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July 24, 2014
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The homestead flock

Motherly brood hens will defend not only their chicks but also their eggs, so wearing gloves to harvest eggs may be helpful.

By Amanda Avery Templeton and Billy Templeton

Like any new parents, we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Standing in the post office, the incessant, frantic peeping coming from the box, which seemed way too small to contain 50 baby chicks, suggested that our free-wheeling, home-after-dusk days were over. Like many beginning “neo-homesteaders” these days, we began our foray into livestock husbandry with that seemingly fool-proof barnyard staple—Gallus gallus domesticus—the chicken.

After a few minor tragedies that we now consider inevitable rites of passage for chicken keepers, including the sad, but often correctable “splay-leg” chick, the totally preventable suffocation by “pile-up,” the unfortunate neighborhood dog pullet chow-down and one horrifying nocturnal marmot rampage, we’re now solidly in a more confident and comfortable stage of poultry parenting, but it didn’t come easy. This is not to say that chickens aren’t wonderful beginners’ birds; they are. There are many things to consider when starting your own homestead flock.

Like many people today, if you didn’t grow up with your Sunday dinner clucking around the back door or have a grandmother who could whack, pluck, and cook a bird faster than you could stop at the store for a Tyson rotisserie dinner, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the details. Today, since chicken keeping has become not just a good idea, but fashionable as well, there are copious books and websites to assuage your newbie frets and hand wringing. But that is not what this is about. This is about the nuances that only come from learning the very best way there is: the newbie hard way. Let us put it nicely and call them Chicken Quirks. (To be clear: I love my chickens.)

The first thing to understand is that chicken habits can often be both a tremendous benefit as well as an infuriating liability. For instance, a few hens scratching and fluffing around will pretty up a suburban yard with minimal damage to landscaping; more than a handful will totally decimate your marigold bed, your mulched shrubs, your kid’s sandbox and for absolute certainty any type of vegetable garden you dare tempt them with. Simply put, a fully realized chicken will scratch. They will eat ticks, but they will gladly de-root/de-foliate to do so. “Free-range” is great, but be sure to fence them out of areas you’d like to keep intact.