Dreaming of Chickens

A life with chickens can be hazardous — terrifying even — and hugely rewarding.

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So I finally got chickens. I have wanted chickens for years, but every time we as a family discussed chickens, it always came down to another creature to be responsible for. Three dogs and four humans seemed enough, I agreed. But this year, with the shutdown from the pandemic, we had a lot of time at home and chickens finally felt feasible.

When I was a kid, we had chickens, a flock of Rhode Island Reds. A hardy American breed that is known for their even temperament; they are prolific layers of brown eggs. I remember an overly friendly chicken we named Margaret who would come to our front door mornings and insist on coming in to clean things up, pecking at crumbs on the floor. She would follow me down the dirt road as I walked to school in West Tisbury.

Unfortunately, the whole flock — maybe 20 or so — were gradually and brutally being killed off nightly by a raccoon which, I swear, was the size of a small bear. It was traumatic to hear that raccoon show up every evening and grab a few more hens. One night, as the screams of attack started, my older brother, father and I ran outside hoping to catch the murderer in his tracks. My father decided then it was time to put a stop to this nightly massacre.

He called George Manter, chief of police in West Tisbury. The three of us treeded the murderer up in a big oak tree, and my father had my brother and I stand at the bottom of the tree and bark like dogs to keep the raccoon put until George arrived.

It seemed like forever as we yelped in the darkness, but soon, George Manter arrived with a rifle. George was a very tall man, but to me, as a kid, he seemed gentle and approachable, a true country cop. My father pointed the flashlight at the treetop. We could see the raccoon’s eyes glaring off the light.

“Are you sure it is not a cat?” George asked as he prepared his rifle.

“Because when it falls from the tree, it is a raccoon no matter what it is,” George answered, as he aimed for the spot where the creature would fall.

We assured him it was indeed a racoon.

BOOM! One shot from Georges’s rifle and the beast fell to the ground with a deep thud. The raccoon, we saw, was covered in fat ticks. The whole event was traumatic, and our life with chickens (and a raccoon) came to an end.

So, this year, in late March, we finally made the decision to get baby chickens. There were articles flying around the internet about how there was a shortage of baby chicks. Apparently our idea was not original. The New York Times compared the search for chicks to panic-buying toilet paper. But good old SBS on the Island was doing what they’d done every year, supplying the Island with its latest flock of soon-to-be egg layers.

We wanted to keep things manageable, so we ordered a “party pack,” as SBS owner Liz Packer called the mixed bunch of six chicks. We ordered a premade coop, which actually turned out to be pretty economical — we had decided that by the time we bought the lumber and my husband took the time to build it was just easier to buy one. But for the first five weeks, we kept the fragile babies in the basement in a plastic tote with a heat lamp, water, food, and pine shavings.

Like any baby, each chick came with a distinct personality, that, six months later, has stayed true.

We had one large yellow fuzzy one, who was and is kind of a freak, screeching and running frantic, always the first to grab food. We called her Cream Puff, a Sussex originally from South East England. A Sussex is a good egg or meat bird.

Then there is Flora, clearly in charge of the flock from day one. Flora is very social and keeps track of the crew, the coop, and their food. Flora is an Orpington, native to the U.K. — smart, social and bossy. We have Chaga, (she looked like a Chaga mushroom as a chick) — a beautiful Golden Laced Wyandotte. I call her the enforcer: She keeps the flock in line chasing and heading the girls in position. She is like a hawk and is also an escape artist. For a short-lived few weeks, Chaga always wanted to be held, but now she is too busy keeping her troops in order. Then we have the three Margarets, all Rhode Island Reds who are all super mellow and easy-going. I named the three of them Margaret, after my childhood chicken Margaret, because basically we cannot always tell them apart, so this is just easier. Three Margarets.

In addition to the coop we bought, we fenced in an area and covered the top with thick plastic netting to keep the girls safe from red-tailed hawks, which are abundant in our neighborhood, and hopefully keep them safe from racoons as well.

I love having chickens. I call it chicken TV, because I can sit and watch them for ages; I find it extremely relaxing, especially in these uneven times. I like them now, mostly grown — bigger, rather than the small fragile chicks. Four of the six are friendly and like to be petted, even held.

We have been able to socialize the two dogs and the chickens pretty well; the dogs don’t chase the chickens or act aggressive at all. Flora, however, is pretty tough and protective of her flock. She has no problem confronting Harlow, our sixty pound Lab-mix and will chase our 15-pound terrier mix, Hubie, to the porch.

As I write this the girls are now six months old, and for the last three weeks, four of them, the three Margarets and one of the others (I suspect Flora) are laying every day. So we are now to the point of being able to give away a dozen here and there.

The chicken egg really is a wonder. Every day a hen gives a hard-shelled gift of the perfect food, a complete protein, containing all essential amino acids, with about 6 grams of protein per egg, and a wide range of vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12, vitamin D, Calcium, Zinc, and Choline to name a few. The yolk contains most of the good stuff, with the white containing mostly protein.

This affordable perfect food can be the star of any meal of the day and can add richness and protein to fried rice or pasta. Eggs are the binding agent for a very many delicious baked goods and desserts. There is very little the egg cannot do. Eggs have even come to be a sexy appetizer — deviled eggs with smoked salmon or lobster.

I have always loved eggs, but raising chickens to the age where they can produce eggs has given the superstar food top billing in my mind. I’m just going to keep an eye out for those predatory raccoons.

Tips

Not surprisingly there is a lot of information on the internet about raising backyard chickens. The suggestions I have are what worked for us but as with anything, do what works for you.

Brood Box and Coop

I think the one thing that I would emphasize is give the chicks more space with their brood box; they grow fast. The same with their coop. We picked up our little fluff balls when they were about two weeks old.

