Dyeing for a Flock

Story and Photography By Carol Ann Sayle

My association with chickens began as a child in the ’50s. Two years in a row, my bro, sis and I each received—courtesy of the Easter bunny—pink-, green-, and blue-dyed rooster chicks. Over the two years, the chicks survived for varying amounts of time—two opted out of the pet life early on, and three, as teenagers, met a hatchet powered by a neighbor lady (a killing ritual, complete with the traditional “running around with their heads cut off”) while my bro and I mutely observed, hearts pounding, horror mounting.

The sole survivor of the second year, Chickie, grew to be a huge white rooster with an arching tail and heroic comb, and exhibited endearing talents, like walking up one side of our Dad-built seesaw to crow until his weight brought that end to the ground. He’d repeat the up-down routine until he had crowed three times (biblically in tune with his Easter birthday). But Chickie also had a rather diabolical side, attacking us at every opportunity, so we carted him off in a cardboard box as a gift to a local farm. We kids, of course, didn’t know the exact meaning of this gift (dinner), but I do now.

Dyed-roosters aside, if you want to dive into the chicken experience, your backyard is a great place to start. Once your coop is completed, purchase some hen chicks from the feed store (recommended method) or online. Be warned that you may receive some free roosters with your online order, though, as the hatcheries pack them as warmers for your hen-lets (and also as a way of transferring the rooster experience to you, whether or not you want it—see above. It’s possible the incubator masters wear permanent, sly grins on their faces).

Spring is the best time to start your flock—never get chicks in late fall or winter unless you want them as house pets. Chicks do not like to be cold or wet. They dislike wind, too, so winter chicks will be more at home on your kitchen table. This makes for great “chick TV” if you are in this for entertainment—chickens are much more humorous than fish in an aquarium, and as a bonus, they rarely float up dead in the water.

But even if you obtain the chicks in spring, you still must keep them warm and dry. Use a heat lamp in their abode, at least until they’re fully feathered over their downy underwear so that they don’t keel over from pneumonia. You must also protect them from predators trying to infiltrate their outside coop—this includes your own precious Fido who may revert to his “lost instincts.” You may learn that Fido is a sport killer who does so not simply to eat but to present the catch to you as a trophy.

To prevent such atrocities from friendly fire or wild marauders, the coop must be built like Fort Knox, and it may use up a lot of gold in the construction. If any money remains, you might be well-advised to invest in little solar-powered Nite Guard boxes that emit a blinking red light that wards off nighttime predators. The boxes cost about $30 each, but in my three-year experience with them, my henhouse—which is crumbly to its core—has resisted invasion even when I’ve left a gate open (you will eventually observe that most henhouse massacres can be faulted to operator error or construction/design flaws).

If the prospect of all this potential guilt dissuades you from harboring feathered friends in your backyard, sadly you will miss out on the preciousness of baby chicks, the discovery that chickens have brains and personalities, and the ego boost of a devout fan club crowding around your feet appreciatively (and expectantly) every time you come outside. If you’re adventurous, you will learn that chickens have excellent memories, possess many vocalizations (20 to 30 different sounds), make compost better than you can and are gustatorily diverse.

They will teach your children to eat not only greens and veggies but also worms and bugs, so be sure to take your favorite hen with you when you go hiking in the wilderness—if you become lost, she will demonstrate what is edible in your surroundings. In addition, while stranded on a mountain, she will lay an egg for you almost every day. Of course you’ll have to swallow it raw, but it's more nutritious that way, and your life will be saved.

This alone makes chicken tending a worthwhile endeavor.

Find solar-powered Nite Guard boxes at niteguard.com.