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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

Fowl play

More and more Hoosiers are raising chickens in their backyards.

The Gibson chickens.

On a warm sunny day, English teacher Taji Gibson strolls out of her hilltop house in Unionville. The sun shines on her sloping, grassy backyard. Her husband, Shane, is out playing catch with their sons Tanner, 10, and Sawyer, 8. As the grass worked its way between her red-painted toes, the family's newest additions came racing up the hill towards the house. Five Isa Brown hens, a Wyandotte and a Leghorn strutted up and started pecking Taji's painted toenails, mistaking them for kernels of food. "It didn't hurt," Taji says. "It just kind of tickled some, like a bunch of tiny pinches."

Chickens are a little silly and often surprising, but they can make a great addition to a home. Taji says they're like pets, and their seven hens all have names: Fancy, Mary, Greedy, Sally, Name-me, Cheagle (a combination of chicken and eagle) and Wyno the Wyandotte, who is not an alcoholic.

Backyard chicken flocks used to be as scarce as hen's teeth in towns and suburbs. The last few years, though, have seen a change. It's difficult to say where this movement started. After all, people have been raising chickens for a long time. But in the 1990s Martha Stewart began showcasing some pretty green and blue chicken eggs in her magazine. Martha helped bring to light the sustainable living trend, and showcase the simplicity of home-grown food. The trend remained cooped up for a while, but in the 2000s it took off again. In 2006 Backyard Poultry printed its first issue, and now they circulate almost 100,000 copies every two months. More recently, cities like New York, Chicago, and Indianapolis began setting up classes for want-to-be chicken owners.

IUPUI added a personal interest class in 2011 called "How to Raise Backyard Chickens" that has roughly 10-15 seats open each semester. Chicken advocate Andrew Brake teaches that class, and the rest of the time he runs his advocacy group, NapTown Chickens. This chicken advocacy group works to get chicken coops into the yards of urbanites who could use the eggs and meat. They also work to change legislation to allow for backyard hen raising in places where it is still prohibited.

Now, Bloomington, Terre Haute and Evansville have all changed their ordinances to allow chickens inside the city limits. The municipal code of Bloomington, "recognizes that the keeping of urban chickens is a growing phenomenon that has avocational, educational and sustainable value".

Brake says backyard chickening is part of the larger green movement. They're great for composting, and they're easy to live with. "A lot of people don't think about this," he says, "but chickens will eat anything and give you back an egg."

On a typical weekday, Chris Robbins arrives home from work, grabs a nice, cold ale, and heads outside to see the chickens. He and his wife, Mary, sit in their green Adirondack chairs and watch their flock. Hanging out with the chickens is one of the family's favorite pastimes, something they call "Chick TV."

Right now they've got two dozen hens and a rooster. The rooster, Chris says, sometimes chases their 13-year-old son, Tommy, around the yard, and crows every morning to welcome the day. The family eats the eggs, and later, the meat.

They began raising chickens several years ago, when Mary, who grew up on a farm, brought up the idea. They live on a few acres of land in Owen County and the rest of the family liked the idea, so they set out to buy some chickens. Backyard farming gets incredibly modern at this point, because the Robbins' preferred method of chicken acquisition is an online hatchery. Boxes of baby chicks are sent to your local post office. You get a phone call, and then go pick up your chicks.

The family keeps the little ones in what's called a brooder box next to their woodstove for about two months. "Day-old chicks are actually the cutest thing," Chris says. "They are just these tiny little balls of fuzz that fit on your hand, and fall over a lot." When the chickens leave the brooder box, they have their feathers and are ready for their close-ups on Chick TV.

It's possible, though, to buy your chickens fully mature. Taji and Shane got their chickens at 16 weeks old, when they were fully feathered and laying eggs. "We got them kind of on a whim," Shane says. For Tanner's 10 th birthday, they got their five ISA Brown hens, and they beefed up their flock two months later with the Wyandotte and Leghorn. Taji claims they were not ready to play host to a flock of chickens, because their coop wasn't completely finished and they hadn't decided whether their birds would be free-range or not. They weren't even sure what their subdivision would think of backyard poultry. Shane, Tanner and Sawyer, though, refused to chicken out. Shane looked up his neighborhood's homeowner's rules. They were able to get their chickens hassle free and without a permit. Now with seven birds pecking around in her yard, Taji can't bring herself to disagree. They are pets and a true part of their family.

