by Brett F. Braley-Palko
PITTSBURGH – This November, it will be a year since my entire flock of hens was taken out by a single weasel. They didn’t stand a chance, I’m afraid. My hens were quite pampered, fat, and a little lazy.
But every day I have missed them. They were great companions. I am, myself, a little lazy and so, being responsible for thirty-odd hens gave me purpose. I would wake up in the midwinter freeze to bring them hot water. I’d cut them fresh melon in the Summer during the drought we had one year. I have even performed minor surgery on one or two birds. I will spare you the gory details of that experience, thank you very much.
But hens are the premier livestock for one who is tired of the needy dog or the aloof cat. They’re smaller than goats, which are mischievous and much smaller than horses, which are expensive. They are precocious and curious. They are tender and bossy. I have never met a hen I haven’t liked. They are, quite honestly, my favorite animal. It does help that they pay their room and board in eggs. I consider my three dogs to be freeloaders, offering me nothing in return for my hard work.
I have known aristocrats and truck drivers alike who have owned and adored their flocks as much as I have. It’s a passion, a great equalizer among classes. There is something so properly animal about these birds – their posture, their squawking, their barnyard musk – that is attractive to a wide cross-section of populations. Here in town in rural America, I default to the language I know best when speaking with strangers in town I happen to be behind at the feed store.
“How are your hens?”
“Having any rat problems?”
“Do you know where the cracked corn is?”
So, Reader. You’re in luck. Here are a few pieces of advice for starting your flock. The best time to buy hens is the Spring, so you’ll have six months to plan ahead. How lucky for you.
- Have a good frittata recipe.
A hen’s laying period begins when they are about six months old and will last for about six years, if your hen is healthy. During that time, most breeds will lay an egg a day. You can imagine how that adds up. Scramble, fry, and boil all the eggs you like, but I promise you, you’ll get tired of them eventually. Have a good frittata recipe. Bring it to your friend’s house as a gift. In fact, bring them a dozen eggs too while you’re at it. You won’t miss them.
- Pick a pretty breed.
Yes, all chickens are pretty and worthy and yada yada yada (I’m a vegetarian, so I have to say this), but some are just more aesthetically pleasing than others. For example, I pine for the day I can get a set of Faverolles.
If you’re not picky about the breed, but are about the egg color, you can be a little more flexible. Marans are almost chocolatey. Ameraucanas are green. Rhode Island Reds, Wyandotts, and Barred Rocks are all lovely and tan and look great for Instagram.
- Get bantams.
An oft-forgotten option is the bantam. A bantam is a diminutive breed of hen that is more ornamental than functional, but that shouldn’t deter you. I’ve owned a few bantams in my day. The most beautiful of which were Sebrights, but the sweetest were Barbu d’Uccles. Space is limited for many of my city-dwelling contemporaries. If you have a balcony and a little patience, maybe a bantam could be right for you.
- Buy a Barbour.
To complete the look, you’ll need a nice barn jacket. Preferably vintage. Preferably two sizes too big. I bought mine on ebay and though it has been dry-cleaned since last year, it still has hay stuck deep in the front pockets. It’s an incredibly useful addition to one’s wardrobe when owning chickens. In fact, a bantam who, sadly, suffered from anemia, would often be plopped into my jacket to warm up while I was feeding her sisters. I do miss those moments.
- Don’t fall in love (too much)
This one has been the hardest for me to learn and, in fact, the reason I am so weary to get more hens in the Spring. I raised many of my flock since they were a day old, packaged in cardboard and picked up from the post office. They were tiny and darling and then grew to be beautiful and charming in their offbeat way. All hens, by nature of the species, are fragile. Some will die and others will hunker down for long winters and share a nice long life with you (some hens live to be 8 years old!). Take care of them. They’ll love you right back, despite your hardiest protestations.