Something to Squawk About

“Honey, I found a new way to aerate the compost.”

No matter how compelling the argument, I cannot convince my husband that we must raise chickens in our backyard.

My next-door neighbors like to set up large holiday displays on their lawn, so I send them a link to greenchickencoop.com, a company that sells prefab coops.

He loves the idea, but she’s in the same camp as my husband. If he and I proceed with the plot, our spouses will send us to the coop.

So I do what any journalist would: I persuade my editor to let me write a story. Maybe my editor would like to raise chickens?

I credit my friend Kate Somers for instilling me with chicken envy. “Every morning you

Petra Felkl and her chickens in Kingston.

go out and they’ve given you a precious gift,” she says. “If you get out there early enough it’s still warm.” She cooks one of these gifts over easy on toasted brown bread for lunch each day, and will share eggs when she has enough.

I apologize for phoning at 8 a.m., but Kate assures me she’s been up since 5:30 to feed Blessem, Blossom, Aruba, Annabelle and Apple.

“Everyone says chickens are stupid, and that may be true,” says Kate, “but each of my five girls has a personality. Some talk a blue streak, others are more standoffish. Some like to be picked up and pet. The alpha hen is the boss and makes it well known.”

They are fed organic feed, supplemented with a mix of brown rice, wheat berries, greens and, if she wants to spoil them, quinoa. In the evening Kate and her husband, Steve, go out with glasses of wine and beer and let the “girls” free range in their Princeton yard. Although she estimates it costs $10 an egg, there is reciprocity: manure fertilizes the chard she feeds the chickens.

Keeping chickens cool in hot weather is more important than keeping them warm in winter, and Kate puts a sprinkler on low to create a pool they can set their feet in.

Judith Robinson, manager of the Princeton Farmers Market, used to raise Bantam chickens — “they are smaller, beautiful and iridescent, and lay smaller eggs” – before scaling up to Rhode Island Reds and their larger brown eggs.

A former film, TV and Broadway actor, Ms. Robinson moved to Princeton in the 1970s, where she fed her family year round from an organic garden. Her children participated in raising their food and understanding where it comes from.

The chickens would run freely in a fenced in area about 25-by-40 feet. The shed was an extension from the garage, walled in with a roof and a door to the outside, and nests on the interior walls.

The chickens foraged for bugs, and Ms. Robinson supplemented their diet with alfalfa and feed. To keep the water from freezing in winter, she would replenish it twice a day.

She learned from library books to make a bedding of hay and wood shavings two-feet deep so she only had to clean the coop twice a year. The manure would be shoveled into the compost to be used in the garden. “There’s nothing like composted chicken manure,” she says.

Ultimately, raccoons did the chickens in. With her children grown up, Ms. Robinson moved on, teaching at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, until a desire for green space brought her back to Princeton a few years ago. She invites anyone interested in raising chickens to chat with her at the Princeton Farmers Market in Hinds Plaza on Thursdays. “Or you can buy fresh eggs here at the market,” she says.

One of the first steps before raising chickens is to check for  restrictions in your town. Neighbors may object to the noise of a rooster at the crack of dawn, or to the smell of manure, but sharing eggs often ameliorates any differences.

Petra Felkl remembers following her grandmother around to collect eggs. Originally from a small village in the alps about an hour from Munich, Germany, she came to the U.S. in 1999 to work in human resources for Siemans. Ms. Felkl had the good fortune to move into a house in Kingston that came with a coop, built in 1925. The previous owner used it for storage, and Ms. Felkl and her husband restored it to its historic use.

Walking past a hammock suspended between two mature magnolia trees and pollinators swarming around blooming perennials, Ms. Felkl takes me to see “the Taj Mahal of chicken coops.” We walk inside, standing upright, to see nesting boxes, fencing, and doors, and a brooding hen. “She will sit on the nest, just waiting for an egg to come,” says Ms. Felkl.

