I’ve been a little grumpy this year about the lack of snow, but my chickens are delighted. They hate snow, won’t step foot outside if the ground is white, but the second things clear up, they can’t wait for me to open the door to their coop in the morning. They really don’t seem to mind the cold, my Black Jersey Giant hens, probably because they’re huge (weighing in at 8 or 9 pounds a piece, 3 times the average supermarket chicken) so the high winds here on Shaker Ridge can’t blow them away. And, as you’ve probably figured out, they’re also black – actually there’s a gorgeous green opalescence brushed over that black – which means their feathers absorb heat rather than reflecting it as white feathers would.
I’ve had white-feathered chickens in the past -White Brahmas, for one, an exceptionally gentle breed – but white feathers are not only less practical in winter, they also seem to attract every hungry predator within 5 miles, including egg-loving skunks and drumstick-loving hawks. Black Jerseys, on the other hand, don’t seem nearly as prone to being eaten by the local carnivores. Sure, size is a factor – I can’t imagine a red-tailed hawk could lift a BJG, never-mind fly off with one – but I also think predators get a look from a distance at those black feathers, think “crows,” and then steer clear.
For all the worries of raising poultry – and there are plenty more besides cold and predation, including diseases, parasites and inter-flock bullying – the rewards are great. Besides supplying some of the best-tasting eggs you’ll ever eat, free-range chickens are great garden companions, friendly, curious and talkative. They’re also beautiful birds, as mesmerizing to watch as any wild creature.
It’s no wonder backyard chicken-raising is booming these days, even in urban and suburban neighborhoods where poultry-lovers have more to worry about from irate neighbors and local ordinances than from foxes and coyotes. If you’ve decided to join the trend, the first thing you should do is buy a good book about raising chickens and read it from cover to cover or go to one of the on-line hatcheries and read the information pages. Keep in mind that just-hatched chicks are delicate creatures and require a secure, very warm environment. You need to be prepared for them before they arrive. Our hens came in the mail as day old chicks from Murray McMurray Hatcheries in Iowa. McMurray sells many kinds of poultry and many rare breeds; I’ve purchased their chicks several times and they have always arrived healthy and cheeping.
You’ll notice as you shop for chicks that hatcheries use all kinds of perplexing descriptions. For example, “straight run” means that you’re ordering a mixture of both males and females. This is usually the cheapest way to order chicks (sometimes the only way), but it’s risky because you can have bad luck and get mostly roosters and only a few hens. Also, if you’re not planning on slaughtering the males for meat, when the chicks mature, a bloody battle between the cockerels will commence, not ending until there’s only one rooster left standing. My advice is to order hens only, and maybe one rooster if you’d like to have fertilized eggs.
A “broody” breed is one in which the hens will stop laying and instead sit on a clutch of eggs to try to hatch them. An “active” breed, especially the roosters, is not only energetic, but easily riled up; you’ll need a big stick for protection when you gather eggs. The number of eggs the breed lays will also be noted. Keep in mind though, that “excellent” layers may have health problems that “good” layers don’t have; there’s an awful lot of wear and tear involved in producing eggs every day.
I’m a fan of “heritage breeds” of chickens like my Black Jerseys. These breeds have been around for a long time, sometimes hundreds of years, and have proved their hardiness. Many of them are listed as endangered or threatened by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and buying them helps to keep the breed going.
I generally avoid breeds labeled “active” because when these breeds are penned up during winter, they pick on each other to the point of causing serious injury. Instead, I look for “gentle” or “docile” breeds, which are much more pleasant to be around. I also like large breeds because they’re winter-hardy and big enough to make many predators think twice. With these big breeds, you don’t need to keep a rooster for protection – generally the largest hen will take that role on quite effectively.
Chicks bought in March will probably begin producing eggs in August or September. As the weather gets cold and the days grow short, production will taper off, picking up again in February. Right now, from my 10 hens I usually get 8-9 eggs a day. This level of production will taper off as the hens grow older, though their eggs will get larger. If my hens stay healthy, they’ll die of old age in five years or more and may produce a few eggs right through to the end.
Homegrown eggs, especially those from free-range hens, are more nutritious than store bought eggs because the chickens have been eating better themselves. You’ll also know that the chickens that produced them are happy and healthy. And lots of fun to have around.