I remember the moment my mother brought home our first chick, Victoria, better than I remember most of my birthdays. It was a warm, spring afternoon, and we came home from school to find my mother had finally started the flock she'd been wanting for so long. Looking at the downy fluff of Victoria's body and her scrawny, dinosaur legs, it occurred to me then, as an eight-year-old, that I'd never really observed a bird up close before. Birds were probably my least favourite creatures, what with their beady eyes and sharp beaks, but Victoria was something else. She chirped in her sleep and made a mess of her water bowl and responded to treats just like all the puppies I'd loved before her.
Photo: Catherine Delahaye (Getty Images)
Most people consider raising chickens to reap certain benefits - fresh, organic eggs; fewer garden pests; a nourishing compost supplement - without realising they also make great companions. For all our chickens provide in food and labour, it's my affection for them that has latched to my memory after all these years of raising these docile birds. Now, I understand how adopting a chicken might sound a little more complicated than adopting a dog or cat. But think of it this way: You'll never have to train them where to pee or worry about them chewing up your favourite shoes. You'll baby them the first few months to make sure they grow up healthy and strong, but from then on they can pretty much be left to their own devices.
Watching Victoria follow my mum around the garden and respond affectionately to a back scratch kind of blew my mind as a kid. I'd previously assumed domesticated meat animals lived robotic, semi-conscious lives. Interacting with chickens opened my eyes to the depth and variety of experiences happening among every living creature around me. Caring for chickens past their egg-laying days taught me to empathise with animals that weren't necessarily cuddly or fluffy or young or cute. Had I not grown up with chickens, I'm sure it would have taken much longer to understand the process my food goes through before landing on my plate. It isn't a stretch to say Victoria - and all the chicks who came after her - helped shape me into an inquisitive, compassionate adult.
Thinking about raising a chicken of your own? Here's how you, too, can go from Modern Family to American Gothic:
First, take stock of your yard
Do you have at least enough room for a large wardrobe and king-size bed? Because that's about how much space you'll need to set aside for the chicken's coop and a sheltered, outdoor run. If you have a fenced-in yard where you can set them loose once a day, even better. It's also a good idea to consider your neighbours. Because chickens can be difficult to sex, there's a small chance one of your darling chicks could grow into a loud, early-rising rooster. Would your next-door neighbours be fine with this? Or are they the type to call the police when a potluck extends past 9PM? These are lifestyle changes to consider.
Figure out their housing situation
Before your chickens are old enough to brave the great outdoors, they will need a cosy cardboard box with a heat lamp first. Ideally, you can keep them in a rarely-visited room safe from dogs, cats and small children during this stage. The first couple of weeks, they will be too small to get into any real trouble, but by the time they start flapping their wings and taking brief, energetic flights, you might need to upgrade to a bigger box or enclosed crate until they're ready to transition to the coop.
There are many ways to go about building a coop. If you're handy, all it may take is a trip to the hardware store for two-by-fours and chicken wire. Alternatively, there are some sleek DIY kits you can buy for a few hundred bucks. Then again, you could follow Silicon Valley's lead and build a chicken coop that costs more than most people's mortgages. The idea is to provide them with room to run, a roof for shade, and a sheltered box for them to lay and feel safe. And if you're planning on extending your flock at some point, make sure there's enough room to comfortably fit your chicks' wire crate inside. As they get close to adult size, they will need a few days to acclimate to the resident chickens from the safety of their crate.
Pick out your chicks
Once you have the living quarters squared away, you're ready to head to your local feed store and pick out chicks. This is a great stage to get kids involved because they will feel a sense of responsibility for chicks they pick and connect with on their own - I know I did. I'd suggest steering them toward the livelier ones. I've picked my fair share of mellow chicks, thinking they were quiet introverts just like me, only to find them dead the next morning because they were actually ill from the start. Lesson learned.
When I was 11, I wanted to be a veterinarian. Playing with animals all day seemed like a fun gig. Around this time, Billy Joel released the pop-rap song 'We Didn't Start The Fire'. In it, Mr Joel barks through a litany of horrible events that occurred in the 20th Century, at one point rhyming 'foreign debts' and 'Bernie Goetz' with 'homeless vets'. When I heard that, I thought, Oh no! I don't want to be a homeless veterinarian!
Teach your kids how to hug a chicken
Because they are safe and fairly simple to care for, chickens make great pets for kids. As far as I know, no one's ever been mauled by a chicken, but this doesn't change the fact that they can be intimidating to handle at first. To gracefully pick up a chicken, have your kid place their hands on either side of the chicken's wings. With a firm but gentle grip, the chickens feel secure and relax into being held. If your kid gets flustered and the chicken flaps her wings, let them back off, settle down and try again.
It's easy to get flustered by a flapping, clucking bird, but remaining calm is key to becoming a pro chicken handler. For instance, Victoria got a little anxious when we brought her to my primary school for show and tell, but my mother stayed calm as Victoria climbed onto her shoulders and settled down in the crook of her neck. Getting to that level of comfort with your chicken takes practice, so don't be deterred by a few wing flaps to the face.
Chickens can be just as fun to watch as they are to shower with affection. They're constantly running around, kicking up dust, and taking "dirt baths" (rolling around in loose dirt and sand to rid themselves of parasites). They're surprisingly agile and light on their feet, as evidenced by the time brother pointed a baseball radar gun at a running chicken and saw she clocked in at 16km/h. Between watching them and playing with them, you'll wonder how you ever lived without chickens.