I admit it, when I first decided to raise egg-laying chickens on Rusty Metal Farm, I honestly thought they were good for one thing — fresh eggs. I could not have been more wrong. It turns out, there’s a lot more to chickens than I had ever imagined.
I’ve been on the chicken learning curve ever since welcoming the first clutch to the farm. Twelve years later, I can still be surprised.
For one thing, until I actually had hens, I gave their entire species very little credit for any level of intelligence. I mean, come on, we are talking about a flightless bird with a brain the size of a peanut.
That brain may be small in size, but don’t let that fool you. Because, well, chickens can fool you and have outsmarted me more than once.
Ever been thwarted by a chicken? Not a proud moment.
Take the time I discovered them marching all over my front deck — a place I really did not want to find the other byproduct that comes out of the south end of a northbound hen. So, feeling quite clever and ever-so-handy, I shooed them off and built two gates at the deck’s entry points.
Not five minutes later I heard something on my enclosed back porch — three or four of the chickens had wandered around the house and up the stairs to that porch. This was a simpler fix — so I thought. I again shooed them away and shut the door to the porch. Several minutes later, there was a tapping on my door. They were back, having gained entrance through the cat door on the porch.
Chickens, or at least mine, do not give up easily.
Then there was the day I decided to reseed the area next to my garage. I purchased a bag of conservation seed mix, carefully spread it over the area in need of new grass, covered it all with straw and congratulated myself on a job well done.
The chickens were especially happy with my work. They dashed to the new seeds and treated my work like the best outdoor seed buffet ever. I learned to live with the gravel next to the garage instead of grass.
I certainly never expected chickens to have distinct personalities. Some enjoy being around people, while others are shy and at least one considers herself the guardian of the flock.
This guardian on my farm is an Aruacana, a egg-laying breed that produces eggs with green shells. The birds and eggs are really quite lovely. But man, this is one chicken with whom I do not mess. She’s one of my older gals and laid her last egg sometime in 2018. But if any of the other birds feel threatened, here she comes around a corner with her eyes blazing and wings spread shrieking at the top of her lungs. It’s daunting, to say the least.
The friendlier members of the flock follow me around outside as I do chores or walk to the pond.
Chickens are also capable of learning new things and have memories that rival those of an elephant.
Back when I had sled dogs, I fed the team at roughly the same time every afternoon. My chickens soon learned that if they saw me carrying a bucket of kibble, I would toss them a few pieces as a treat.
Soon, they were congregating outside the door to my shop where I kept the kibble, waiting for me. Once winter hits, they do not free roam outside of their coop. But come spring, the first day they are outside they will again congregate at that door, as if they were waiting all winter for kibble.
And all it took was one time of my tossing them some tasty treats off that front deck for them to start rushing toward it if they spot me coming outside, all in the hopes of more treats coming at them.
Speaking of treats, who could imagine chickens could be picky eaters or junk food junkies? While they will deign to eat raw vegetable scraps such as carrot peels or apple cores, they really would rather have cooked vegetables with butter, cake, pasta, potato chips or pizza.
I’ve been on a health kick for the past several months and really watching what I eat, which means the chickens had to go cold turkey — pun intended — on junk food. They are not happy, and I felt bad enough I actually bought a bag of popcorn for them recently. Buttered, of course.
It’s not just me who has a complicated relationship with their chickens. Recently I wrote of a woman in Maine who discovered one of her chickens was sneaking into her house to lay an egg a day on her bed.
Other people have told me tales of their own chickens — some ride in the car with them, some like to ride in baby strollers and there are even some who ride on the handlebars of bicycles.
When you put all this together, frankly getting eggs is really just an added bonus given the joy and amusement these chickens provide. And trust me, the learning curve continues.