The Zen of Chicken Coops

By Keith Kloor | July 24, 2013 12:09 pm

When I was a boy growing up on suburban Long Island in the 1970s, my grandfather had a chicken coop enclosed behind a mesh wire fence in his West Babylon backyard.  Like many of his generation seared by the 1930s depression, he developed a self-reliance and waste-not ethic (dare I leave food on my dinner plate) before it became fashionable to live off the land and reduce your carbon footprint.

When my brother and I would visit our grandparents we were sometimes recruited to help sweep the chicken coop.  This disabused me of ever wanting to have a chicken coop of my own later in life. If you have not grown up on a farm and you have never worried about having enough food to eat, and you have cleaned a chicken coop just once in your life, then you know what I’m talking about.

The act of sweeping out the feathers and chicken shit while trying to hold your nose and ignore the frenzied cacophony is not for the dainty. But it seems that backyard chicken coops are the latest fad for moderns seeking a taste of the rural idyll. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported on the “modern homesteader” craze, which includes a demand for $1,300 ready-made chicken coops. (I’m pretty sure my grandfather built his own.) From the WSJ article:

“We’ve definitely seen the shift,” says Rob Ludlow, owner of BackYardChickens.com, an online community of about 170,000 chicken enthusiasts. “People wanting to be self-sufficient and eating locally grown food is synonymous with people who are affluent.”

Homesteaders say their back-to-the-land activities go beyond mere hobbies and provide emotional nourishment and a certain inner peace. Eliza Zimmerman, 55, and her husband, Peter, a 57-year-old architect, tend vegetable and herb gardens and three beehives on their 10-acre property with an 1890s farmhouse in Chester Springs, Pa., outside Philadelphia. On the agenda for spring: chickens.

“It’s what I did with my grandmother—the chickens, the gardening, the canning, the bees,” Ms. Zimmerman says. “It is my Zen—a memory of what made me feel safe and good and warm.” And jars of homemade honey make great gifts, she adds.

That’s called nostalgia. (As some have observed, including the geographer David Lowenthal, “The past is a foreign country.”) I have lots of wonderful childhood memories, too, but none of them are about chicken coops. So I’m not surprised to learn, via Jayson Lusk, that for the uninitiated, tending chickens has not turned out to be a warm and fuzzy experience for everyone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having a green thumb and reestablishing a connection to nature. I’d like my own kids to have a better (even visceral) understanding of the farming life and where their food comes from. And it’s not as if growing one’s own herbs and vegetables is some new chic activity. When I was a teenager my mother and stepfather had a lush garden outside our house. I remember it fondly (except the weeding part). Today, backyard gardens in suburbia are ubiquitous.

But I’m willing to bet that the sudden interest in backyard chicken coops will be a passing fad. After all, there’s a reason why when I was a boy I was the one behind the mesh wire sweeping out my grandfather’s foul-smelling chicken coop, not him (on days I visited). Trust me when I say I cannot summon up any zen-like feelings from those times.

[UPDATE: Readers have made me aware of this recent post on "abandoned chickens" and this excellent essay on the food movement's pastoral romanticism. And here's an NBC story titled, "Backyard chickens dumped at shelters when hipsters can't cope, critics say."]

Naturally, I am a big fan of free-range chickens.

Chicken Run

I will always root for the chickens.

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: agriculture, farming, select
  • harrywr2

    My neighbor tried doing free range chickens in his backyard.

    The raccoons quite enjoyed eating the chickens.

    Securing a small building from raccoons is a lot easier then securing a 1/4 acre lot.

    • Buddy199

      My brother did the back to the land thing a few years ago. The deer and rabbits loved his vegetables and flower garden; he had to build a fence fit for a medium security prison yard to keep them out. Then the expensive koi started disappearing. His neighbor mentioned that one morning he saw a hawk waiting patiently up in a tree behind the house; as soon as my brother left for work the hawk swooped down and snagged a koi. To us it’s a farm, to Nature it’s an all you can eat free buffet.

      • jh

        My neighbors built a very attractive gold fish pond and stocked it right up with fat juicy gold fish. The great blue herons loved it.

  • Bernie Mooney

    Chickens are evil. They do stuff like surround 4-year old boys and peck at the pearl colored buttons on his sport coat giving the child a lifelong fear of chickens and birds. Or so I’ve been told.

  • mem_somerville

    A couple of years back there was an interesting piece on farming nostalgia that I think about a lot in food system discussions: http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/essays/pastoral-romance.php?page=all

    I find there are many sepia-toned perceptions of history that don’t match reality. This plays out in a lot of discussions–not just food–but it’s particularly heavily sepia there.

    I expect it to swing back around in another few years after a few more people catch a whiff of coops and manure-filled yards.

    • Buddy199

      You mean real life isn’t like an episode of Green Acres?

