In recent years, in rural and even urban yards across the US, there has been a surge in popularity of the once nearly forgotten backyard chicken. To those in the know, this is a case of the general population finally seeing the light. Others are left scratching their heads even as they watch the chickens scratch in the dirt. What, exactly, is the appeal of keeping chickens?
Of course, keeping chickens is hardly new. The best evidence suggests chickens were domesticated about 8,000 years ago, in Asia. They spread worldwide and were a staple of most civilizations that have developed since. Chickens were a common sight in the US from the Mayflower right through two world wars. But with the growth of the middle class, keeping chickens began to seem, well, low-class, something only country bumpkins would do. Once all but a necessity even in urban yards, communities across the US began to pass ordinances banning chickens. With the rise in factory farming pushing the prices of eggs and meat down, keeping one's own chickens became not only frowned upon by the neighbors, but less economically necessary as well.
That is, until recently. Two factors have come together to draw America back to the backyard chicken, but they come down to the same issue: sustainability. Although factory farming offers low prices in the grocery store, more and more people are recognizing the hidden costs factory farming brings to the environment and our health, as well as the animals involved. In the long run, factory farming is unsustainable. And with the recession, more families are looking to increase their own self-sustainability, and are beginning to see the value of growing and raising their own food. Not only cost-effective, self-sustainability can reap additional rewards. The value difference between spending an hour in the garden or an hour watching cable TV is not just about saving pennies.
Why chickens, though? As livestock goes, chickens are among the simplest, and can be kept on the smallest scale. A few square feet of coop and a small pen will keep two or three hens happy. And chickens require little more than a once-daily trip to the coop to feed, water, and gather eggs. Even that can be skipped if you plan ahead, unlike milking a cow. Yet chickens can also provide some of the greatest rewards of all livestock.
There are, of course, the eggs. It only takes a few mature hens to keep a family in eggs. Not just any eggs, but better eggs than any that can be bought at the grocery store. Healthy hens produce healthy eggs, higher in vitamin content and lower in cholesterol than those from factory farms. To get eggs, you need not keep a noisy rooster -- mature hens will produce eggs with or without a rooster around. This makes keeping a few hens for family egg production easy, and quiet, and perfectly suitable for any backyard in any community that allows them. And if your community doesn't? Bring it up with the city council. Municipalities across the nation are changing the rules to allow at least a few hens per household, and yours could be next.
Eggs are by far the most popular reason to keep chickens, but meat chickens, too, are gaining popularity in backyards across the nation. Birds raised on range -- that is, backyards -- produce healthier, more flavorful meat than those raised exclusively on grain-based feed. It is not only healthier, but kinder to raise one's own meat birds rather than support the cruel treatment of mass-produced chickens at factory farms. Slaughtering your own birds is not for the squeamish, but with backyard livestock become more popular, more and more small-scale slaughter facilities are going into business to serve the needs of small-scale farmers.
Not all of chicken-keeping is about producing food, though. To be sure, the eggs taste great, but for many, chickens are worth keeping just for themselves. Although not as friendly as dogs, they are also not as needy or demanding. A few people take keeping chickens as pets quite seriously, and there's now businesses happy to sell you indoor chicken cages, chicken harnesses and leashes, and chicken diapers! Even without going to this extreme, though, chickens make good company. Each chicken has her own distinct personality, and they have their own "language" as well, with different types and tones of clucking to communicate different thoughts to one another. Watching them go about their business is enjoyable and relaxing. Chickens can teach important life lessons, such as the importance of living in the moment, taking advantage of the sun while it's shining, and getting to the worm faster than the other guy.
They are beautiful, as well. If the word "chicken" brings to mind a scraggly white bird with ugly red wattles, you just haven't seen enough chickens! They come in dozens of different breeds and colors, ranging in size from one-pound bantams to fifteen-pound giant breeds. There are different feather types, different comb types, different colors of eggs, and different personalities. The hardest part, for many people, is deciding on just one -- or even just a few -- breeds. Many of these breeds, especially the small bantam breeds, are kept exclusively as pets or for their good looks. Raising purebred, show-quality chickens is an increasingly popular hobby, as is showing these birds at county and state fairs, and large national poultry shows. Breeding show chickens is much less complicated in many ways than showing cats or dogs, and there's no worry about contributing to pet overpopulation.
And if those benefits aren't great enough, there's more. Keeping a few chickens in the yard will drastically reduce the number of ticks and other harmful insects, especially if they have free range to get to them. If you have other livestock or horses, chickens will be happy to spread manure and keep a check on the fly population by eating fly larvae. They make great garbage disposals -- they will enthusiastically eat most kitchen waste, and it's good for them, too. And if you're an artist or fly-tier, you can do some lovely work with chicken feathers.
Naturally, keeping chickens isn't for everyone. With the rise in chicken popularity, there has also been a rise in people giving up their birds after deciding chickens just weren't for them. Some were hoping for a friendlier, more people-oriented "pet." Chickens are pleasant to have around, but rarely as affectionate as a dog or cat. Others found chickens to be too high-maintenance. Although certainly one of the easiest types of livestock to keep, they still require daily work. Going on vacation when you own chickens requires advanced planning -- there aren't boarding facilities for chickens, yet. And mucking out a coop is still a smelly, physical task. Chickens poop -- a lot. Whether you keep laying hens outdoors in their own coop, or cute bantams indoors in a bunny cage, dealing with this amount of excrement can be off-putting if you're not ready for it!
But if you're willing to put up with a little -- well, okay, a lot -- of chicken poo, you're almost certain to find some aspect of chicken-keeping that appeals to you. Whether eggs, meat, exotic breeds, the show ring and blue ribbons, an unusual pet, bug control, or just good company, chickens have a great deal to offer.