ABOUT three years ago, my wife and I "happened" upon some chickens. A family friend had gotten caught up in the recent rage of urban chicken acquisition and had obtained six chickens. They had forgotten to obtain any housing for them, so we offered to help out and take three of the birds. We read up on chicken husbandry, built a coop and drove over to bring home our new flock in cat carriers.
Here's the upside to chicken ownership:
* Great, fresh eggs, every day (on average, each chicken lays one egg per day).
* No need to buy eggs anymore - a cost savings, and we know our chickens are humanely treated.
* Fun for the kids to watch (us, too - chickens are hilarious goofballs).
* Easy disposal of our kitchen waste - they eat everything (as long as it's not moldy or an avocado; avocados are chicken kryptonite).
Now, here's the downside:
* They are noisy: They squabble and fight like junior-high girls at the Filene's Basement shoe sale rack.
* Poo. Everywhere. There's no way to potty train a chicken, and there's no such thing as a chicken diaper. We let them out for some fresh air and bug-eating, and they poo. A lot. Everywhere.
* Although ours have tested negative for salmonella, I do worry about our family's exposure to it, given the large amount of poo around. (More on this below.)
* We will never, ever have nice landscaping. In their obsessive quest to find the juicy bugs and worms, they dig up everything. Then, for good measure, they poo on it.
Chickens have become a feathery emblem of the "new naturism" - if you fancy yourself a self-sustaining, eco-minded person, a wee flock is de rigueur these days. And, like many fads, the initial rose-tinted joy soon fades to reality. Chickens can carry salmonella and a few other bacterial baddies. These can do a number on your GI tract and really put a hurting on you if you're very young, very old or have weakened immunity. If you get it, you'll be hugging the commode for a few days, or worse.
We constantly clean up after them. Washing hands after handling them or the eggs is a must. Here is some CDC info on safe home chicken ownership: http://ph.ly/chickens. Another great source is the community of support at Backyard Chickens: www.backyardchickens.com.
Egg handling is important, too. There is a healthy debate about washing the eggs: Some say it removes an invisible slime layer that keeps bacteria out, while some say to wash them. We don't wash our eggs (unless they are really dirty), but just wipe them off. Here is a link to safe egg-handling information: http://ph.ly/eggs.
The life of a chicken owner is easy, delicious and fun. But you don't want to get halfway into it and say to yourself, "What the cluck were we thinking?" With a little prep, a little reading and a little precaution you, too, can safely enjoy all the benefits of having your own flock!