“I was up all night with a sick chicken,” my friend Dawn tells me one morning. “Blanche was in such distress that I put her in her crate and took her to our bedroom. Then she got too hot; I had to return her to the coop.”
“She looks fine now,” I say, as I watch her strutting around the fresh sawdust-covered floor. This light-filled and spacious room is the home of Clementine, Blanche, Millie, Cinnamon, Penelope and Guinevere — the beloved pet chickens of Dawn and Todd.
Before I can ask what one does with a sick chicken, Dawn continues: “I found a vet who specializes in avian medicine at Quarry Ridge Veterinary in Ridgefield, so I took her there.”
There is more to this story, I think. “What prompted you to get into raising chickens?” I ask.
“Todd and I wanted pets,” Dawn says. “He has a farming background, and I have allergies. We were looking at the baby chicks for sale at Copia Home and Garden, when one jumped up on Todd’s arm. That’s all it took for us to fall in love with raising them as our pets.”
“Not for the eggs?” I ask.
“They’re just a bonus,” Dawn says.
“We bought them when they were one-week-old,” Todd recounts. “They weren’t hardy enough or old enough to live outdoors, so we converted a screened-in porch behind our house into an indoor coop with a radiant heat panel. It takes a slight edge off the cold. During the day they wander around; at dusk, they walk up the small slanted ladder to roost.”
Next year will be different. Todd’s in the process of building an outdoor coop with a run. It will have sturdy fencing around, under and above to protect the chickens from predators.
This young couple is bringing back an American tradition of sustainability. “Some people like to raise chickens as a hobby,” says Jenn Cipriano, co-owner of Copia Home and Garden in South Salem, N.Y. “They’re easier than dogs or cats. You can go away and leave them for a few days as long as they have adequate food and water.”
“We have a large variety and between 500-700 chicks a year,” Cipriano continues. People like to come in and choose their own, but,” she warns, “it’s best to pre-order. We always run out fast.”
“Who buys them?” I ask.
“Everyone from retirees to families with young kids to newly married couples.”
“What do they do with all the eggs?” I further inquire.
“Those who have too many often give them to us to sell; we sometimes barter with them for grain,” she adds. “It’s a community thing.”
From now until early fall, Benedict’s Home and Garden in Monroe, Conn., sell thousands of chicks each spring and even more pullets. Bruce Benedict explains that when chicks are 16 or 17 weeks old and are three-quarters grown, they’re known as pullets. These sell quickly, so Bruce advises ordering in advance.
Aside from the variety of chickens Copia and Benedict’s sell, they have all the food and equipment you’ll need to start and maintain your flock.
I learn that you can raise chickens without a rooster. Some people want them to warn off predators, but others don’t want their neighbors woken up with their cock-a doodle-dooing.
After the initial start-up costs, chickens are relatively inexpensive to raise. Another advantage is that they’ll take care of bugs and ticks, till your soil, get rid of weeds and supply you with excellent fertilizer.
Dawn and Todd invite me to their home in Vista, N.Y., to watch their chickens free range. “This means wander around the yard,” Dawn explains when she sees my puzzled look. She points to a hawk perched high in a nearby tree. “I never let them free-range unsupervised without a rake in my hand.”
I see the chickens following her. “When it’s time to go in I sing a little song that they recognize and they follow me inside,” she says.
“Do they know their names?” I ask. Todd shrugs his shoulders. “If I say the word out, they’ll run to the door. I’ve read that chickens can recognize over 100 faces. I know they know ours.”
“They’re fun to watch,” I admit as I watch Dawn pick up Clementine and put her on her lap. “She loves to be petted on her belly and under her wings, “ she says and shows me how. I’m beginning to see that each chicken has a personality from the two bullies to the submissive others.
Dawn and Todd are thinking about adding a few more different varieties to their flock. But for today, they’re happy with their family — so are Blanche, Guinevere, Millie, Penelope, Cinnamon, and Clementine.