28. Leah Z. April 27, 2011 at 9:48 pm #

    Hi Lori! The book City Chicks lays out strong arguments as to why your community should allow chickens. Also, there are web resources that help w/chicken ordinances, too! I don’t know…portable electric fencing might deter coyotes…good luck!

  29. Weavers Of Antelope Ca April 27, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

    We were told if we just had a bunch of random chickens and didn’t name them we wouldn’t think of them as pets. Well it was too late we brought home seven one was named Random.

    We had to take two back they ended up being roosters. Dr Von No Name and Scarlet (Scar) we get to see them every day and I am still attached.

    The others Two Toes, Random, Racer, Tracker and Trillion are so entertaining. They are teens and know their names. They come running very morning to see us.

    It’s like living in a fish bowel they look in our bedroom window and watch us. They stare in the sliding glass door when we entertain.

    I love being a back yard chicken mom.

  30. Cheryl Forberg RD April 28, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    thanks for the fabulous blog Leah! I am just beginning my own Green Acres adventure (though goats are my gateway) : )

  31. Lori W April 28, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Thanks for the info. I am definitely getting that book and passing in on to a friend of mine who sits on the village board. My parents just brought home their first batch of baby chicks last night and after just reading these posts it’s infectious. Now I want some chics in my back yard.

  32. Dawn September 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    I have a fun little flock of hens & L.O.V.E. love, love them! We have 2 Delaware, 2 Blue Bearded Banties, 1 Rhode Island Red, 1 Buff Orphington, & 1 Black Star. Our girls have provided us with endless hours of delight. Sure, the chores are icky, but the rewards are phenominal. We love the fresh eggs daily & every one of our girls is full of personality They enjoy walking around the garden with us and they chat up a storm. We have encouraged several of our friends & neighbors to get some bok bok boks too… very special little critters…. 🙂

  33. Crystal Brown December 12, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    This is sooooo fun! We just started our little chicken farm this Spring and it has been very rewarding. We let them roam around free and they have become “neighborhood chickens”. They neighbors worry about them as much as I do!!! We currently have one of our little babies recooperating from a broken leg. You do really get attached!

  34. Tammy April 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    SO glad I found your story. We are getting ready to embark on our chicken journey. My husband is finally coming around to the idea, even he’s worried about histoplasmosis ( poor guy works in the ER), My 3 kiddos are so excited they can’t contain themselves, my family and friends thinks I’m nuts and going through an early mid life crisis ( I’m 33), and My neighborhood is against chickens. I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle, I’m excited and nervous at the idea of getting them, we are only getting 3 Road Islands, and of course scared of the neighborhood finding out, but I do know of a few neighbors that have them too, so that’s comforting.

    Thank you again!!

  35. Jeremy Anderson June 21, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    John Lewis, the Congressman from Georgia and a major figure in the Civil Rights movement used to preach to his chickens when he was a child. He went on to quite a career, so maybe there’s even more to these chickens than we suspect.

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