Friday, July 27, 2007

What the Hens Taught Us

This is an article I wrote for The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers May-June 2007 newsletter.

What the Hens Taught Us

We in the Barrett family love our chickens--they're fun to watch and have been very educational over the years. Some of you may be wondering, “What is so educational about keeping chickens?” In a word, plenty! There is plenty of science, nature, math, problem-solving, testing of ideas, planning, frustration, joy, practical skill-building, reading, research, brainstorming, and hard work with direct, tangible results to be had in the seemingly-simple act of raising chickens. (Believe me, we thought it would be simple!) Keep reading our story, and you’ll get just a taste of it.

Our family first started keeping hens (Barred Rocks) in June 2002, buying pullets (females about eight weeks old) from a local farmer, but the original dozen were quickly taken back by nature in the form of a bear. (Homeschool lesson number 1: all about the circle of life.) The bear tipped over the chicken tractor we had them in: in the middle of the night when it was raining hard and we couldn't hear anything. Sneaky bear. The chickens scattered and some were eaten by the bear, some by other opportunists like raccoons, ‘possums and foxes (a group of foxes is called a skulk, by the way). In the morning we were naturally quite devastated by the loss. Life and death happen around us all the time, but we mostly don’t notice. Keeping the chickens has brought more of the “wild” in wildlife to our already rural backyard.

Happily, one lone hen had survived in the woods overnight. She quickly was named Gwenevere by our daughter, and we were very protective of her. The hens hadn't even started laying eggs yet, so we waited and waited for Gwenny's first egg. Discovering that egg was a really exciting day for all of us!

Right after the bear disaster, we ordered 26 day-old chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery. This was a straight-run order, so we would be receiving unsexed chicks. We ended up with 14 roosters and 12 hens. So we settled in for a 22-week wait for the female chicks to start laying. (Homeschooling lesson number 2: you can’t rush nature!) They were really cute, but messy. We used our tool room to raise them in, which quickly became covered in a fine layer of dust. Finally, they grew large enough to put outside without an extra heat source, and we built a second chicken tractor to accommodate them all. Once they became accustomed to our yard, we let them out during the day to have more freedom—and because they were really fun to watch.

Roosters are usually more attractive than hens, and some of their feathers are slightly different in shape as well. But, one does not need 14 roosters! (And in case you were wondering, no, you don’t need a rooster in order to get eggs.) We ended up butchering the roosters, which was very educational. Eddie has been a hunter most of his life, so he led the way, with Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens as a guide, and all of us participating. We ate some of the roosters and fed our dog the rest. We hadn't done the best job plucking, (Homeschooling lesson number 3: if at first you don’t succeed . . . and not even Mom and Dad get it right the first time) so they were bit unappetizing in appearance. I'm sure we'd have gotten used to it after a while, but I just wasn't ready to wait for that day. The dog was most appreciative.

Once the hens started laying regularly, we were able to sell the extra eggs to friends. Hens lay an egg a day on average, skipping a day about every week or two. So we had about a dozen eggs to collect each day. (Homeschooling lesson number 4: math is everywhere!) We are big egg-eaters, but this was a bit much even for us! Over time, we lost a hen or two to small predators. The bear returned a couple times, but didn't ever get into the chicken tractors. But raccoons, foxes and opossums did, anyplace the ground wasn't touching the bottom of the tractor frame, or they would even dig a small hole.

Because of the predation, we once again ordered more chicks. We used Ideal Poultry for this order. We also decided we'd had enough of moving the chicken tractors, so Eddie built a coop for storage and attached the tractors to the sides. The kids helped with construction, especially enjoying shingling the small roof. We also fenced a large area for the chickens and added bird netting across the entire area to help keep predators out. (Homeschooling lesson number 5: sometimes you have to review what’s working and what’s not and make changes.)
Some predators still get in once in a while, or a hen will stay out overnight, but we're losing a lot fewer hens now. We open the gates on their yard everyday, and they roam all over the place, but if we go away for a few days, or an even longer trip, we don't have to worry that they'll all be gone when we return.

In order to decrease the work involved in caring for the hens, we collect rain water from the gutters of the coop, which drains into a barrel, which then leads to small watering cups on the inside of the attached chicken tractors. (Homeschooling lesson number 6: necessity is the father of invention.) We’ve also had to ensure the water wouldn’t freeze in the winter, which is now much easier than when the hens were in the chicken tractors.

In August 2005, we noticed we were missing some eggs. We only collected them in the evening, and apparently we were going a bit too late. A rat snake was enticed by the smell of all those beautiful eggs just sitting there. We had recently found a five foot-long snake skin alongside our house, so we figured this belonged to the snake eating our eggs. We were proven to be right when we caught it in the act of eating an egg. The pictures we took are priceless! (Homeschooling lesson number 7: start with a hypothesis and test it.)

We now have a young group of Rhode Island Reds, along with a few older hens of different breeds from previous years. The kids are looking forward to entering their hens at the local Albemarle County Fair in July. Many of our hens are calm enough for the kids to hold and pet. They follow us around the yard because they always assume we have some food for them, even when we don't. (Homeschooling lesson number 8: long-term projects and hard work can bring great rewards.)

The hens were a big hit at the Earlysville 4th of July Parade two summers ago, being pulled on a small wagon in a wire dog cage. Parade watchers were disappointed when they didn’t make an appearance last year! We’re working on building a more appropriate wagon and cage for the hens to travel in, and plan to walk with them in this year’s parade—feel free to come watch the parade and cheer us on. (Homeschooling lesson number 9: having unusual interests or talents can be a really cool thing.)

Our family has enjoyed raising and caring for the hens and roosters, and the children have seen their parents learning new things right along with them. There is always a learning curve when you begin a new project, and I think that when live animals are involved, that curve can take a long time to crest. But if you never begin, you’ll also never reach the end.


Murray McMurray Hatchery website:

Ideal Poultry website:

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow

Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil, by Andy Lee and Pat Foreman

Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock, by Judy Pangman

“The Magic School Bus Cracks a Yolk” video—on TV; also, on Scholastic’s website there are related activities:

“A Guide to Snakes of Virginia,” Special Publication Number 2.1, by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Wildlife Diversity Division, available at for only $3

Information on Virginia’s wildlife can be found at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries as well, by visiting

The American Egg Board website:

4-H Virtual Farm: Virtual Hatch Project! website:

Your local cooperative extension office is happy to answer questions about raising chickens.

There are numerous websites from which you can learn everything you would ever want to know about raising chickens, different breeds, types of housing, dealing with predation, and even entering county fairs.

Copyright 2007--Silvia Barrett--All Rights Reserved

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Dana said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I want chickens...hoping in a year or two.