The brood box is what your baby chicks will live in until they are feathered and able to withstand the elements. Obviously, if you live in a warmer climate the time in the box will be shorter. But here on the Island in the spring, ours were in their box in our cellar with their heat lamp until they were 6 weeks old. A large plastic tote works great and is comfortable for six chickens as they grow. We started by lining the tote with newspaper for maybe two days but then we felt that non-dusty shavings were much better at getting the babies to hike around without slipping and getting covered in their own poop. Be careful to stay away from very fine shavings which will be dusty and could hurt their eyes. We ordered something labeled pet shavings in the beginning, then after about a month, SBS had a large cube of wood shavings that is probably used in livestock stalls, that is finer, but still not too dusty.

Coop

As I said, we bought one that specified “up to six chickens.” It seems pretty tight now that they are almost six months. They will be big much longer than small so we have since expanded their inside coop size a bit. The girls seem thrilled.

Feed

SBS will guide you through the food stages. There’s starter feed when they are babies through egg layer — chicken feed based on the age of the chickens, more granular when they are babies and bigger bites as they grow. SBS can suggest treats such as dried mealworms, yum! Through the process, my son, who is a regenerative farmer and becoming a soil specialist, has sprinkled extra nutrients found in nature — soil from the forest floor (worms and all) — on their food. I have no doubt this has helped them stay healthy and strong.

Handling and Dogs

We spent a lot of time holding the chickens from the beginning. The Margarets and Flora were happy to be held; Cream Puff and Chaga, not so much. That hasn’t changed. When the chickens were small, the dogs were way too interested. Hubie, our small dog, would circle around snapping his teeth, and our large dog, Harlow, could have swung her head or pawed a chick and it would have been quickly over. So we waited and tried to use a positive tone with the dogs, but kept them at a distance and hoped they would all get along. We stayed positive so the dogs would not be jealous or resentful. As our dog trainer told us, do not set up a situation for the dogs to fail. The chickens are just too fragile and outmatched for a while.

Now Flora chases Hubie, so he is no threat and Harlow has been pretty good, occasionally being too playful and chasing, but she also treats them like her flock. She is now a proud farm dog.

Indoor Time and Outdoor

We have a good amount of space, so we created a good-sized outdoor pen for the girls. At night we lock them safely in their coop with food and water. They naturally go to their coop when it is dark. From morning until night they are outside in their playpen. For about an hour a day when we can watch them we let them roam free in the yard and gobble up bugs and clover, scratching every spot covered with leaves for the treat that lies beneath.

Eggs

We heard a few different time frames for eggs, expecting them around 6 months, but to our surprise the Margarets started at around 4 ½ months.

Egg recipes

Theo’s Shiitake and Scrambled Eggs and Olive Oil
Serves 2

Shiitake mushrooms are said to have enormous health benefits: They are immune boosters, high in vitamins, including vitamin D, have been reported to kill cancer cells, increase energy and mental clarity, and are great for skin health. Here on the Island, we have some of the best shiitake anywhere, grown outdoors and harvested by Martha’s Vineyard Mycological (MVM). These mushrooms are hardy and meaty, and hold their size. 

My son Theo ate them in his eggs all winter during the pandemic.

3 Tbsp. sunflower or other light oil
2 cups chopped, small-dice MVM shiitake mushroom caps
5 large eggs, whisked in a bowl
1 cup arugula
extra-virgin olive oil

In a large nonstick or cast iron pan, heat sunflower oil on medium-high heat. Add chopped shiitakes. Let the mushrooms sauté without moving them for about 5 minutes. Stir and cook evenly for another 3 minutes. Lower heat. Add egg mixture, combine, and keep mixing everything gently, so as not to brown the eggs. Add salt and pepper.

Eggs should be soft but cooked. Remove from heat and add to plates. Top with arugula, then apply extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy drizzle over eggs and arugula. Season again to taste.

Ultimate Egg Sandwich

With bacon, tomato, arugula, sriracha, mayo, a “half-poached egg.”

I am a huge fan of a good egg sandwich, and I am a big believer in the architecture of how the sandwich is put together.

For this sandwich, I recommend a real sourdough for toast. Cook three slices of bacon per sandwich, and set aside.

To cook this style of what I call “half-poached egg,” add about 3 tablespoons of olive oil to your egg pan, heat to medium. Add your egg. Let set a minute, so you know the egg is not sticking. Cover the eggs with a pan lid, and cook for about 3 minutes, until the yolk is clearly non-sunny-side anymore. This egg is a combination of fried and poached, where you get the crispy bottom, but the soft top of a poached egg.

To assemble, add mayo and sriracha to the bottom piece of toast, then bacon, then tomato and arugula; top with egg and second slice of toasted sourdough.

Breakfast for Dinner Frittata

For those of you who love breakfast for dinner, this tasty, elegant frittata or open-faced omelette is an excellent choice. Serve with salad and toast.

3 Tbsp. olive oil
¾ cup sliced firmly boiled potatoes
½ cup rinsed, finely sliced leek
1 cup chard (chiffonade), or spinach
3 eggs whisked together in a bowl
1 Tbsp. fresh chopped herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, parsley, or basil
Mermaid Farm Herb Fromage
arugula

In an omelette or small, nonstick egg pan, heat your oil on medium heat, add potatoes and fresh herbs and cook, stirring for about 5 minutes, until they start to become golden. Season with salt and pepper. Add leeks and chard (if using spinach wait two minutes before adding, since it cooks very fast).

Add egg mixture with a rubber spatula, move eggs from sides of pan so the eggs are getting cooked evenly. Check to make sure things are not sticking. Cover the pan and cook on low until you have an open-faced omelette or frittata. Carefully remove from pan to plate and top with Mermaid Farm Herb Fromage.