If you are ever on a business trip and your wife text-messages you that a skunk has nearly killed your 10 children, you probably will question 1) whether you are living inside a seriously twisted Aesop’s fable or 2) if it was a really good idea to have 10 of them in the first place. After all, you survived just fine with none.
I am of course referring to my avian children, specifically backyard chickens. My real, human, flesh-and-blood, scream-and-prance-around-like-lunatics children total three in number. They, too, are learning some parenting skills since we became avian parents.
Perhaps you have never raised birds from infancy. Nothing should stop you from proceeding to do so. Then you, too, will fully appreciate the subtle joys of skunk survival. It’s possible, and even rewarding, to rear a happy flock of hens. You simply must be willing to sacrifice your composure and your unrealistic worldview that every living thing deserves to be left alone, especially peeping beaked babies. Kids simply don’t know how to leave well enough alone.
Tip #1: Start your first backyard chicken flock with a lack of restraint
The first step to adopting chickens is to go to the farm store and fall helplessly in love with a sea of puffy yellow fuzz balls. In rural Missouri, where I live, there are plenty of these kinds of stores.
As in a grocery store where all of the candy and sugar-laden, FDA-unapproved goods are shelved purposefully at children’s eye level, chicks are placed in boxes topped with metal screens that makes it easy for young people to poke, prod and lock eyes with the sweet little things. As a parent, your eyes will immediately turn to the generous bottles of hand sanitizer atop the overhead cleaning station and the signs that shout at you about salmonella and other unutterable diseases that probably involve worms boring into your intestines.
You will order the chicks online from an approved supplier who vaccinates the youngsters to give them the best fighting chance. Then you will cancel the order because the six-week waiting period is akin to sitting in the doctor’s office flipping through the pages of People magazine. Your family will return to the store and buy three chicks, then the next day go buy seven more.
That’s what we did. Now, you have everything you need for your first starter flock.
Tip #2: Create a vacation resort for chickens in your basement
Chicks are essentially cotton balls glued together and placed atop toothpick legs, so there’s no way my family and I were going to leave them outside. No sir. Instead, we had to fabricate a home from the cage that used to hold the guinea pig (R.I.P. Ernie), place them inside of it, station the cage on what used to be my desk in the basement and fire up the heat lamp. If you enjoy things such as house fires, be sure to leave a cardboard box—intended to hold the chicks while you clean their cage—nearby. I say that because one morning as I prepared to go to work, a white haze began to emanate from the dishwasher. As a dad whose mind rarely puts two and two together, particularly when more coffee is needed, I thought, “Oh, the dishwasher is really creating a lot of steam this morning.” My wife meanwhile, shouted that it was smoke and that something was burning. A frantic run downstairs later, we discovered our oldest son had gotten a little curious and stood on something to get a closer look at the chicks, pushing the cardboard box against the light and burning a nice black-rimmed hole into it.
(If you avoid telling anyone about that little incident, I’d be grateful.)
Tip #3: Concede the fight dramatically
You are really all set at this point to watch the chicks grow up. The only other thing you should know before heading outdoors and placing them in the coop your father-in-law made from an old hog house and barn wood (yes, my father-in-law is awesome) is that you will be charged with cleaning the cage at night.
With a cardboard box. And three boys under age 5 who think it is fun to fawn over the chickens, release them from the box when you aren’t looking and let them flit around the basement. My best advice here is to give up any notion that you, as a parent, have control. You do not. (Is this ringing any bells?) The coop has officially been flown at this point. The biggest fear you will probably have is that the chicks will die a horrible death beneath the shoe of a toddler against a choral backdrop of peeping and shrieking.
Tip #4: Sleep easier once the nightmares fade
Seven or eight weeks into the backyard chicken routine, you’ll safely be able to say it was all worth it, like I did. The chickens are in their teenage years, as my wife refers to it, and our boys know how to open their cage to let the chickens run free. It reminds me of those chick days, so long ago, when they ran around our basement like Sam Neill in “Jurassic Park.”
Your chicks will have names, first Fuzzy, now Peep, then Cockroach (the fast one—my oldest provided the name and the logic).
This is the fake farmer equivalent of you-break-it-you-bought-it. It all happens so quickly you’re left holding a receipt for several hundred dollars, several sacks of feed and a basement from which the smells of Eau de Chicken Litter have faded.
Tip #5: Use it as an educational opportunity for your real children
Scars aside, raising chickens can teach young people several important lessons. They understand better than ever the value of looking after living things—goodness knows they have a hard time understanding the need to care for their own brothers on many occasions—so it’s nice to nurture a sense of parental care. My sons can’t wait to get out of the house every morning to make sure their hens (and two roosters—an unexpected and soon-to-be-literal wakeup call from the farm store) are fed and watered. When one of the hens took a walk in the adjoining woods and couldn’t be found, our oldest son learned the value of persistence and optimism. He kept searching until he found her, happy and healthy, even as his parents feared finding a cluster of bloodied feathers. Above all, the chickens have become a talking point that brings our family together, gives us a common project to work on and makes us laugh as the birds cluck and flutter to their little hearts’ desire after their daily release from the cage.
Supposedly, we’ll also get free eggs out of the deal. Unless the skunk wins next time.
Nate Birt is a Missouri-based journalist with seven years of full-time writing and editing experience. He and his wife have three boys. Follow him @natebirt
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