I Bought a Flock of Chickens During the Pandemic — and It’s Been Amazing for My Kids
Shortly after shelter-in-place began last year, so did the wild pandemic shopping. (Remember that phase?) Everything from used bicycles and basketball hoops were swooped up from second-hand neighborhood sites and new recreational equipment was back ordered for weeks and months. Meanwhile, people were adopting cats and dogs in record numbers. A video went viral of shelter volunteers in Florida celebrating the first time they’d adopted out every single pet.
My mother, who lives some 500 miles away, called to ask if she could buy a trampoline for my kids, ages 6 and 8. We had bicycles and scooters, skateboards and ramps. We were fine!
But as spring turned into summer, I could hardly manage to get the kids out the door for another ride around our (suddenly) dull suburban block. There’s was only one trick that worked: A visit to my friend’s house five blocks away. She has a sprawling edible garden and five beautiful chickens. My kids — who’d only ever had a betta fish for a pet — have been enamored with these birds since they were chicks. They can really work up a sweat chasing chickens.
Then, one day last summer when we were at our local feed store buying food for said betta fish, we popped over to the other side of the shop to visit the baby chicks. We’d reached peak boredom by this point in the year, but as we stood oohing and aahing at the chicks, it was clear we needed them as much as they needed us. Within an hour I called my mom to ask whether she’d consider investing the funds reserved for the trampoline toward our backyard chicken venture instead.
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How we chose our new pets
We had planning to do. We researched breeds. We wanted a variety that were kid-friendly, prolific eggs layers and, well, pretty. This led to several breeds, all of which we love, although the most mellow have proved to be the Buff Orpington (Ellie, the peach-colored one that my daughter holds all the time) and the Wyandottes (we have two).
We checked our local ordinances. While we could bring home up to 10 hens, most people we knew started with four or five. That number was based on the rationale you could end up with (at least) one rooster. Most breeds are not sexed and there’s always the possibility of waking to a feathered alarm clock. Many cities like ours draw the line at roosters, so if you decided to bring home chickens, you should discuss this upfront with your children and have a plan for re-homing. (Though, be warned, by the time you realize your chicken is a rooster, you’ll may already be attached.)
Preparing for the new arrivals
While we waited for chicks to arrive at the feed store, my kids and I started working on a brooder, their temporary home where they eat, sleep and poop (emphasize the latter!) for about six weeks. We made our brooder from a large cardboard box and placed it in our very small laundry room. The deeper the box or container, the better. Before you know it, they’ll fly up and perch (and poop) over the edge, and escape! Then, they’ll poop all over the house. (Are you picking up on a theme?)
About $100 later, we left the feed supply with our chicks, a small chick waterer, a feeder, chicken starter and wood shavings. You’ll also need a heat source. That’s because chicks’ body temperature needs to stay around 95 degrees Fahrenheit the first week, then decreased by five degrees every subsequent week until they feather out. (We liked this heat plate as a safer alternative to traditional heat lamps.)
When we finally got our chickens home (their names are Ellie, Fig, June, Hazel and Sadie) the kids’ mama instincts kicked in. They held their new babies close in their shirts, keeping them warm and petting them until they fell asleep. (To this day, my daughter still holds Ellie like a baby and rubs her belly!) Like good mamas, they also did their homework. We’d watched chick tutorials on YouTube, so one of the first things my son did was check their bottoms or “vent areas.” June had pasty butt, a dried droppings slash stress-related condition, that my son successfully treated with a warm washcloth.
Moving chickens into their forever home
As much as we loved our new feathered babies, they are not ideal indoor pets. They grow quickly and so does their poop. They are also surprisingly loud. (Like, really loud, so don’t hop on a Zoom call chick-adjacent.) We let them venture around our back yard for a few hours every day, where they perched on the edge of our raised beds in the sun and dug shallow holes in the dirt for dust baths. (Our kids have since raised the argument that if it’s good enough for the chickens, it’s good enough for them!) No matter how often we cleaned their brooder, the laundry room was smellier than our dirty socks. So, we started making plans to move them outside for good.
Rural area or the suburbs, predators are everywhere — from raccoons to opossums, hawks, and even dogs and cats. Chickens need a safe place to roam during the day and a secure coop to sleep at night. We had enough on our plates, so we purchased a pre-made coop. It wasn’t inexpensive or simple to assemble, but it does the trick. The kids are in charge of cleaning the coop twice a week, with a little help of course. (We compost a portion of our chicken manure. The remainder goes into our city’s compost bins.) The kids let the chickens out each morning, feed them, chase them, cuddle with them, and make sure they’re tucked in safely each night.
Our chickens are so sweet and follow us around begging for treats. In addition to their feed, we give them herbs and vegetables from our garden, and scraps from our kitchen: think bread crusts, apple cores, and carrot peels. They love shredded cheese and raisins, but their favorite snack is dried meal worms. It’s the trick to luring them back in their coop every evening.
Yes, chickens make egg-cellent pets
As you may expect, the best part about backyard chickens is the fresh eggs with the deep yellow yolks. (Sometimes, even double yolks.) It takes a minimum of four months for chickens to begin laying. But that first egg is a magical moment. Ours arrived on New Year’s Day. We noticed our Barred Rock, Fig, hanging around the coop while the rest of the flock was foraging. A few hours later, we heard an unusually loud clucking we’d never hear before. We ran outside to check on her, though it turned out to be her egg song. It’s a special cheer some chickens reserve to inform their sisters she’s laid an egg.
Our next layer, Ellie, also laid in monumental fashion. My daughter was holding her on her lap one afternoon on our front porch when plop, out came her first egg. We still laugh about that unreal moment.
We love listening to our hens coo and cluck, and collecting their eggs has been a highlight of staying at home. We sit on our porch and watch them snuggle, scratch around for bugs, sunbathe, and honestly, poop and make a big old mess. Like most pets, they each have silly personality quirks, too. (The hungriest, the fastest, the boss and on and on.)
Since our chickens reside (securely) in our front yard, they’ve become a hot neighborhood attraction and a source of conversation. I even hear our postal carrier chatting up our chickens.
Long story short, there’s no trampoline that compares to our sweet flock.