“Chickens get stressed,” Mary Jane explained as she opened the door to her homemade chicken coop and revealed a lovely oil painting on the wall, beside the shelf of droppings and above the woodchip floor. The painting helps create a stress-relieving, country-quaint atmosphere for this mixed urban/rural environment that Mary Jane Brotherson and her husband Tom Russell have created for their chickens in their backyard.
The couple owns five hens that lay eggs in a well-lit and insulated homemade coop that is attached to a gated outdoor area. The birds are also allowed to roam and graze in the backyard, outside the gate, provided that a human is there to watch them. The couple purchased the birds as baby chicks in the spring of this year and now, after six months of growth, each hen produces one egg on an average of every 25 to 26 hours, for about five eggs total each day.
Tom and Mary Jane are among a growing number of Ames residents who keep backyard chickens for their eggs. The city of Ames allows the possession of certain production livestock, provided that the animals are kept clean and do not violate any noise ordinances. Chickens are by far the most common backyard animal and hens are often favored over roosters because they are less noisy, less territorial, and less aggressive than their male counterparts.
“My girls didn’t need a cock,” Mary Jane told Jerrod and me as we walked out back to see her coop. “There may be a lesson in that.” Her hens – each of which has been lovingly named after one of Tom and Mary Jane’s great-grandmothers – get along well with one another and have established an easy-going, nonviolent pecking order.
Chickens, though, do not always get along easily. Ames resident Nitin Gadia worked at Growing Power, an urban farm in Milwaukee, and occasionally witnessed less-than-placid relations among the chickens. “When there’s a wound on a chicken and it’s bleeding, the other chickens peck at the wound,” he said. “They’re pretty brutal animals . . . of course, we’re eating them.”
Mary Jane, too, pointed out that chickens appear to be particularly drawn to the color red and need a good deal of protein in their diet, which also leads them to eat their own eggs if they break. But as long as the chickens have enough space, wounds can be minimized and pleasant relations maintained. Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, the standard text for the subject, recommends three to four feet of room in the coop for each chicken. Or, as Mary Jane puts it, “enough space not to stress them out.”
In addition to providing enough space, the backyard chicken farmer can also assure health by creating hygienic conditions. Chickens will largely take care of their own hygiene by giving themselves a “dust bath.” The birds will periodically root around in dry soil, fluffing up their feathers. Rather than making them dirty, the dirt cleans them by using the abrasion of the dust to rid their feathers of parasites, such as mites. Some chicken farmers, including Tom and Mary Jane, mix diatomaceous earth – a scratchy powder made of fossilized algae, which dehydrates mites – into the cleansing dust as an organic alternative to pesticides.
Now that the couple’s hens are producing daily, they look forward to fresh eggs all through the winter. Their coop is protected by an inch-thick layer of insulation and will only require minimal heating in the winter. They have a water heater to keep the birds’ water from freezing, but other than that, the body heat of the animals and the heat generated by their compostable droppings will keep them warm enough for egg-laying.
After taking us on the backyard tour of their chicken operation, Tom and Mary Jane took Jerrod and me into their home to eat omelets made from eggs laid in their backyard – the most truly local eggs I have ever eaten, laid only a few feet from where we sat. The couple usually starts the day with eggs but generally prefers to fry them.
As we sat at the table after the meal, Mary Jane showed us pictures and diagrams from here chicken-raising reference books.
“Do you intend to ever butcher them?” Jerrod asked.
Mary Jane said, “NO!”