Right: Mr. Robert Leonard wearing his “My Chicken is Smarter than Your Honor Student” t-shirt
Through a recent misadventure with ten to fifteen thousand tenacious yellow jackets who set up residence in one of the larger plant containers on my porch, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Robert Leonard, a local beekeeper, chicken farmer, gardener, home improvement expert, and bartender, among other occupations. I found Robert by Google searching for beekeepers in the Decatur area. Robert was very kind and quickly offered to come and evaluate the situation, happily risking and succumbing to multiple stings and hive destructions before eradicating the problem.
Left: Scare crow in Mr. Leonard’s vegetable garden. Right: A view of his bee hives.
Back to our chickens! During my four year tenure at DCPL, I have noticed that a large number of books are devoted to the raising of chickens, the building of artful chicken coops and the designing of gardens specifically for the enjoyment of poultry. Meet-up groups and books devoted to homesteading, organic gardening, urban farming, and heirloom vegetables abound. After meeting Robert, my curiosity about chickens was awakened. I wanted to find out in person why chicken farming is so appealing to the middle class urbanite and suburbanite. Is it a quasi-romantic or nostalgic desire to experience an attachment to the land, to grow one’s own food? Is it the environmentalist’s quest for traceability, to know exactly where one’s food is sourced?
Robert’s chicken raising initiative is quite attractive and is visible from the bike trail off Candler Road behind Agnes Scott College in Decatur. Passers-by can enter the first enclosure and observation area. In addition to the chicken raising area, Robert grows flowers and vegetables and raises bees. The chicken part of the “farm” functions as a co-op, and the members take turns participating in the hens’ daily life, care and feeding, and benefit from the fruits (well, eggs) provided. Five breeds of hens live in Robert’s chicken yard: 5 Black Australorps, 5 Speckled Sussex, 5 Buff Orpingtons, 5 Barred Rocks, and 7 Ameraucanas, as well as one rooster, who went by the name of Mr. Fluffyfeet but is now re-baptised Andre the Giant. Who knew that there exists so many breeds of chickens?!
Andre the Giant keeps watch over his ladies
Robert grew up on a farm, and his attitude toward his animals, while compassionate, is not sentimental. He does not consider the animals to be pets, and he doesn’t humanize them as some contemporary farmers do. Chicken Owners Scramble When Their Pet Feels Foul, a fun and informative article published September 23rd of this year in the Wall Street Journal, discusses the healthcare challenges involved in the raising of poultry by “helicopter chicken parents.” The article, on the verge of hilarity, describes epileptic turkeys receiving MRI exams and “fancy digs” for chickens marketed by upscale retailers such as Williams-Sonoma, described as “a $1499.95 coop made of red cedar custom milled by a local family-run sawmill in Washington state.” Less wealthy, or possibly less frivolous chicken owners, resort to online discussion boards such as backyardchickens.com to resolve or discuss healthcare issues (how to glue a cracked beak with crazy glue, for example), protection from predators, housing, etc.
My son learning how to hold a chicken.
Robert shared with me that he has been keeping chickens on his Decatur property, a three acre spread, since early spring 2012. 11 Alive visited his coop during the Fifth Annual Decatur Urban Coop Tour 2012, sponsored each year by the Wylde Center at Oakhurst Community Garden, where local homesteaders also are offered classes about chickens and bees. Robert decided to skip this year’s tour. He told me that he was simply too busy this year to participate. Despite his hectic schedule, Robert was kind enough to show me and my son around his property. We admired the coop and nesting area, where hay and the organic poultry layer feed (labeled organic*sustainable*ecologically friendly*soy-free) are stored, protected by a metal cover to keep out raccoons, possums, rats. The coop itself was built in March 2012 and measures 8′ x 8′. The feeding area is encapsulated with hardware cloth to prevent rats from coming in to share the bounty. Robert explained that it is very important for the peaceful relations of the hens that each hen have at least 4 square feet of living space. Robert’s girls each enjoy 6 to 8 square feet of real estate. An auxiliary coop is used to introduce new chickens in their 3rd to 5th week of life, when the birds are large enough to not slip through the fence. In this manner, the hens get used to one another from a distance, and bullying, while not eliminated, is reduced when the now familiar chicks enter the adult enclosure. Robert explained that while chickens are not especially bright, they are curious and inquisitive. They also are photosensitive and lay fewer eggs when the weather is overcast or when it rains often.
