Suburban Chickens

September 19th, 2011  |  Published in From the Garden, Grow, Suburban Chicken  |  1 Comment

I grew up in North Dakota and Montana and always felt I didn’t belong there. I was too cosmopolitan, too much like my German-bred mother in my appreciation for side-walk café’s and a closet full of pretty clothes to relate to the cowboys and ranchers I lived with who smelled like leather and tobacco, dirt and hay.

As soon as I graduated high school I left for the East Coast to nanny in New Jersey. I spent all my days off in the City where I rode the subway, wandered the Village and meandered through the galleries of So Ho. I fed pigeons and squirrels in Central Park. I wished I was one of the beautiful, well-groomed residents of the world’s most famous city. When my contract was up, I moved to the West Coast and spent my years moving south from Portland, to Ventura, Los Angeles and finally settling in San Diego. I finished nursing school, settled down and began living the urban and now suburban life. I never looked back at my ‘country girl’ roots with anything but disdain.

As I waste gas and precious hours of my life stuck in San Diego traffic, I realize that I have replaced the drone of bees working on pollenating crops and flowers with the drone of police helicopters and sirens of ambulances screaming down city streets. I have replaced the rustling of wind in the leaves of willow and oak trees with the blast of car horns and the voices of angry drivers who have lost their patience. For the first time since I was a child and convinced I was switched at birth, I yearn for the pastoral life I had once scorned.

So, in the throes of a midlife crisis and my wish for less not more, I opted out of a boob job or a face lift. I don’t want a bigger house or a fancier car. Instead, I got chickens.

Jonah and his chiceknLast summer my boys and I went to the feed store in Vista, Calif. and picked out three 3-week-old chicks. They were silly looking little puff balls, with downy soft heads and pin feathers sprouting all scraggly and sharp on their wings. They were clumsy and aggressive in their curiosity. My boys and I named them the “Peep-Peeps” because of their constant purring and garbled vocabulary of insistency. My boys, then 9 and 5, were in love. They sat in the garage and gave a constant running stream of feedback. “Rosemary pooped in the water again!” “Rainbow fell asleep with her head in the food trough.” “Fluffy’s comb is starting to come in!” They became vigilant in checking the heat lamp’s temperature range and ensuring their precious chicks didn’t chill. After 3 weeks in the brooder in the garage, they were ready for outdoor living.

My husband made them a rudimentary coop and run. We bought our first bale of hay to use as bedding. We all slept restlessly that night, worried about cats, palm tree rats, opossums and raccoons; the usual suspects of San Diego county’s nightly animal rampage. Everyone slept fitfully but the Peep-Peeps. Being chickens, they roosted for the first time in the catatonic way that chickens sleep. They were completely unaware of their keepers’ worries.

Chickens begin to lay at approximately 22 weeks of age. This is not an exact science as weather can play a role in their biology. If it’s too cold, they may not lay until temperatures warm. We were expecting our girls to begin their egg production in early December, 2010. Mid-December we still expectantly opened the door to their coop waiting for our prize. We had no luck. No warm brown orbs glimmered in the hay. We were disappointed daily. In the middle of December, we were desperate for our Christmas eggs. We joked that we might have to wait for the Easter Bunny. Allan, my husband, continued with his lawn care as I combed through my chicken books and the Internet to see what we were doing wrong. Did I not add enough calcium to their feed? Were they not getting enough gravel? Was I adding something to their scraps of our left-over meals that was poisoning their ability to make and lay eggs? I was using my citi-fied brain to complicate the matter.

“Hey! Babe! I think I found out what’s happening to the eggs!” I heard my husband call for me. I ran outside in dread. As a nurse I usually expect the worst. I had visions of dead chickens or a bloody coop filled with the slime of unformed eggs. Instead, he parted the leggy plants that were still producing a few cherry-sized tomatoes. I peered into the undergrowth of the plants. In the dark rich dirt of our composted soil, lay eight bluish green eggs. We jumped up and down and hugged each other as if we were examining our own EPT home pregnancy stick. We were thrilled. Our experiment was working. We could raise kids AND chickens.

Our experiment is reminding us of what is important in life. We are working together as a family to care for creatures that not only give us personal pleasure, but sustain us as well. We feed them their corn and all of our left overs. They give us eggs (3 a day at this point) and their waste product goes back into the garden. They eat bugs and keep the yard mostly pest free. We now sit outside and watch their silly antics rather than sit in front of a TV or computer screen, held hostage by media. I again listen to the drone of bees in my garden rather than the hum of traffic on the freeway.

At the end of a long day, and on weekend mornings, we sit outside on the patio and laugh as the ‘girls’ put on their show of squawking, crooning and chasing each other through the tomato plants. I can do ‘stupid chicken tricks’ by making mine jump or hold her on my lap and pet her until she falls asleep. They occasionally get their toenails painted—barn red, of course! They are as much a part of our family life as our dogs. We are experiencing the daily ‘circle of life’ and taking more care in what we eat, and how we live. What we eat goes back to what the chickens eat, which goes into their eggs, which we then eat.

The only ‘downside?’ I can’t actually eat chicken anymore. I can’t even cook it for the kids or Allan. The girls would know. Since they follow me and come when they are called, I can’t in good conscience eat one of their relatives. We have named them; they are pets. My new rule is “If I’ve looked it in the eye, I can’t eat it.” My husband says even if we had the land, we will never raise cattle—even if I promise not to name them.


Tonya Saliba

Tonya Saliba has made her home in the Dakotas, Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest and Southern California. She now calls north San Diego County home. She is a mom to two boys, two dogs, three chickens and two fish, is a wife and Registered Nurse. Read all about her backyard barnyard on her column "Suburban Chicken,"as well as her culinary discoveries as she hikes and meanders through San Diego's backcountry.

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  • W Stanton

    Very nice! WS