“Mom, which harmonica will sound the saddest?”
This was the question my daughter posed to me in the late afternoon of her sixth birthday in June, while clutching two harmonicas her grandfather had gifted her a few hours earlier. We were standing outside our home next to a pair of small graves my husband had dug in a corner of the garden for two of our young chickens: They had been killed, on our front lawn, by the neighbor’s dog that morning. We’d planned on spending the day trying to make Claire’s birthday as special as possible, despite the fact that we couldn’t hold a party or take her anywhere.
A chicken funeral was not part of those plans.
As my eldest daughter, Kendall, then 8, sobbed and placed the headstones for the chickens in the ground, Claire, bless her heart, did her best to hit the right somber notes with her limited harmonica skills. I stood by holding our son, 3-year-old Sebastian, while my husband delivered the eulogy. He wove a heroic narrative about the unlucky chickens, saying he was sure they’d died protecting the remaining four chickens in the flock (who we’d found, after a frantic search, cowering in the corner of the vegetable garden).
After we all shared a few solemn words of remembrance about the chickens we’d purchased as baby chicks in March 2020, my husband took a drive to the Talmage Farm Agway in Riverhead and purchased four more replacement chickens. As novice backyard poultry caretakers, we had learned the lesson that predators abound — a particularly painful lesson for me, as I was the one who let them out of their enclosure that morning. Later on, we had a Snowflake ice cream cake and Claire opened a few presents, salvaging a difficult day. The only evidence of lingering trauma was Kendall’s foray into part-time vegetarianism.
I suppose I need to admit, if it isn’t obvious already, that our chickens were a bit of a pandemic impulse buy. Like many East End families, we’d considered the idea of buying chicks in the past, but always stopped short of making the commitment. Family members had them, and our children were curious and had asked for them. The lockdown seemed like the perfect time to take the plunge; we ordered six baby chicks, of three different breeds. Before long, the delightful sound of their cheeping filled our house, and our children were thrilled. My husband and I watched in delight as they squealed and obsessed over the chicks, and we were happy to provide them with a welcome distraction, even as we fretted over how tightly they were holding the impossibly fragile and adorable balls of fluff, constantly consulting friends, family and Google on the ins and outs of caring for them.
A year later, we have eight healthy chickens living in our backyard, and we can say it’s been a fun family adventure we don’t regret (front yard homicide excepted, of course). The birds have brought my children joy in turbulent times — the unbridled screams of joy when they discovered the first egg is a moment I won’t soon forget — and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoy them as well. The hens eat ticks and other insects and provide natural fertilizer for our vegetable garden — and nothing beats the satisfaction of scrambling up some homegrown eggs. Some days, watching the hens interact, observing their mannerisms and listening to their vocalizations is downright soothing. (If you’re thinking to yourself that standing in rubber boots in a chicken run is a sorry excuse for mom self-care, I agree, but I’ll take whatever I can get these days.)
Unsurprising to me, area farmers say the pandemic has led to a sharp rise in demand for backyard chickens. At Long Island Poultry in Baiting Hollow, which sells chickens of all ages as well as guinea hens and ducks, business was through the roof last spring. “We sold out every week; our business went up 100-fold,” said Wayne Meyer, who co-owns the farm with his wife, Jessica. “It was a lot of people saying, ‘We always wanted to do this and now we have the time.’ ” He expects the surge in demand will keep up this spring, too. If you’re considering taking the plunge, here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
Prepare for a big commitment.
Poultry farmer Holly Browder, co-owner with her husband of Browder’s Birds in Mattituck, said her first advice for would-be chicken owners is to be prepared for the “constant attention” chicks need in the first weeks of their life and the patience required in waiting for eggs. (You can purchase juveniles — called pullets — or mature laying hens, although those are more expensive options.)
Chicks need to stay indoors under a heat lamp for several weeks before they can be moved to an outdoor coop and enclosure, and during that time, they need to be fed, have their water refreshed and have their living quarters cleaned multiple times a day. There is, quite frankly, a lot of poop. They still won’t be ready to lay eggs for months after they are moved outside, and the egg-laying period, once it starts, typically lasts three to four years, at which time chickens slow down production considerably and eventually stop laying altogether, although their life expectancy is anywhere from five to 10 years.
Meyer said he’s tried to make sure potential customers are aware of the commitment, particularly when he had people lining up outside his door hours before they were open last spring. Signage on the farm lets customers know they can return animals they can no longer care for.
“We get a lot of people that show up and have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, and can’t even tell the difference between a chicken and a duck,” he said. “My advice is to do some research before you buy. With live animals, you have to see if it’s something you really want to do.”
Choose the right chick.
There are hundreds of varieties of chickens to choose from, and certain breeds tend to be more receptive to human touch and interaction. Meyer recommends the Easter Egger variety for families. As their name implies, they lay eggs that range in color from blue to pink to green, a delight for small children. He’s a fan of the Buff Orpington breed as well. “They’re awesome with kids,” he said. “They’re hearty and have an excellent temperament.”
Rhode Island Reds, while excellent egg layers, tend to be more aggressive and dominant by comparison. This is a lesson we learned when we were doing a socially distanced visit with a friend, whose Rhode Island Red (appropriately named Ginger Snap) chased my son and pecked him by the corner of his eye, which left a mark, and some tears. So far, our chickens — two Brahmas and six Wyandottes — have been well-behaved, tolerating our presence in the coop and being handled by my daughters.
Protect them from predators.
Once the chickens are outdoors, they don’t need as much attention, but still require vigilance against a long list of intruders that will want to eat them or their food, especially for those who allow their chickens free range outside of their coops and protected chicken runs.
“There are just so many predators,” Browder said. “Everything likes chickens, including people. We have hawks, raccoons, fox. We lose five chickens a night to foxes.”
In addition to predators, rodents and other animals will be drawn to chicken feed, particularly in the colder months. To keep critters from making their way into your home, Browder recommends storing food in heavyweight lidded trash cans (she likes the Brute brand) and keeping the chickens as far away from the house as possible.
Get the kids involved.
Chickens make ideal pets for children even after their egg-laying days are over, great for both teaching important lessons and providing the same kind of joy and companionship people seek in dogs and cats, said Rachel Harrison-Smith, lead educator at the Suffolk County Farm for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. She is a lifelong lover of chickens — as a child, she had a rooster named Lightning who occasionally snuggled with her in bed.
“Parents can make sure they’re teaching their kids the simple idea that their food came somewhere before it was in a store, and that you have to take care of the animals to get the eggs,” said Harrison-Smith, who also works at Talmage Farm Agway. “It reminds them that there’s a greater cycle going on outside than what they experience in daily life.”
Another small but fun bonus: When you have a flock, everyone gets to pick a name. Ours include Lightning McQueen, Taylor Swift, Elizabeth Warren and Paco de Lucia — a nod to my husband’s love of flamenco guitar.
One year in, we’re still learning more about our new pets every day. We were excited to find over the winter that they are hearty enough to withstand the colder weather without a heat lamp, unless the temperature dips below or close to zero. As a novice, I don’t have much more expert insight to offer when it comes to their care. But if you find yourself unexpectedly planning a chicken funeral and searching for the right musical accompaniment, I can recommend a harmonica, in the key of F minor.