The hens keep their space clean of all ivy or other weeds, digging for bugs or for nesting. Robert collects rainwater in a rain barrel, using the water to clean the inside of the coop. To keep mosquitoes from reproducing in the barrel, a mesh tray and filter protects the opening. There are many pests and predators that can threaten the safety of the hens. To keep away winged predators such as hawks, a matrix of fuchsia, orange, and red string covers the “ceiling” of the fenced in area. 2x6s covered with nails, pointed ends up stand over the peaks of the coop, preventing these same pests from landing on the roof. The range area is completely surrounded by a tall chicken wire fence which is kept locked, with an airlock gate at the entrance to prevent hens from escaping when visitors do come inside. At night, all of the hens are put to bed in the coop, and the ramp from the feeding area is lifted and the feeding area itself is closed and locked to prevent furry predators from attacking the deeply sleeping hens. Hardware cloth also covers the screen on the coop window to prevent pesky raccoons and possums from coming in at night. The coop is elevated so that the hens can seek shade. This under-coop area also provides protection from predators. Robert informed me that once a chicken is asleep, nothing will awaken it. Perhaps we need to study chicken’s sleep habits to solve the commonly suffered condition of human insomnia!
The feeding station
The group of hens produces collectively an average of 72 to 96 eggs per week. The eggs produced here are a variety of colors, mostly shades of brown and blue. The soy-free organic feed lowers the cholesterol level in the eggs produced by these hens by 35%, according to Robert. I was surprised to learn that the eggs do not require refrigeration and can be kept outdoors or at room temperature for over a month. I also learned that chickens love the color red and are very fond of tomatoes. A few things they don’t or can’t eat are onions, banana peels, potatoes, citrus, garlic and green beans. Another fun fact my son and I learned about chickens is that they have earlobes, and the color of the lobe determines the color of the eggs they lay.
Basically, if you were to raise your own chickens, your morning duties would include letting out the hens, filling the food container, cleaning out the water container, and purchasing 50 pounds of food at $34 per bag. Evening or night-time duties would include cleaning the coop, purchasing a bale of wheat straw and spreading it, bedding down the hens at dusk, shutting the ramp and feeding doors.
A pen and ink portrait of one of Robert’s hens. I call it Hen and Ink. (I gave it to Robert to thank him for freeing me from the yellow jackets!)
If you feel ready to take on the joys and challenges of raising backyard chickens, other farm animals, vegetables or trying other methods to make your urban life more sustainable and environmentally sane, please check out some of these recently-published DCPL resources. They might help youl on your path to greener living!
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry: Chickens, Turkeys, Ducks, Geese, Guineas by Glenn Drowns, 2012
- The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals, edited by Gail Damerow, by Jenna Woginrich, 2011
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Sufficient Living by Jerome D. Belanger, 2009
- Barnheart: The Incurable Longing for a Farm of One’s Own: a Memoir, by Jenna Woginrich, 2011
- Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard, by Jessi Bloom, 2012
- Reinventing the Chicken Coop: 14 Original Designs with Step-by-Step Instructions, by Kevin McElroy, 2012
- Art of the Chicken Coop: A Fun and Essential Guide to Housing Your Peeps, by Chris Gleason, 2011
- Little House in the Suburbs: Backyard Farming and Home Skills for Self-Sufficient Living, by Deanna Caswell and Daisy Siskin, 2012
- Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat, by Ellen Zachos, 2013
- The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Perma-Culture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem, by Christopher Shein with Julie Thompson, 2013
- Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, by Rachel Kaplan with Ruby K. Bloom, 2011