Five reasons why you should (not) keep chickens

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There are as many reasons not to keep chickens as there are reasons for keeping them. I’ve kept chickens for about three years now, so I thought I’d write up this list of pros and cons of raising these quirky animals. If you have chickens I bet you can relate to this post, and if you’re thinking about getting started with them, I hope this provides a lighthearted and somewhat balanced expectation-checker!

1. You can make a profit with chickens. (But then again you might not break even with chickens.)

It’s best if you go into chicken-keeping with the mindset of starting a slightly pricey hobby. Yes, it is possible to make a profit with chickens, or at least perhaps break even by not having to buy eggs anymore. There are startup costs such as building a coop, getting feeders and waterers, and setting up a brooder (if you’ll be raising chicks). You can make or retrofit a chicken coop on practically any budget, but it’s an investment you may not make back. (Our own chickens have probably not made back the money we spent building their coops!) All that being said, as you become a better chicken keeper, you will start to see opportunities to “monetize” your flock.

2. You will have a source of fresh chicken meat. (But you will have to learn how to slaughter and butcher.)

Some people only keep a few hens for egg purposes, and never plan to slaughter. However, if you will be actually raising chickens, remember that about 50% of chicks (in a “straight run”, meaning not selected for sex) will grow up to be roosters. This means that you will have a great source of fresh chicken meat, but it also means that you will have to learn how to slaughter and butcher those roosters (and the occasional old hen, if you have a “no-freeloaders” policy for your coop). My husband willingly (thankfully!) slaughters our table-chickens, and I am usually in charge of butchering. However I usually watch the slaughter as well because I think it is respectful to the animal, and that if I want to eat it, I should be able to see it go from animal to meat.

3. You will learn things you never thought you needed to know. (With chickens, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.)

If you plan on getting started with keeping chickens, it helps to study up beforehand and learn the basics of chickens’ biology, behavior, and needs, husbandry skills, and where to get veterinary or expert advice in your area. I bought my first chicken on a whim from a woman who showed up at my courtyard door. I never thought I would keep chickens, but the lady needed cash and I wanted to help her out. I knew next to nothing about chickens but knew that they are flock animals who do not thrive by themselves, so I bought another chicken in town. That one died. I bought another one and that one died too. (They probably had Newcastle but again I knew nothing about chickens back then.) Fast forward three years, a great reference book, and endless Google searches later. In that time I’ve seen infectious diseases, parasites, vitamin deficiencies, predators, thieves, you name it. I’ve come a long way from that first chicken I bought from my back door. I’ve profitably kept laying hens and “village”-type dual-purpose chickens. But I’m still learning and it’s always in the back of my head that just when I think I’ve seen it all, my chickens will pull a fast one on me and humble me all over again!

4. Chickens provide endless free entertainment. (Chickens might become both your work and your play.)

Shortly after we got about 60 laying hens, my husband built a bench right outside their run, replacing the rather-uncomfortable cinder block I had been sitting on to watch them in the afternoons. Chickens are great fun to watch, especially if they have the space to free-range and if you teach them to come for a treat when you call. If you’re new to chickens, just watching them interact with each other and their environment will teach you so much. You will learn their body language and be able to tell who might be sick, who’s at the top of the pecking order, who will lay an egg in the next few hours. If you want to keep chickens successfully, you must watch them for some amount of time every day to see how they’re doing. This informal observation is crucial and, with time, can tell you a lot about how your flock is doing. These days I watch my chickens the most at the end of the day when they’re coming in to the coop from the surrounding fields. Chickens really do get you outside and in the present as you watch them scratch around and mind their business.

5. Once you have a few chickens, you will want to keep adding more. (Your coop will never be big enough!)

I started with one chicken, and currently have probably about 50 or 60 in my coop. Chickens can become an addictive hobby. They come in endless breeds, colors, shades of eggs laid. You could easily become a “chicken collector” and fill your coop to bursting. In the horse world, they say that you shouldn’t build a stable with extra stalls because you will feel a compulsion to fill them with horses. I really think the same is true with chickens.

All that being said, I can’t really imagine life without chickens now. As much as they can occasionally frustrate, and although sometimes we just break even with feed costs, they add spunk, eggs, and fertilizer to our homestead and I wouldn’t want it any other way!

(Before I finish: here are Amazon links to three chicken- and poultry-keeping books I recommend:)

Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry by Glenn Drowns (great reference book if you’re considering ever keeping other kinds of poultry than just chickens)

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow

The Chicken Chick’s Guide to Backyard Chickens by Kathy Shea Mormino

What are the biggest pros and cons of chicken-keeping where you are? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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A thief twice rewarded, my lessons recorded

Four chickens stolen. Two months, three incidents, many exchanges of hands. Motorcycle motorcades, machetes being brandished. Two tribes, two religions, three languages, one village government. One bird recovered. The thief paid twice. Is this Tanzania or the wild west? Sometimes I wonder.

