The back yard chicken movement is big right now. And I’m glad it is. I really am. But I have a confession to make: chickens aren’t my favorite. I love poultry, particularly the dual purpose heritage breeds, birds that naturally reproduce without human help. But it’s the duck and turkey I’m partial to. Not the chicken!
Oh, I don’t mind chickens. In fact, they’ve cackled their way throughout my entire history. If I had to choose between chickens or nothing at all, I’d definitely get chickens. But they aren’t my first pick. How come? Here’s the honest truth from a gal who has spent a lifetime with crowing roosters and cackling hens.
Chickens are Scavengers
When it comes to farm animals, the chicken and hog have similar tendencies: they’re garbage disposals, eating (almost) anything, and strangely enough, even each other at times. My lack of passion for chickens began at childhood. Coming out one day to discover a dead, rotting chicken in the corner of our large pen was gross. Seeing the other birds eating it was even more…unpleasant.
Suddenly, our chickens make me think of turkey buzzards (vultures) that were plentiful in our valley during summer months. Not a pleasant association for a young farm gal who had seen these red-headed, black birds cleaning up carcasses that could be smelled from a long way off. For some, the chicken’s scavenging ability is considered economical. When compared to the clean-eating duck or turkey, chickens are in all reality…unpleasant.
What They Eat Affects Our Bodies
Of course, just because some chickens eat rotting carcasses doesn’t mean yours have to. You can control what they eat unless free ranging on a large piece of property. But if your birds are always eating junk food, not only will it affect the nutritional content of their eggs and meat, but they will be more likely to contract parasites or other diseases.
And though our fast-growing, modern meat birds are fed a clean, high protein diet, I’m not a fan of them either. In fact, after our first experience butchering Double Cornish X Rocks, we decided to raise heritage turkeys for meat instead. Read about that in a previous blog post: Heritage Turkeys vs Broilers: Weighing the Difference.
Roosters Can be Rough With Hens
In order to propagate your own pure-bred flock, you must have roosters. Put too many (or one with too high testosterone) in a flock of hens and they can literally damage your layers. Often, aggressive roosters remove so many feathers from a hen’s back due to continual mating that they begin scratching up flesh. Egg production often ceases when this begins and you must be careful to keep other birds from picking at the exposed (and often scabby) area. In comparison to the duck or turkey, males are very rough on hens.
Chickens Pick at Each Other’s Injuries
Every animals needs adequate space in order to avoid certain ‘behavioral’ issues. Unless free-ranged or give lots of space, chickens are known for picking at one another. Wounds or exposed skin (rooster inflicted or accidental) seem to be an invitation for this activity. Why? Perhaps it has to do with their scavenging nature? Injured chickens often have to be removed from the pen or their “friends” will only compound the issue.
Roosters Can Be Dangerous to Children
But if you want a self-propagating flock, at least one cock is necessary. It’s not uncommon for folks to keep more if predators are an issue. Not only are roosters often rough with laying hens, but if you have young children helping on the barnyard, roosters should be a concern. I’ve seen more than one cock attempt to spur young children in the face while they were going about farm chores, even knocking them off their feet. Children have lost eyes due to the aggression of the rooster. Don’t underestimate him!
Layers Are Sensitive to Wet & Cold
Growing up on the wet northwest coast of Oregon, we discovered that if our chickens were locked up in the dry hen house instead of being allowed to roam the damp, puddled pen, their egg production held steady. Turning them loose to roam when it was wet and cold led to a serious decrease in the laying department. Was it the lack of exercise that made them lay? Or was it actually having dry, warm feet? We concluded that egg production went hand in hand with dry, warm feet! If anyone can confirm this (or has another explanation), I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Layers Can be Fussy
The hen can be protective of her eggs. If you collect while she’s still on the nest, you’re trespassing on her territory. This mindset is most common among hens who desire (but are not allowed) to brood. As a child, I remember putting on long sleeves or gloves in order to avoid getting beat up. Unlike the rounded beak of the duck, hens can almost draw blood with their strong, designed-for-tearing beaks. Whatever you do, don’t let them get hold of loose skin!
Chicken’s Eggs Rank Low on the Nutritional Scale
On average, chicken eggs are not only smaller than those of a duck or turkey, but contain less B vitamins, protein, fatty acids, cholesterol, selenium and iron. Chicken eggs are more acidic than the other two. For this reason, folks looking to balance their pH do well to avoid the eggs of this particular bird. For some, chicken eggs are even more difficult to digest. Those who have sensitivities to this birds egg can sometimes consume the duck or turkey’s without complications.
Chickens Disturb Exposed Soil
While this can be a positive, it often turns into a negative with free-ranging birds. Unless confined to a pen, chickens will disturb newly seeded garden rows, uproot young seedlings and even kill plants in the flower bed. Their activity can expose the roots of larger berry plants and bushes. Helpful if they are supposed to cultivate the earth in those particular areas. Not so helpful if they destroy your crop!
Chickens Are Noisy
In comparison to *most* other poultry (guinea fowl hold first place), the chicken’s voice is sharp, shrill and carries well. As much as I love the rooster’s early morning call, I don’t understand the chickens’ need for constant noise! Every time the hen lays an egg, you’ll be informed due to her very vocal “announcement.” Whenever it goes forth, several other hens will feel the need to join in. And don’t forget about barnyard squabbles! If you have a large flock (25-35 birds) you can expect almost constant noise from before morning light into late afternoon hours.
Conclusion About Chickens
No, my friends, chickens are not my first pick. I’ve come the conclusion that if we have no choice but to get chickens, we’ll get chickens. But I’d prefer to raise ducks for eggs (particularly when living in a colder climate), heritage turkeys for meat and if more meat is needed, butcher the neighbor’s old, unwanted hens. And if we ever have children who really want chickens, we’ll do it. But until then, we’re happy without them.
The Alternative: Ducks for Eggs
I like ducks. In my experience, they are quieter, deal with cold better than chickens, on average are gentler with each other and small people. Particular breeds are known for being wonderful layers and will produce steadily up to 5 years of age! My all-time favorite is the Khaki Campbell. Not only do they produce a high number of eggs each year, but some will hatch their own young as well. If keeping ducks intrigues you, my friend has a wonderful blog post 10 Reasons to Keep Ducks on the Homestead that will give you a good start.
The Alternative: Heritage Turkeys for Meat and Eggs
When it comes to meat production, I’m all about heritage turkeys. They are cold hardy and capable of caring for themselves. These birds are able to 100% free range, much like the goose. Helpful for controlling the bug population, they are very quiet and gentle. Heritage turkeys are capable of mating and hatching out on their own (unlike most meat birds). This is our self-sufficient favorite option! If interest to learn more, check out my very reasonably priced e-book on Amazon: “Nurturing the Natural Bird.”