Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Chickens as pets

Chickens can make loving and gentle companion animals, but can sometimes become aggressive. Some have advised against keeping certain breeds around young children, as the chickens can become territorial and violent. In Asia, chickens with striking plumage have long been kept for ornamental purposes, including feather-footed varieties such as the Cochin from Vietnam and Silkie from China and the extremely long-tailed Phoenix from Japan. Asian ornamental varieties were imported into the United States and Great Britain in the late 1800s. Distinctive American varieties of chickens have been developed from these Asian breeds. Poultry fanciers began keeping these ornamental birds for exhibition, a practice that continues today.

While some cities in the United States still allow chickens as pets, the practice is quickly disappearing. Individuals in rural communities commonly keep chickens for both ornamental and practical value. Some communities ban only roosters, allowing the quieter hens. Many zoos use chickens instead of insecticides to control insect populations.

Keeping a few chickens as backyard pets is surprisingly easy to do. The major challenge is protecting the birds from predators such as dogs, raccoons and foxes. The birds will need a secure place to sleep at night. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. For a few birds allowed to roam free during the day, a large doghouse-type structure with a locking door will serve just fine. Some kind of bedding such as straw or wood shavings should be provided on the floor. Nest boxes will make egg collection easier. If the birds are left in the structure during the day, a larger, more elaborate structure would be necessary.

Chickens naturally return to the same spot to roost every night. On most occasions they will put themselves to bed and your only job would be to make sure the door is shut and locked before nightfall. It is best to count the birds each night as sometimes a bird will not find his or her way back into the coop. A bird left out at night is likely to be killed by a predator.

Most chickens cannot fly well and are easily contained with 3-4' fencing. Birds which are allowed to roam the yard during the day are quite effective at controlling insects of all types. Areas of bare dirt will benefit from the weed control and soil cultivation provided by the birds in their never-ending search for food. The birds, however, will pick at plants and grass and may cause some damage to ground-cover with their scratching. Also chickens will eat most any kind of food scraps.

The eggs themselves can be quite different from the store purchased variety. Fresh yolks are quite "perky" and stand tall above the white. The yolk color is frequently a deeper color than the pale yellow of commercially raised eggs and can at times be almost a dark orange.

Growing chickens can be tamed by feeding them a special treat (such as mealworms) by hand, and by being with them for at least ten minutes daily when they are young. Even older birds can be tamed considerably by hand-feeding leftover table scraps. It can be fun to help the birds forage by turning rocks over and watching them grab worms and bugs that typically can be found in these dark, moist areas. The chickens quickly associate you with a source of food and will become your constant companion when you are both in the yard.

A former recurring skit on the weekly comedy show Saturday Night Live featured a chicken pet store with the Chinese owner (as played by Dana Carvey) not wishing to sell to customers on the basis that "Chickens make lousy house pets."