If you frequent Coop Thoughts, chances are you caught this recent coop-building story by Morgan Emrich. I love his take on things, so I invited him to author a post about his experience keeping chickens. Here it is. . .
Kids, Meet Chickens
I would love to raise my kids on a farm. For a lot of reasons, that’s not going to happen. Like the majority of Americans I’m tethered to the city. But that doesn’t mean my children (9, 7, and 5 years old) can’t learn some of the lessons that farm kids take for granted.
Turns out a small flock of hens in the backyard can go a long way towards exposing children to things most city dwellers only get to read about in books. The concepts of natural cycles, environmental stewardship, biology, and our place in nature are no longer abstractions for my kids. Thanks to a small coop and a few chickens, these types of things have become concrete realities.
In particular, their feathered teachers have taught them five key lessons:
1. Where Their Food Really Comes From
Last spring, we had a young hen that hadn’t yet laid an egg. My younger daughter picked her up at the exact moment she decided to produce an egg. The egg settled in the crook of her arm. It’s possible for a kid to believe that eggs come from the back of grocery stores, but watching an egg come out the backside of chicken makes it pretty hard to hold onto that belief.
This morning, my seven-year-old son asked where bacon comes from. I told him what a pork belly is and how it’s cured and smoked. He shrugged and chewed away. It’s no shock to him that food comes from animals. When a chicken goes in the crockpot he knows what it is. He understands that dinner used to be walking around, pecking away, and crowing or laying eggs. He also knows that we want that animal to have been treated humanely when it was alive.
2. Natural Cycles
When you care for chickens, it’s hard to ignore some basic natural laws; namely, that nature operates in a cyclical fashion, and everything is connected. City life leads many kids to believe that food appears in big trucks from faraway places, it gets eaten, and its remains get hauled away. No more consideration on the subject is needed.
With the help of our chickens, what comes into our household, stays in our household (Vegas wishes it had it so good!). Our kids bring our table scraps out to the coop and exchange them for some fresh eggs. And even after we eat those eggs, the cycle keeps spinning — the shells go into the compost, releasing their minerals to the soil, the vegetables, then to us or our hens.
Of course, it’s possible to learn this same lesson with simply a compost pile, but composting isn’t nearly as fun to watch as a group of hungry hens tearing into last night’s dinner.
3. Our Dependence on the Countryside
Fact is, backyard chickens or not, cities depend on the surrounding countryside for their survival. We all depend on a healthy farm economy. We depend on a healthy ecosystem and people working the land for our way of life to continue. Obvious maybe, but hard to actually see in daily life.
A trip to the country feed store to pick up chicks offers a peek into a different world. Agricultural tools, supplies, animals aplenty. My children have visited small farms and country folk to buy pullets, straw, and feed — not to mention countless trips to u-pick farms. More than once, we’ve left with live hens in one arm and frozen rabbits or meat in the other, all the while developing relationships with people who make a living off the land.
4. How to Treat Each Other
Joel Salatin raises cows, chickens, and hogs on his world-famous Polyface Farm in Virginia. His animals live mainly outside. They breathe fresh air, eat grass and bugs, and generally live splendid lives. He rails against confined animal operations that have become the norm across our country. While Salatin has empathy for the animals, his main concern is more far-reaching, more about humanity than about the individual animals. Salatin says that when a culture treats animals with disregard, it’s easy to extend that same disregard to our fellow humans. We risk becoming more callous toward life in general and less sensitive to the pain we inflict on others.
When we’re building coops, buying feed, and fencing off areas of the yard, my kids and I have conversations about the choices we are making. Will this be enough room to keep them happy? Is there enough calcium in the feed for egg production? Do you think that they’ll be protected from the wind in this kind of coop? Is there enough sunshine in this spot?
To answer these questions correctly — heck, to ask them in the first place — we need to assume a relationship exists between the hens and us. If we can keep them happy and provide for some very basic needs, we’ll benefit by getting yummy, healthy eggs. It’s a reciprocal relationship where we both benefit. If we keep the hens happy, they’ll help keep us fed. If we treat them poorly, they’ll suffer from ill health, maybe even death, and we’ll suffer from a loss of eggs, at the very least.
It’s hard to imagine a better model for how we should treat each other: look out for one another, lend a hand, and don’t demand too much in return.
5. Life and Death
My children have seen baby chicks die for unknown reasons. A neighbor’s dog got into the yard recently and killed two hens. My daughter held a wake, kind words were spoken, and the beloved ladies were buried in the backyard, deep beneath where our new hens now poke around.
Last summer, a farmer skillfully butchered a few of our older hens as we watched. My kids know that life literally goes on — and they understand it in a way that other kids (cousins, friends) do not. It might be overly dramatic to say that our chickens gave their lives so that we could learn these things, but it’s true in a sense, and I’m grateful to them for that.
A More Natural Life
It’s entirely possible to teach my kids about ecology, animal rights, and the cycles of life by using books, videos, and lectures. Parents and teachers attempt it all the time. Possible. But I have my doubts that any of it really sticks. There’s very little that is life-affirming about those methods. Nothing replaces feeding, caring for, and protecting an actual living being. An animal that your kids can partner with to make, in some small way, a more natural life.
Morgan Emrich is a freelance writer, husband, father of three, and caretaker of a Leghorn and an Araucana, a.k.a.”South American Rumpless” (a good name if there ever was one). He lives in Portland, Oregon.
What lessons, big or small, have you or your children learned by caring for chickens? Share your thoughts in the comments below.