"I think if we left the door open they would just casually walk in, like, 'Hey guys,'" Shane jokes. Tanner, though, likes the idea. "We could put some special carpeting down that could be, like, cleaned, and we could let them in!"

"Ah, no," Taji says.

"It's gonna happen."

"No it's not."

"No, you know like that fake grass?"

"Seriously. No."

"I'm just saying!"

"I totally get that, but no. No chickens in the house, that's definitely a house rule."

Eggs, eggs, eggs!

Around a month after they're fully feathered, hens will start laying eggs. Chris and Mary raise their chickens primarily for eggs. "We have so many that we give away eggs every week to different friends," Chris says. The Gibsons only have a seven-hen flock, but they consistently retrieve five eggs a day. "We've got so many, we don't know what to do with them," Taji says, offering a dozen to this pair of journalists who happened to ask her about their chickens.

Theresa Malone walks across her quaint backyard in downtown Bloomington making her way towards the chicken coop. She emerges from underneath the blue tarp, and walks through the rusted gate that serves as the entry to the chickens' home. "Look, I got an egg! I always get so excited," says Theresa. She holds it up in her hand, gazing down at it with joy.

It's perfectly symmetrical and golden brown, shaped like a giant teardrop. Theresa snags the egg from her chicken coop before Ruthie, a Barred Rock hen, and Bobbie, a buff Orpington, realize what's happening. Ruthie crows while Bobbie wanders back into the coop, unaware of the theft that has just taken place. Theresa's neighbor Kevin Bird peeks into her backyard, as Ruthie's crowing grows louder. "You don't need a rooster when you have that one crowing all day," he says, sharing a laugh with Theresa. Joanie, a buff Orpington, recently went to what Theresa calls "chicken heaven," leaving the burden of laying eggs on Ruthie and Bobbie.

Theresa always wanted chickens, and after Bloomington passed an ordinance saying you no longer needed your neighbor's consent to raise them, she had no more excuses. "I guess I'm a farm girl at heart without a farm," Theresa says. She found three pullets, or young hens, in Martinsville, just by going on Craigslist. Following an inspection by the city, the Bloomington Animal Shelter gave her a permit. She used an old kitchen cabinet perched on an end table and covered with chicken wire to create a backyard home for her hens.

Named after her aunts and her mother, Theresa's chickens mean a lot to her. And they do seem to be beautiful and happy animals. Theresa bends down to scoop Ruthie up in her arms. She holds the hen firmly and strokes her head. "They're so warm. If you're cold, you can just grab one and they'll warm you up," she says with a smile. Theresa likes the chickens' easy-going and aloof attitude; the eggs are just an extra benefit. Ruthie gives her an egg every other day while Bobbie is less regular, maybe an egg every two to three days.

Theresa has upgraded her chicken coop with a doghouse from Lowe's. She reaches into the coop and cleans up the mess every two to three days and gives it a proper cleaning every couple of months. Ruthie and Bobbie aren't too demanding as long as they have fresh water and food.

Chickens in general are pretty good at taking care of themselves. The Gibsons' flock is free range, and they rarely need to eat the seed from their feeder. Free-range chickens can feed themselves most of the time, but they do still need a good supply of clean water.

Chickens work to keep themselves clean, too, and it's fun to watch a hen "bathe" itself. Every now and then the birds will wander toward a dry patch of dirt and begin scratching like crazy. Once it turns up enough dirt and dust, it dives to the ground and rolls around in the dirt. It looks for all the world like a dog trying to scratch its back in the grass.

Shane says the hens cover their skin in a layer of dirt. That dirt smothers any parasites or bugs they may be on their skin. Staying clean by getting dirty: Sounds a little bird-brained doesn't it?

Not all chickens can be free range, though. Bloomington requires owners to have a fenced-in chicken run, although that doesn't mean you can't take your chickens out into your yard sometimes. And the runs and coop sometimes need to be a specific number of feet away from neighbors or fences. Evansville's municipal code requires that coops stand "no less than 50 feet from a property boundary."

While chickens aren't known for their smarts, they do know that people mean food. "When we open the door, zoom, here come the chickens," Shane says.

