Beneath the yellow light of a heat lamp, fluffy little yellow puffs chirp and scurry about. Priced at $3.50 each, the cute little chicks can be found filling up bins at homesteading or farming supply stores this spring and can quickly lead to an oh-so tempting impulse to buy. It’s an easy decision, right? Baby chicks are fun to cuddle, and once they grow up, you’ll have farm-fresh eggs. But what does it take to provide for these little lives? The answer may not be so simple.
According to Annamaria Bowman, the founder of Chicken Rescue and Sanctuary in Hendersonville, raising chickens is a great responsibility. “It’s a long-term commitment,” Bowman notes. “They live a long life, and they need proper housing, fencing, food, plus veterinary care.”
Since the launch of Chicken Rescue in 2009, the 4 acres that Bowman owns with her husband, Paul Bowman, have been transformed into a haven and retirement center for over 80 hens, all of them abandoned, rescued or forfeited because they no longer lay eggs. A common misconception about chickens is that they always provide eggs, Bowman says. But a hen only lays for the first three years of her life — and a healthy hen can live up to 12 years. “By the second year they lay just 80 percent of the first year, and every year it’s decreasing,” she explains. “By the time the chicken is 4, it lays almost nothing.”
Thinking of keeping chickens this spring? “If you aren’t prepared to keep them until they die of natural causes, then don’t do it,” Bowman stresses. “If you are planning to move, you better have a plan B for the chickens.”
That may mean a long-term commitment for a hefty chunk of Asheville. Turns out, the city is “chickening” like never before, says Cathy Williams, the founder of Asheville City Chickens. In 2009, Williams, along with a team of citizen activists, lobbied to relax the restrictions on raising chickens within city limits. “The ordinance on city chickens was so restrictive that nobody could comply,” she explains. “The city required that a coop be kept 100 feet from a neighbor, but we were able to change that to 10 feet.”
Williams says that if you’re ready to take the plunge and commit to your feathered friends, the next step in successful chicken-keeping is preparation and predator-proofing. “Proper housing is key,” she says, explaining that chickens need a coop with a sturdy foundation to protect them from predators that dig (like foxes and possums), a run that’s netted to defend against predators that fly (like hawks) and a sturdy fence to protect them from everything else.
Bowman adds, “If the yard is not fenced, if there’s no netting on the top, you’re going to lose them one by one.”
But once you’ve got the housing built, don’t think your work is done — proper chicken care is a year-round task. Bowman says that the birds also need a shady place to escape from direct sun. In the summer, she recommends cooling the coop with a fan, and in winter she suggests heating the coop to at least 50 degrees.
If you’re not going to heat the coop, Williams says it’s vital to choose a hardy breed that can withstand cold temperatures. Daily observation of the bird’s habits and behavior is also essential, she adds. “Chickens are extremely tough and hardy, and yet very fragile all at the same time,” she says. “They can withstand a lot of pain, so you don’t necessarily know when their injured or sick.”
Diane Oxford, who has been raising chickens in her backyard since the city ordinance was relaxed, adds that just like a family dog or cat, chickens have needs that impact the quality of their life. “Every chicken needs to live as close to a normal life as it can whether or not it’s raised for eggs or meat,” she notes. “A chicken needs to scratch in the dirt, it needs to be able to take a dirt bath, to peck around in the yard and find bugs in the grass. It needs to spread its wings and flap. They’re very social, so they need a family. You can’t just get one chicken.”
All these instructions may seem overwhelming, but Oxford says that though backyard chicken-keeping may be a resurgent trend, city dwellers have actually been doing this for decades. “Up until the ‘40s and ‘50’s, it was very common in the older neighborhoods and in cities, to have chicken coops,” she says. “Industrialization and the thought that you can buy cheap eggs in the grocery store without raising your own, changed all that, and it became a status thing [to buy eggs]. But Asheville is changing that.”
In fact, these local chicken keepers point out that one of the most compelling reason for backyard chicken-keeping is to provide an ethical alternative to those grocery store eggs, most of which come from factory farming. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 99 percent of all the chicken and eggs consumed in America come from factory farms, meaning “almost 9 billion chickens are killed for their meat every year, while another 300 million languish in tiny cages producing our country’s eggs.” The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply adds that 95 percent of U.S. eggs come from birds raised in battery cages where each animal is given roughly 67 square inches of space.
As part of her work at the sanctuary, Bowman has worked to rescue many factory farm chickens. Recalling 16 layers she rescued last spring, Bowman says, “Their combs were overgrown and covering their eyes so they couldn’t see [and] their nails were an inch or an inch-and-a-half long. In the cage, they can’t spread their wings.”
Bowman adds that layers are often featherless, a result of stacked cages where they defecate on top of each other and the acidic waste burns them to the skin. She says that a broiler she attempted to rescue suffered a heart attack due to the stress of bring confined its entire life and then shipped to a slaughterhouse. “In this world, somebody has to be there to be their voice,” she notes. “And that’s what we try to do.” But educating people about the reality of factory farmed chicken isn’t easy. “They don’t want to hear about it because they don’t want to face it,” she says.
Both Williams and Oxford add that even a careful reading of labels in the grocery store may not keep you from supporting the mistreatment of factory farm fowl. In fact, Williams strongly advocates against all store-bought eggs as terms such as “cage-free” and “free-range” have no legal definition in the United States in regard to layers and only a limited definition for broilers. Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture applies restrictions to the term “organic” — including that the animal be given organic feed, receive no hormones or antibiotics and be free-range — animal activists point out that the certification is meaningless in terms of the animals’ well-being if free-range remains an arbitrary term.
“It doesn’t matter what the sign says,” Williams notes. “If it says ‘cage-free,’ that means nothing. If it says ‘organic,’ that means nothing. If it says ‘free-range,’ that means nothing.”
Oxford adds, “Free-range means you can have a [massive] building with one little door at the very end that’s open only 20 minutes a day. There are a lot of loopholes for large-production farms.”
Backyard chicken-keeping can provide the peace of mind that comes with knowing where your eggs come from and be an empowering way to reclaim the relationship between hen and human, Oxford notes. “They all have individual personalities,” she says. “They’re just adorable. When we come home, they’re right at the back door waiting for treats. Mine even come into the kitchen.”
And if you’re successful in providing a safe, happy home for your chickens, the birds will remain loyal companions even after their egg-laying years are over, Williams adds. “My chickens have become my pets, and I don’t eat my pets,” she says. “So, when [people] ask me what happens when they stop laying. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I still love ‘em.’”