Outdoor Recreation

Backyard Chickens and Fresh Eggs: Why You Should Have Both

The wizened cook of The Whistlestop Café, Sipsey, said about the local sheriff, "Oh it don't make no kind of sense. Big ol' ox like Grady won't sit next to a colored child. But he eats eggs- shoot right outta chicken's ass!" Grady, in Fried Green Tomatoes, may have been a little bit racist, but he knew the virtue of fresh eggs.

Americans, even urban ones, have been sidling up to the idea of growing their own food, sparked by a yen for better-tasting, healthier fare, food safety concerns, and economic necessity. With backyard gardens more common, the idea of backyard poultry has begun to sneak through the gate. This is a big step. I doubt there is a single country, besides ours, that views the city chicken as a complete aberration.

For us, many miles and many layers of plastic, Styrofoam and abstraction separate city dwellers from the places where their food is grown, so the sound of crowing and clucking has come as a shock. It also flies in the face of local ordinances, which vary widely from one state or municipality to the next. Houston's Municipal Code , for example, spells out the particulars of chicken ownership within city limits. It's not hard to meet the code requirements.

Not all city neighbors are ready to live next door to chickens, although many can be won over by a supply of fresh eggs. Roosters can be unwelcome. Even communities that permit hens sometimes outlaw roosters. If you insist on fertile eggs, for which a rooster is needed, include just one. If he's a problem, you can always make coq au vin.

Eggs from backyard chickens are different from those bought at the store, even when the recyclable package says cage-free, pastured or free-range. The fresh yolks are tastier and colored bright orange, thanks to the hens' access to greens, not to mention bugs and other goodies they snatch up in their foraging. Egg yolks are supposed to be a deep golden orange color, not the pale yellow you get from the store. Fresh eggs have a higher amount of Omega-3 and haven't been processed in any way. If you have never had a truly fresh egg, then I would submit that you really don't know what an egg should taste like. It has a richer, deeper, more velvety flavor and, as cliché as it may sound, it tastes of sunshine. It is a true umami flavor.

Chicken ownership can be a great family activity. It is a lot of fun to watch chickens establish their hierarchy, a literal pecking order, and play tug of war with bugs and your kitchen scraps. If you raise them from eggs, they will imprint on you and even become very snuggly. They will sit in your lap and eat out of your hand. Chicken ownership also teaches lots of responsibility. Whether it's gathering the eggs or cleaning out the hen house, there's work to do everyday with chickens. Making sure they are fed, watered and locked in at night are all important jobs that must be done to keep your backyard flock healthy and safe. Teaching kids to care for a living creature that gives back to them daily is worth the price of a hen.

Chickens can eat almost anything people can, and they adore "people food" -- so you can throw those unwanted leftovers into the chicken run. No more feeling guilty about letting them rot in the fridge or throwing them out. Watch out for garlic and onion scraps, though, unless you want your eggs tasting funny. Chickens are also great for lawn maintenance and composting. Leaves, weeds and grass clippings are a treat for chickens. They'll happily dig through whatever you give them, eat what they can, and pulverize the rest. Give a small flock a heap of yard and garden debris, and a week later it'll be gone without a trace. No need to bag it and pile it by the curb.

A bit of a warning: avoid going rogue by hiding chickens. It crosses everyone's mind when they want to keep backyard chickens, and it's illegal to do so. While creative coop design and great neighbors can allow you to keep chickens under the radar, this situation has ended badly for some. When a new neighbor moves in or the word spreads some other way, you could be faced with a fine and/or your birds being confiscated. Additionally, not following the law could result in undermining the efforts of a chicken legalization campaign. Try changing the system first. Besides, illegal chicken keeping is lonely and less fun -- you can't have coop tours, classes, and other chicken events out in the open.

There are numerous sites that offer guidance to chicken ownership. My Pet Chicken.com and Urban Chickens.com are two of my favorites. Beware of the sites that want to charge you for downloading their guidebooks. I suggest you do some research on your own or with your kids before buying any chickens. For certain, do NOT buy the pretty Easter-colored chicks you may see at this time of year. It is not natural for chickens to come in those colors, and it is better for you to pick out the breed and type of eggs you want than a bright color that was cruelly applied and will fade.

Despite their many merits, backyard chickens are still relatively uncommon. Wow neighbors, friends and family by being the first person they know to have chickens. Amaze them with the green eggs from your Ameraucana hens. Confound them by scooping up your pet chicken and cuddling it. Astound them when your chicken falls asleep in your arms after you've lovingly stroked its comb and wattles. Make them green with envy at the lawn your flock has made effortlessly fabulous. And by all means, don't be afraid to eat an egg that shoots right outta your chicken's ass.

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Patrise Shuttlesworth