‘You must be here for chickens," an older gentleman said to me as I walked into the live animal section of Callahan's General Store a few weeks ago. I'm not sure what part of me, my clothes or the look on my face, gave away my status as backyard chicken novice, but the man had clearly seen more than a few urban Austinites in recent years stroll into the store to get into animal husbandry, once reserved for farmers or back-to-the-land hippies.
The idea of getting eggs from my backyard has long appealed to me, especially after I started a vegetable garden two years ago.
Fresh eggs — the kind from free-range chickens that come in a variety of colors and don't have to be refrigerated — are better for you and richer tasting than the factory farm eggs sold in plastic foam containers at the grocery store, but in order to get them, you have to commit to taking care of chickens, which require a lot more work than seeds growing in the ground.
When our neighbors decided to build a coop and get two chickens late last year, we invested in their egg venture by buying a chicken to add to the flock.
Just like you'd pick out a cat or a guinea pig, I went to the feed store, pointed out which chicken I wanted — a beautiful Rhode Island Red that would balance my neighbors' spotted hens — and the Callahan's employee who pegged me as a novice from the minute I walked into the place caught it and put it in a box with air holes cut into it. He quickly taped the box shut and sent me to the cashier to pay.
With the swipe of a card — $20 for the laying hen; teenagers who still have a few weeks to go cost $14 — she was mine. As soon as I got home and let her run around the yard, only to have to shoo her into the neighbor's coop, I knew sharing chickens and dividing the eggs wasn't going to satisfy the urban homesteader inside me.
Watching her roam around the yard to find tiny bugs and weeds worth eating and knowing that she'd turn that food into food for us provided a sense of satisfaction in self-sufficiency that not even my most prolific tomato plant could rival.
A few weeks later, I found myself back out at Callahan's, this time to buy another hen and a hutch that will hold up to four hens. Because our birds roam our yard during the day, we bought a hutch for them to roost in at night instead of a coop, which usually has both a place for them to sleep and a larger confined area where they spend the day.
(We're not the only ones finally taking the backyard chicken plunge. In addition to our neighbors who first got chickens last fall, another couple on the block recently set up a coop with an incubator and three chicks.)
We set up the hutch and watched the birds forge a sweet little friendship. Within minutes of their introduction — Julian named the red hen Julia and the white, feather-footed one Cotton — they were following each other around the yard, scratching around the compost pile or nestling into a bare spot to take a dirt bath. That night, they even snuggled together on the roosting rod I had set up in their new home.
Every day, we eagerly checked for eggs in the nesting box filled with hay that I'd put in the hutch, but no luck. Finally, about a week later, my husband realized that they were spending a good amount of time each morning hidden in the back of a large patch of cane that grows in our backyard. Sure enough, he trekked back there and found three eggs clustered together.
In the weeks since, we've been getting about an egg a day from our bountiful bird. (Rhode Island Reds are notoriously good layers, and Julia is slightly older than Cotton, so we're pretty sure that she's the one who is laying them.)
The yolks, especially from those first eggs, are a darker shade or orange than any I've seen, even at a farmers' market. No matter if they are scrambled for breakfast or hard-boiled for lunch, the eggs taste like an indulgence. Rich in flavor and vibrant in color, each egg I eat from my own backyard chicken makes it harder to comprehend having to eat the comparatively lacklusters ones from the store.
From the get-go, our chickens have blurred the line between pet and utility animal. Just as if we'd gotten a new dog, Julian got to name them and is responsible for letting them out of their hutch in the morning and gathering eggs — but unlike a puppy, chickens don't chew up shoes and pee on the carpet. Plus, chickens eat food scraps and bugs. Their poop isn't fun to deal with, but it's good for the compost and good for the yard.
In order to make these hens more than just expensive pets, they'll have to lay more than 350 eggs to make up for the $150 I've spent on them so far, including their hutch and the feed, but even if I don't break even, the hens are an exciting addition to our family.
They are charismatic, personable little birds who like to follow us around the yard and eat just about anything you throw their way, including the vegetable garden that got me started on this journey in the first place. When it came down to either enclosing the chickens in a fence or putting a fence around the garden, I opted for the latter.
Homegrown vegetables are great, but I think I might like fresh eggs even better.
Tour de coop
Our backyard coop isn't nearly funky enough for the third annual Funky Chicken Coop Tour, but the tour, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 23, is a great way to meet fellow chicken enthusiasts. For more information, go to fccooptour.blogspot.com .