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October 26, 2014
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The homestead flock

Chickens make good beginners’ birds if you’re looking to raise some of your own food, whether just to harvest eggs, or for roasted chicken or homemade chicken soup.
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Chickens are both equally endearing and horrifying in turns. We have roosters that will cover hens with their wings on cold nights while their combs shrivel from frostbite and a few friendly girls who will come loping over for treats. We have motherly brood hens that defend their eggs with raptor-like squawks and beak stabs that require gloves. On the other hand, hens (and chicks) will peck an injured comrade to death should a tempting flesh wound appear, or the temperature in their quarters becomes too hot/crowded/boring, or they just feel like it. While a hierarchical pecking order is natural, keep a careful watch out for bullies. These need to become chicken soup pronto, unless you like coming home from work to scenes of cannibalized carnage.

While it is true that chickens are technically susceptible to a host of gruesome deaths, they are not fragile hothouse flowers. The key is to meet your chickens’ food, shelter and behavioral needs as efficiently, cheaply, yet healthily as possible. This means being fastidious about a few simple things: clean water, frequent moves to fresh ground, and predator-proof but not airtight shelter. We have had chickens recover from extremely splayed legs due to nutrient deficiencies, mink bites to the neck, and run-of-the-mill sniffles. We have also lost some to the same. In our opinion, there are few chicken emergencies (apart from disease outbreaks) that require calling a veterinarian. Once mature, chickens are remarkably resilient.

Lastly, every day as you admire Mrs. Fluffybutt the Jersey Giant or Mr. Flappy the Rooster cooing and clucking around your yard, remind yourself of the primary purpose of your homestead flocks as first and foremost a source of sustenance. A particularly friendly pet bird here or there is fine (I admit to having one or two), or if setting a place at the table for a bathed and diapered Henrietta is your thing, well, I guess that’s fine, too. But here we are concerned with managing a primarily utilitarian homestead flock. They will eat you out of house and home if you find yourself not up to the task come butchering day.

[The Templetons keep a flock of 40 to 70 heritage breed chickens at their Sugar Street “Farmden” in Bethany, PA.]

Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from “On Track,” the newsletter of Transition Honesdale (July/August 2011)