My chickens need my attention every day. Each morning, regardless of weather, I must venture outside to tend to them. I confess that, even at that early hour, I’m often already exhausted by the looming responsibilities of my business and household. With the subtle sounds of nature in the background, I begin my chores by rinsing out and refreshing the flock’s water dishes. Next, I dispense their feed into a few small bowls, which I place in various spots about the yard. (This is helpful for my mixed flock.) Finally, I open the coop door to release my birds, and a whirlwind of feathers rushes past me. It’s not long before I’m humming a personalized tune for each chicken, and my attitude softens.
It's a daily surprise how much this brief morning meditation lifts my spirits. In a time when respite from the troubles of our world seems out of reach, the value of this experience isn’t lost on me.
I’ve been a backyard chicken educator for many years. Since the beginning, I’ve been fascinated by the idea that there’s truly no other animal whose relationship with humans spans as far and wide as that of the chicken. They’re a part of our common history, culture, and even spirituality. This is why I call them “humankind’s most amazing common denominator,” and I feel that my bond with them brings me closer to understanding my fellow humans. In 2017, I expressed this sentiment in a TEDx Talk at Western Washington University, called “I Dream of Chickens.” And it’s true, I really do! I dream of them bringing us closer together as people, and I dream of them helping us take better care of this planet we share.
Photo by Dalia Monterosso
But my kinship with chickens didn’t happen naturally. My mother, the child of a newly industrialized Guatemala, remembers her grandparents having chickens. But when she was a child, her family left their village and moved to a tenement in the city, where they weren’t allowed animals. In 1965, after her nation fell into civil war, she and my dad were forced to leave Guatemala and emigrate to the United States. By the time I was born, they had settled into a home in the suburbs, and they worked far too much to have time for a vegetable garden, much less poultry. That’s how it happened that I grew up disconnected from my food. Many different roads can lead to this circumstance; therefore, I’m certain my experience isn’t unique to my family. Like many of you just now getting into raising chickens, I wasn’t introduced to them until well into adulthood.
Chickens now join me in the conquering of each day. They serve as quasi-nutritionists and therapists in an environment where the disconnection to nature has become ordinary, and my brief connection with it extraordinary. Although they live alongside my modernized residence, with its Zoom calls and quick meals, their needs still arise from millennia of grazing the Earth and keeping a small, Jurassic foot on the wild side of the animal kingdom. Because of this, I try to make their lives as close to their natural tendencies as I can. Attempting this with limited space brings some unique challenges. That’s why a big part of my passion is to show those in urban and suburban areas how they can best care for their chickens, despite not having pasture for them to peck and scratch.
Pasture-Raised in the City
Raising chickens on pasture has several advantages. One of them is that the eggs are healthier; another is that the chickens themselves are often healthier. Chickens raised on pasture have access to an endless supply of vegetation, a diverse collection of beneficial microorganisms in the soil, and a wider space in which to avoid disease. By contrast, raising chickens on a smaller lot, where the entirety of their lives often occupies the same space, can bring forth parasite infestation and illness. But I don’t ever want this to discourage anyone from enjoying chickens in a non-rural environment. We can do plenty of things to mitigate these problems and gift our chickens — and, in turn, our families and communities — some of the benefits that pasture-raised poultry and their keepers enjoy.
In the absence of nutrient-rich pasture, it’s especially important that chickens are fed a diet that meets their nutritional needs. I’ve often observed manufactured chicken feed touted as the only thing a chicken should eat, while kitchen scraps are shunned, and have even been made illegal in some places. Unfortunately, this sentiment isn’t without warrant. Many modern breeds, produced to lay an innumerable amount of eggs, have hefty nutritional requirements. Because of this, it’s not unreasonable to say that a chicken’s diet should be mostly chicken feed. The fact that laying hens need a certain amount and type of nutrients to have a healthy reproductive system can’t be ignored.
Photo by Dalia Monterosso
But don’t throw out your leftover broccoli yet! Most chicken feed is processed, which means that some nutrients are lost in the high heat needed for its production. This is why I still support healthy kitchen scraps as an important part of a flock’s diet, especially if chickens don’t have access to green pasture. Rather than getting mired in exact measurements, imagine a simple “chicken food pyramid.” Chicken feed is on the bottom, illustrating the highest need. Healthy scraps (mostly leafy greens, other vegetables, and low-sugar fruits), sprouts, and fodder occupy the middle. At the top, in the smallest level, are the healthy treats. These would be any treats made specifically for chickens, plus healthy kitchen scraps that aren’t of the vegetational variety. Following these simple guidelines ensures that chickens get what they need from their feed, plus fresh nutrients, which in turn helps humans manage waste. The result will be healthier eggs, happier chickens, and a community that benefits from an update of an age-old process.
Sprouts and fodder, which fall into the second tier of the chicken food pyramid, are an easy way to get missing nutrients into a flock. With a little ingenuity, you can grow sprouts in a jar (see instructions, Page 16) and fodder in your chicken yard. Urbanites and suburbanites can create a system of planters, referred to as “chicken salad bars,” in which chickens are able to graze vegetation, such as wheat, barley, flax, or other greens, without consuming the seeds or destroying the plant before it can grow. This is achieved by securely covering any pot, raised bed, or other plant container with hardwire mesh. The result? Chickens have access to what grows up through the wire without being able to peck and scratch at the roots.