The seven chickens and one rooster have no names, but include Red Stars, Barred Rock and Buff Orpington. Ms. Felkl gets anywhere from two to five eggs a day, and gives  away what she can’t eat, including some to her in-laws who live across the street.

This is the first garden Ms. Felkl has had, but by the vigor of the plants you might guess she was born farming. The chickens eat the bugs from her garden, aerate her compost pile when she lets them free range, and supply her with high quality fertilizer. In turn she grows comfrey for them to eat. The comfrey helps to improve the soil, she says.

We are surrounded by a pleasant smell of hay, wood shavings, green plants. “They will establish a pecking order for the food,” Ms. Felkl says, as a chipmunk sips water from a ceramic bowl made by Ms. Felkl. A few minutes later a cardinal nibbles at the chicken feed. Everybody eats when they come to Ms. Felkl’s house.

“I look at my chickens as working partners. They are helping me by laying eggs, providing fertilizer, eating leftovers and bugs, and offering entertainment, and we are helping them by caring for them in a manner that’s natural and healthy,” she says. “Hopefully they’re having a nicer life here than if confined to a poultry farm.”

Eventually they will stop laying, and Ms. Felkl will have to figure out what to do. “We will probably have to butcher them and make soup, but I don’t want to talk about it in front of them.”

Mirko and Karen Schoenitz purchased their first home in West Windsor a year ago, and an important part of having a home was raising chickens. Mr. Schoenitz, a professor of mechanical engineering at NJIT, grew up in an apartment house in East Germany, with visits to his grandmother in the country, where she raised chickens. Ms. Schoenitz, associate director of development for the Boys and Girls Club of Trenton, grew up in Collingswood, where no one raised chickens. The chickens were a Mirko thing that she happily went along with.

Mr. Schoenitz was at a conference in Vermont when interviewed for the story, while Ms. Schoenitz remained at home “just me and the chickens.”

Named Carmen, Carmen, Carmen and Carmen for the man they were purchased from, the flock included two Barred Rocks and two Rhode Island Reds. Mr. Schoenitz read Raising Chickens for Dummies, and built his own chicken coop.

He estimates the cost – lumber, fencing and hay – at about $400. It took about five weekends working full-time. “You do something and realize you forgot to buy nails. And it’s not completely finished. The emphasis was on getting it ready for the ladies to move in.” The chickens cost $4 each, and the feed costs about $50 for a 50-pound bag Mr. Schoenitz estimates would last several months.

He checked the West Windsor Township website and it stated clearly that homeowners have a right to farm. He also checked with his neighbors. Although the Schoenitzes intended to purchase four hens, at eight weeks it was looking like one might be a rooster. “We’re guessing that one will be. Once he starts crowing, we’ll have to see if it’s tolerable.”

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that raising chickens is far more expensive than buying eggs, but it brings pleasure. “It feeds your life,” says Ms. Robinson.

Mr. Schoenitz says he wishes it were economical to raise eggs, but the real joy was to watch the birds grow up and see them interact. “It’s the idea of growing your own food,” he said.

The Schoenitzes were hoping for at least an egg a day, beginning in October. Meanwhile they were being entertained. “You pick them up, they sit on you, they make faces. They are like children but it’s too embarrassing to admit.”

Shortly after the interview, I received a message from Ms. Schoenitz: “Very sad news. I came home today to headless chickens.” The suspects: raccoons. Mr. Schoenitz was planning to investigate “the crime scene” upon return from his trip.

“Every person with chickens has gone through this,” says my friend Kate, who lost two chickens to hawks a few years ago. “You have to experience the loss to know how careful you have to be to protect them.”

“It’s a lesson learned,” says Ms. Schoenitz, who after the initial shock was planning to get new chickens. “Take no chances. Fully predator-proof your coop and run.”

Recommended Reading — The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers by Harvey Ussery, with information on building soil fertility, replacing purchased feed, and working with poultry in the garden.

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One Response to Something to Squawk About

  1. What an eggciting story so far off your usual beat. My husband’s daughter in Indiana raises chickens and I can attest that they are very photogenic and amusing companions.

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