    • jh

      Not to mention the many pests they attract – ‘coons, coyotes, rats, mice, starlings…perhaps even an occasional weasel.

      • AnonymouseIsAWoman

        As I posted above, ignorant people leaving pet food out or having unsecured garbage cans attracts more pests than a well maintained poultry yard; if properly fence and secured, the pests realize that chicken is not on the menu.
        Manure management isn’t as complicated as people think. For a small flock, one puts plop boards under the roosts to be scraped and dumped weekly. For a larger flock, you build a manure pit under the roosts, screened to let manure fall in and to keep birds out. The bottom of the pit gets a layer of chopped straw or wood chips or shavings. If you notice an odor, you simply cover it with another layer of shavings of manure and a dash of agricultural lime. It composts in place.
        The floor of the coop gets chopped straw, wood chips, shavings, whatever composts well with manure. Rake it over, and it will also compost in place.
        This method is known as “deep litter” and was practiced by old time farmers who were always behind on their work. In the 1940s poultry researchers studied it, and discovered it had significant benefits in both manure management and also provided a then unknown essential dietary factor, now known as vitamin B-12 since chickens dig in it for the fly parasites.
        Backyard coops were common in most cities through the 1930s when they disappeared as a result of restrictions in the FHA loan programs. There used to be urban flock contests for schoolchildren.
        Heck, until at least the early 20th Century goats and dairy cattle were found in the backyards in some major American cities.

    • AnonymouseIsAWoman

      Huh? The average small chicken flock produces a lot less manure than a pair of moderate sized dogs or housecats.

      More pests are attracted by the ignorant people who leave cat and dog food out in the yard or don’t secure their garbage cans than by a properly maintained chicken coop. I find that if I want to grow corn in the backyard, it needs an electric fence to keep the raccoons out – and this was before I decided to have chickens again as an adult.

      Chicken manure around here gets mixed with the garden waste and turned into compost; people are actually willing to pay for the resulting product.

  • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

    Nah! I think you’ll have a sudden desire for a backyard coop once you have grandkids …

  • CockRobin

    Forget chickens – ducks are where it’s at.

  • Joshua

    Oops (a bit of a misunderstanding there – I guess my bad word got my post into moderation?)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

    I guess you didn’t notice that I was speaking specifically to the backyard chicken coop fad and was’t commenting on the whole urban farmer movement.

    You write: “Given that my partner lived on a farm for years, and she’s the one who wants chickens, I guess she’s not quite as freaked out by you as something so icky as cleaning up chicken shit.”

    I guess you read past this part when I said:

    “If you have not grown up on a farm and you have never worried about having enough food to eat, and you have cleaned a chicken coop just once in your life, then you know what I’m talking about.”

    After you set up your rural homestead, do send me a picture of you cleaning the chicken coop that first time you do it–I assume you’ll help your partner do it? I’ll post it on the blog.

  • Facebook User

    Raising chickens isn’t for everyone. It’s the idealists who don’t understand the responsibility and work involved. Count the cost before jumping in. A $1300 coop? Wow, I built mine for less than a third of that.

  • AnonymouseIsAWoman

    I had chickens in high school, from time to time my grandparents had chickens, and cleaning a coop is a lot less unpleasant than cleaning a catbox.

    • Krista

      Totally! But again, if you’re chickens are well cared for… Maybe the author’s grandfather had too many hens in one coop and left it for too long, or had the the mess baking in the sun…

  • Krista

    We have 6 free-range hens and a home-built coop that is well-organized, but I haven’t thought of having chickens as romantic. Are you kidding me? It’s a commitment. We chose this path for two reasons. (1) We reluctantly agreed to do this in the beginning for our 8 year old when he wanted to have a few chickens instead of a big dog (picking up dog poop is not less gross than mucking out a small well-cared for coop with pine shavings), and (2) I discovered I am NOT AT ALL ALLERGIC TO our hens’ eggs. I can’t eat any from the store, even “organic” ones because of something they put in their feed that I am sensitive to. I get violent cramps from the supplements. So if I want to continue eating eggs (and I do love a good scrambled egg), I will continue to have a few chickens. I will never drop them off at some shelter (didn’t know you could do that!) Wow. Some day, when we need to, we will cull… and eat chicken soup… P.S. We also have a couple of wild guinea hens because we have ticks and Lyme Disease in our area. I was bitten by a tick last summer in my backyard. Never again. Chickens and guineas eat them all. I will take some chicken poop over a nasty infectious tick any day!

  • Henny Penny

    Raising chickens can be difficult but very rewarding. We house ex battery hens and give them a better life. Our recent chicken coop design is in collaboration with Farrow & Ball which includes a thatched roof: http://www.hennypennyhenhouses.co.uk/chicken-coops/the-chalet-chicken-coop-farrowandball/

  • ranchsupplycom

    I realllllllllly want hubby to make me a chicken houses so I can have chickens before summer

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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