To make a long story short, our flock’s rooster was stolen on Tuesday and I found him being sold at the weekly market the next day. We figured out who the original thief was (the rooster had already been sold twice that day), but his family fiercely defended him, saying he had been at school and couldn’t have stolen and sold a chicken. The chicken dealer, who adamantly recognized the boy as the thief, began to doubt himself and called the case off. The thief’s family was paid, by the chicken dealer, for the disturbance and embarrassment that was caused them. We got our rooster back and three hens to replace the ones stolen last month, but it was hardly a satisfying ending.

It was a wild and exhausting day, but I think that the lessons I learned are more interesting than every little detail of how the day unfolded.

Lesson 1: your tribe is thicker than water. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 120 different tribes in Tanzania alone, each one with a unique language and culture. Omari and I moved to this area in April, which is predominantly Masai territory. Masai will stand up for one another until the bitter end.

Lesson 2: being visible and known helps, on the day you need help. As a white female in this town-outside-of-Town, I’m pretty recognizable (for better or worse). And in these few months since moving here, I have made friends and acquaintances whom I found I can count on if I need someone in a sticky situation. Omari had been away and unreachable by phone until several hours after I found my rooster, so having community members who knew me and helped me navigate the situation made all the difference.

Lesson 3: if someone helps you out, they expect to be repaid. Once everything got sorted out, with major thanks to our friend Elia, a Masai bodaboda driver (motorcycle that takes paying passengers), he started asking us, what about his dume? “Dume” means male animal – he was referring to cattle. In the Masai culture, if someone goes out of their way to help you out, you would probably give him a cow. Cows are wealth in the traditional Masai culture. That’s how you repay someone. He knows we don’t have any cows; in this case, dume is a euphemism for money.

Lesson 4: you’re never the only victim. It’s easy for me to think I’m targeted because as a white female in Tanzania I stick out like a sore thumb. But that day, when I found my stolen rooster and caused chaos at the market, it seemed like every other person I talked to told me they had had chickens stolen from them before – sometimes several dozen chickens all taken at once, and never found again. It’s unfortunate that so many have been victims of theft, but it also reminds me that being stolen from is pretty universal, and I’m not the only one it happens to.

Lesson 5: animals live in the present – why can’t we? When my rooster got back home, he flapped his wings, shook out his feathers, and went back to pecking corn bran and wooing his ladies. He made it look so easy, whereas there I was ruminating about the odds of the thief coming back and doing more damage than he did this time. But why worry about something that might never happen? I don’t think my rooster is losing sleep over it.

Divide and conquer: what I did about the chicken coop

I have seven hens and had read somewhere that two nest boxes would be more than enough. It wasn’t.

Let’s just say I don’t think the author of that advice ever dealt with your typical Tanzanian village hen. These chickens only lay eggs once in a blue moon, but when they do, it’s like they move in to the box. They spend so much time rearranging wood shavings and feathers in there, then lay an egg, go away, and come back and look at it again. And forget about when they go broody. These hens would rather set outside in monsoon weather than miss a precious opportunity to hatch out their spawn.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their neurotic tendencies, these village chickens make great mother hens. I hadn’t let any hens set this year (okay, one snuck by me… I told you they were crafty, right?!) because of our move and crazy schedule of events, but I finally got some cross-breed eggs for two of my hens to hatch out. However a hen needs to set somewhere where she will not have other motherhood-crazed chickens clambering all over her. So I figured the time had come to improve upon our one-room coop that clearly was just not cutting it.

During the past couple of weeks, I had been slowly figuring out how to best make a mama-and-baby sub-section of the main coop. I was able to use all scrap wood that remained from our house construction, with total expenses being the cost of 3 meters of chicken wire, two plastic five-gallon buckets, a piece of sheet metal, and nails, hinges, and a latch. It may not be the prettiest thing, but it gets the job done:

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The top lifts up for easy feeding and cleaning:

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The nest buckets are removable and easy-to-clean:

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We finished it yesterday, thanks to Omari who saw I was a bit out of my league when it came to cutting sheet metal. Those edges can get razor-sharp!

Once we hammered in the last nail for the roof hinges, we had a good laugh about the tiny chicken door, and felt pretty accomplished with ourselves.

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Where do you let your broody hens set and raise their chicks?