Photo by Dalia Monterosso
How to Sprout Grain or Seed
- Fill jar 1/3 of the way with seed or grain. Rinse well.
- Cover seed or grain with water, covering contents by about 3 inches.
- Allow covered seed or grain to soak, up to 24 hours.
- After soaking, drain seed or grain well, and then cover jar with mesh or cheesecloth.
- Place jar inverted or on its side in a sunny spot. Rinse contents twice daily.
- Substantial green growth usually takes about 3 to 4 days. Store jar in fridge once sprouts reach 2 inches long.
- Feed contents to chickens at any point after sprouting.
Mitigating a City Flock’s Biggest Adversary
In recent years, modern medicine has begun to recognize just how critical the mind-and-body connection is when it comes to our health. The relationship between how we feel emotionally and how our bodies function has become a generally accepted tenet in our society. In my opinion, we can simply look to the chicken yard to observe this phenomenon. When chickens live in the type of environment that’s appropriate for them — that is, outdoors with access to soil and foliage — they thrive. They also inevitably come into contact with bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other microbes that inhabit the natural world. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the time, their immune systems not only handle this contact, but also derive resilience from it. So why do some chickens fall ill, or whole flocks get infested with internal or external parasites? There are a number of possible causes, but one big factor that flock owners can usually control is stress.
When an urban or suburban flock owner writes to me that their chickens are sick or infested with parasites, I’ll offer some basic supportive care suggestions and make sure they know that, at least for any diseases, their best course of action would be to consult a licensed veterinarian. I then invite them to reevaluate their practices to make sure there isn’t something going on that’s causing their flock to experience stress. Stressed chickens are vulnerable to illness, and sick chickens are vulnerable to parasite infestation. Here are the kinds of questions chicken keepers should be asking themselves:
- Are my chickens’ nutritional needs being met?
- Do my chickens have enough space and enrichment?
- Are my chickens safe from the threat of predator attacks?
- Are my husbandry practices where they need to be for a happy, healthy chicken flock?
Of course, chicken keepers need to take some specific actions when a flock has fallen ill with sickness or parasites. But, especially for chickens with limited space, keen attention to stress is important. Cramped chickens, chickens that aren’t getting enough nutrients, or chickens living under the threat of predation or in a dirty environment are vulnerable to a number of undesirable conditions. Happy chickens have the best shot at avoiding issues, and that makes for happier chicken keepers as well.
What It All Means
If you’re keeping chickens in the city or suburbs, I want to thank you. This traditional practice is important, so much so that I often tell my students that we aren’t just keeping chickens — we’re changing the world. I’m well aware that this might seem like a foolish overstatement to some, and I understand that. But in our curious state of affairs, there are still a number of places where it’s illegal to keep chickens. Isn’t it strange that in many areas where it’s needed the most, it’s against the law to grow food? That’s why I want those who can do it, to do it. It needs to be normalized. Not just for the practical reasons, but also because a separation from our food is a separation from who we are and where we come from. Ultimately, this disconnect is a roadblock in how we relate to and understand each other.
The severance of my connection with nature, and subsequently my culture, is an experience almost all of us share on some level. When I think about what chickens need — fresh air, sunlight, vegetation — I know that humans need that too, no matter where they live. Don’t get me wrong; I love my modern life. But I know it needs to evolve into something that’s healthier for all of us. So, when I say I dream of chickens, I mean that I dream of them in every suburb and every city. I dream of communities sharing flocks. I dream of them living safely on the roofs of skyscrapers with access to fresh soil and foliage and sun. And I dream of the humans who care for them shedding the stresses of their day, humming a tune, and experiencing a sweet nostalgia for our common ancestry. I know I can’t change the fact that so many of us have been separated from our roots. But maybe we can take our shared experience and use it to grow a new and exciting future. All I’m saying is, chickens seem like a good place to start.
Dalia Monterroso, also known as The President of Chickenlandia, is a backyard chicken educator in the Pacific Northwest. When she’s not teaching classes or doing seminars, you can find her on the popular YouTube channel Welcome to Chickenlandia, as well as across social media. Follow her at Welcome To Chickenlandia.
Important Incubation Facts
Once the hatching process begins, a broody hen will sit tight on her eggs, not leaving the nest even to eat or drink for a day or two, until all the eggs have hatched. Eggs are especially vulnerable to temperature and humidity changes during the hatching process, more so than during incubation. If you’re manually incubating eggs, use a separate incubator or hatcher, when possible, to move the eggs into on Day 19. They’ll no longer require turning at this stage, and the hatcher can be “locked down,” or kept closed until the hatch is complete.
Dalia joins us on the “Mother Earth News and Friends” podcast to talk about brooding: what it is, how to have a successful brooding experience, and how to keep your chicks happy and healthy. Listen at "Ep. 107 What is Brooding."