Chickens offer a bounty of handy yard services. But for desert dwelling chickens there are a few need-to-knows. By Darbi Davis. Cover photo by Jocelyn Warner-Brokamp
It’s hard to forget that time the economy plunged – the country was laden with lost jobs and the soaring cost of food. Communities responded with something of an agricultural ascension: micro urban gardens, residential front yard edibles, and small-scale farms, all inspiring a grow-your-own attitude (it’s cheaper after all) that erupted into a global trend. And it wasn’t just about growing, it was also about raising – chickens, that is.
I love a freshly laid egg for breakfast (thanks to my chicken-loving friends) but I have no interest in rearing my own flock. Perhaps it’s the term “pasty butt” (look it up) or their potential gateway effect (see below).
That doesn’t mean I don’t see their benefits, though. As well as being feathered friends, chickens offer a bounty of handy yard services such as expert weeder, provider of organic fertilizer, and of course they bring us nutrient-rich food in the form of eggs or meat. Their popularity remains remarkable. There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s recent film While We’re Young that takes a humorous poke at the new wave of urban chicken rearing. Über hipster couple Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, are showing their Manhattan loft to their new friends. There’s hand-made (crocheted blankets, Darby’s own ice cream brand), there’s retro (wall-to-wall vinyl records) and there’s a chicken. Just one. Living in what looks like an oversized birdcage.
Before you go ahead and get chickens (hopefully plural) here are a few need-to-knows:
Coop Couture and where to put it
Erecting a coop in the desert requires a site analysis that considers shade, size constraints, accessibility, and circulation. Consider an east-facing spot that gives you shade from the harsh sun during the hottest part of the day.
The location within the yard should allow for easy retrieval of eggs and clean up. Tucson chicken keeper Carina Brokamp cleverly turned an old dresser into an attractive nesting box. The back panel was removed and situated so the front of the dresser created one wall of the coop and faced outwards. She simply opens the dresser door or drawer to retrieve an egg. There’s no need to disturb or distract the ladies.
Choose breeds that have a higher heat tolerance and provide them ample water. Jenna Vallier, co-founder of Elderberry Edibles, a Tucson CSA and market garden and Wholistic Hen, an organic line of nesting box herbs, suggests these varieties: “Plymouth Rock, Sleek White Leghorn, Easter Eggers, and Rhode Island Reds – and then make sure they have lots of water to drink and a small pool for them to cool down in the summer.”
Rhuta Wilson, local educator and chicken whisperer, suggests “freezing water bottles and setting them on concrete masonry blocks in the shade. Open the tops slightly so cold water can leak on the blocks and the chickens can stand on them to cool down.”
Chicken Safety (or It’s All Fun and Games until a Homicidal Javalina Invades)
The chickens at Elderberry Edibles live along a riparian corridor, which is prime habitat for all desert creatures, and perfectly fertile for a farm. Jenna cites common chicken predators; “we have frequent visits from coyote, javelina, raccoons, bobcats, mountain lions, owls, hawks, and skunks – all of whom would be happy to have a chicken dinner on us.” These critters can be found just about anywhere in Tucson and hens must be protected in a securely enclosed coop. “We inherited ramshackle chicken coops enclosed in two large runs. It was the neighbor’s dog that revealed the weaknesses of the structure. She visited twice and got pretty tender chicken,” says Jenna.
Meanwhile, in midtown Tucson, my son spotted a ferral ferret on the schoolyard playground, and I feared for the schoolyard chickens. Thankfully, it was coaxed into the arms of a human before it squirmed into the coop eliminating an imminent lesson on life and death to 65 preschoolers. Ferrets, while clearly not wild, do escape their domestic domiciles and will happily take out an entire urban flock.
Chicken Health: The Holistic Hen
In addition to a secure coop and protection from the heat, desert chickens need a clean and healthy environment to maintain their immune system for overall health, production and longevity. This begins with a proper diet and exercise and, in the case of the flock at Elderberry Edibles, some herbal remedies, which resulted in the Wholistic Hen line of nesting box herbs.
“The farm along the Tanque Verde Valley is based on the principles of permaculture, avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers resulting in a vital, rich soil network,” says Jenna , “and our philosophy on chicken care is much the same.”
She researched “common poultry ailments” such as parasites, worms and respiratory issues and then over the course of five years, grew herbs, studied, experimented, and formulated a blend to support the flock.
“There is no doubt that the herbs have been beneficial in keeping our hens healthy, relieving their stress, controlling parasites, stimulating higher egg production and supporting the healthy function of their immune and respiratory systems,” says Jenna. Half a cup of herbs sprinkled in the nesting box provides ample impact. Prior to packaging Wholistic Hen Nesting Box Herbs, she tested the product out on the local chicken community and received feedback reminiscent of her own experience. Her flock officially expanded.
Beware the Gateway Drug Effect
Chickens can be a gateway drug to more garden animals. Recently, a close friend who was adamantly against petting my dog, got chickens. Now she has a dog.
Jenna adamantly disagrees, despite their post-chicken acquisition of bees, a turkey and a donkey. She says: “We’re giving the turkey and donkey a home and love, but we would not have sought them out.” If it were not for the fact that she’s been farming in some fashion since before it exploded as a trend, I may not believe that statement.
Chicken Personality: Silly, stubborn, and tougher than you think
Chickens are delicate little creatures and tend towards a relatively short life cycle, unless you are “Red,” the Rhode Island Red hen from the Tanque Verde Valley. “I found Red breathing slowly and blood pouring from a deep gash across the top of her head,” says owner Jenna. “She was severely pecked by the rest of the flock for defending another possibly ill member. I was pregnant, and couldn’t bring myself to end her suffering so I took her out to the woods and left her in a box with water for the wildlife. I went back later to check on her and she was gone. Two days later, I heard my partner say, “Red’s alive!” To my great surprise, she was walking from the woods and looking for food. She’s made a full recovery, is a great layer, and likes to sit on my shoulder when I’m feeding the flock,” says Jenna.
If you decide you must raise your own chickens, do a little research, planning and soul searching before you hit the feed store. Those teeny feathered friends grow and before you know it you’ll have a coop of menopausal matrons – pampered without the payback. Will you trade them for meat, send them to a sanctuary (not recommended), or remember some of their other skills and let them partner with the maintenance crew? If you rear a silly survivalist that takes dust baths in your heart like “Red,” this may be a non-issue, but it is absolutely worthy of thought.
Get to know your local farmer and feed store – such as Elderberry Edibles, Arizona Feeds Country Store South, or OK Feed and Supply. They have an arsenal of advice. The blog Garden Betty, Diary of a Dirty Girl has an entire section on backyard chickens filled with stories and knowledge. Free Range Chicken Gardens by Jenni Bloom is also a great read offline.
* Darbi Davis is a Tucson-based landscape designer and owner of Red Bark Design.
Diapers for the birds
The craze for keeping chickens has led to plenty of kooky business opportunities, from chicken leashes to play swings for the hens. But our favorite has to be Tucson-based Sew Sammi, which sells diapers for chickens and other birds on Etsy.
Sam (who prefers not to use her last name) started her business after buying a pet goose that she wanted to be able to have in the house. After trying out baby diapers, Sam decided she could make her own.
The chicken diapers are “made to last”, says Sam, with two layers of cotton, a waterproof lining in the poop pouch, elastic straps, and sizes custom-made to the chicken. Sam also sells no-sew fleece diapers for “occasional” diapering. These are made from a pattern and just require a marker and a pair of scissors to cut out.
Sam’s other chicken accessories include neck ties, quilts and bows.
* For more information on Sew Sammi, visit her Etsy shop here.