Taji says that when she gardens, the chickens are right there at every hole she digs, pecking at bugs and fighting for worms. "I just like how social they are," she says, "They'll follow you around, kinda doing their own thing, but they will always be there."

As chickens age they begin to lay fewer eggs. At this stage, many owners elect to slaughter their poultry, where permitted, and eat their home-grown meat. "They stop laying as consistently after about a year, and then they become chicken soup, or chicken salad," Chris says. It's his least favorite part. "Nobody likes to kill something they've raised from a baby," he says. "But we haven't had to buy meat from a grocery store in a long time."

Theresa can't bring herself to butcher her chickens, even though it's allowed. "I guess I'm just going to keep them till I have really old hens in my backyard," she says.

The same is true for the Gibson family. After all, they have names. Fancy, the dominant female, pecks around the compost area while Mary and Greedy follow behind. Sally and Name-me are scratching in the grass near the boys, Sawyer and Tanner, while Cheagle and Wyno poke around in the bushes. Clucks and laughs float on a light breeze.

If you care for your hens, they'll hang around with you, the highest form of chicken affection. You can't expect too much of these birds: some scratching, some feather rustling, lots of torn-up grass and a fair amount of noise. But somehow that all leads to laughs, companionship and an endless supply of fresh eggs.

Sawyer and Tanner run across the backyard with their steel bowls of hot sauce seasoned popcorn in hand. Greedy leads the charge towards the popcorn and the other hens flock after her. The boys toss handfuls of kernels to the hungry birds. "They like hot sauce," says Tanner. "The chicks are grown up like me!"

Chick TV

Backyard Chickens from 812 Magazine on Vimeo.

All right, I want some of those fresh eggs now

Thinking about raising your own chickens? We're going to tell you how to cock-a-doodle do it with some help from Andrew Brake.

Can I raise chickens in my backyard?

Check with your local Animal Control Office first. Websites like urbanchicken.com and backyardchicken.com allow you to contact other chicken owners in your area, and sometimes can link you straight to your city's municipal code. Always check with your local government and homeowner's association before buying anything.

Where can I get chickens?

First figure out how many chickens you want. Now start looking, you can find chickens all over! There are online hatcheries like Murray McMurray. Local farmers will often have chicks or pullets for sale in the spring, and feed stores or Tractor Supply stores often stock baby chicks around the same time of year.

What if I want to raise them from chick hood?

Brake says raising birds from chicks involves a lot of work. But if you do decide to take on this task, you'll need a brooder box where the chicks aren't too cramped up.

Fill the box with some kind of bedding. (Avoid newspaper shreds, as the ink can get real messy.)Make sure they have a feeder and a water bowl as well as a light pointed at them to keep them warm. Change their food and water regularly and make sure their living conditions are hygienic.

Do I need a rooster?

Nope. If you have a flock of chickens, the rooster will take the dominant role in the "pecking order." Without a rooster, the biggest hen will usually take over and act like a rooster. She'll be more aggressive, flapping her wings while clucking at potential threats. Sometimes dominant hens will even stop laying eggs.

What are some of the basic necessities I would need to raise chickens?

Once you know how many birds you want, the first things you should invest in are feeders, waterers and chicken feed. For their housing needs, you need to build a coop. The coop doesn't need to be too fancy as long as the birds have ample space to move around inside. Make sure you clean out the coop about once a week so that the chickens have a clean living environment.

How often do chickens lay eggs?

Most breeds will lay an egg every one to three days. 3 birds in your backyard will give you 900 eggs a year. Some breeds, called layers, can be counted on for an egg every day. Other breeds, like meat birds or rare breeds, are less productive.

Can I have other pets and still raise chickens?

You can, but keep an eye on your animals. Cats may attack young chickens but are more apprehensive of full grown birds. The Gibsons have two cats and no problems. Dogs will sometimes kill fully grown birds also, but if you have an aggressive rooster or a dominant hen, he or she will show that dog who's boss.

Do chickens get sick?

Big industrial chicken farms give the birds a bad name. If you have three to five birds in your coop, you'll notice if one is sick, and you can take care of it immediately. In a giant chicken farm, it isn't as noticeable and diseases can spread. Of course, anytime you take care of any chicken business, make sure you wash your hands. Watch out for pests like raccoons and hawks, they've been known to disturb the chickens' peace.

Chickens are easy, and there isn't much lying in between you and those healthy eggs.