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More Than Just Another Pretty Egg

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It’s a lovely pre-spring day, just perfect for a little garden work.

Rake in hand, I’m reveling in the warm sunshine whilst cleaning up the dead leaves beneath my bolting cabbages, when to my horror a thousand earwigs explode from under a large, yellowing leaf. My first impulse is to do the party rock shuffle over their squirming bodies, but I know I can only crush a miserable few before they scatter for the shelter of the nearest crevice. All right then, it’s time to call in pest control. I give just a little whistle to the girls and they are there in a flash of feathers, ready to lap up the loathsome pests.

As more urbanites seek ways to connect with their food, they are finding their backyard chickens to be more than just egg-providers; they are also excellent organic insecticides. Imagine not having to run for a can of spray when you catch those cucumber beetles gnawing holes in your leaves, or not having to worry about Fido haplessly feasting upon toxic slug bait. Your little feathered bug vacuums are happy to clean up anything that crawls or flies, including earwigs, crickets, ticks, fleas, grasshoppers, beetles, aphids, ants, mosquitoes, slugs, pill bugs, lawn grubs, fly larvae, cut worms and even scorpions. Imagine your backyard free of these pests and more, a bonus of wholesome, home-laid eggs to boot. It does come back to the egg, as the protein gleaned from this expansive backyard menu will result in more productive egg-laying.

However, even with this insect-rich diet, your chickens will need supplemental food. Raising backyard chickens will never be less expensive than buying eggs or even commercial pesticides, but you have peace of mind knowing that your eggs and veggies are truly organic. With raising your own chickens, there is yet another bonus—chickens can be pets. They may not be cheaper, but then, when was the last time Spot laid you a nice, fresh egg? Or you relaxed in the backyard with a glass of pinot, watching Boots peck and scratch contentedly in the soil for grubs? With names like Bella, Ariel, Anna, Elsa and Kylie (just kidding), my girls are much more than just anonymous egg-layers. They actually have personalities that I have watched develop since they were just little pint-sized pullets.

Once established, chickens can get by with a minimum of care and are the perfect project to teach kids about responsibility. Of course, city ordinances and home owners’ associations must be consulted before your chickens get comfy, but once you’re sure they’re welcome on your block, they will need dry, draft-free sleeping quarters and an outside run for scratching and dirt-bathing, where they are protected from predators such the neighbor’s dog, coyotes, cats, raccoons, hawks and anything else that relishes chicken fricassee. If you plan to use your chickens for garden pest control, you might consider building a chicken moat, where they have run of an area directly outside the garden and are able to catch the bugs before they light inside on your valuable plants. Another option is a chicken tractor, which is a coop on wheels that can be moved about the yard. Chickens are notorious soil-scratchers and can decimate a garden in short order if not properly supervised. But then, how many times have you had to threaten the neighbors with Animal Control because their cat uses your freshly tilled beds for litter boxes?

When you’re considering chickens for eggs or pest control, it is best to know which breeds are more well suited to your needs. Although most do a good job of mopping up pests, Barred Rocks, Red Rangers and Leghorns are reputed to be among the most voracious insect eaters. The more independent, brilliantly-hued Bantams lay charming, smallish eggs and are also favored as aggressive bug-getters. A few of my girls are Americaunas, a breed that lays lovely green and blue eggs but can be a bit reticent when faced with insect species they’re not familiar with. It was pretty entertaining the first time I tossed a tomato hornworm into the pen and they all just stood around, cocking their heads and craning their necks at it. Now when one of those monsters hits the ground, Penny grabs it and runs around the pen, the others tag-teaming her until it eventually disappears in a quick gulp.

Rather than run for the spray or twist my ankle trying to stomp out earwig existence, I often find myself working companionably side by side, elbow to wing, as the girls scratch cheerfully for bugs. It can be very amusing to watch Jezebel tangle with a bumblebee, acting like she’s gone off half-cocked, and Henrietta, chasing after a bluebottle, running around the yard like a chicken with her head cut off. Whether you keep them as egg-layers or bug-slayers, or get to know them as pets with personalities, chickens have a lot more to offer than just another pretty egg.

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For a practical and hilarious look at an urbanite’s first year of chicken love, read author and publisher Su Falcon’s How I Survived My First Year with Chickens, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle Unlimited.