How to Raise Chickens and Roosters in the Hudson Valley, NY
Raising chickens is becoming a popular practice in the Valley. Here’s the story behind one family’s backyard barnyard
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It’s a gorgeous June day, the windows are rolled down, the radio is on and a warm breeze is blowing through the car. My husband Rick and I are driving north on the Taconic Parkway and I’m wondering if we’ve gone too far with this homesteading thing. Growing food and baking bread is one thing but when we return home we’ll have six hens. Jim the farmer is a towering man with hands as big as oven mitts. He laughs at me when I ask him to choose good-natured birds for us. Scanning hundreds of chickens running around at his feet on his Dutchess County farm, he asks, “What are they, pets?”
I did not grow up on a farm, obviously.
Not waiting for an answer, Big Jim scampers across the grass, cupping each chicken with his enormous hand-appendages until he can grab the bird by its feet. Holding the flapping creature with a tight grip, he ambles to our SUV and stuffs each hen in a large dog cage. Six chickens later, we are farmers.
“Good luck,” he says after the last one is in. I hand him $120 in cash, $20 for each pullet.
A pullet is a young hen, about nine months old, that’s just started laying eggs. We thought it better to start this way rather than by incubating a clutch of 25 day-old chicks which would have arrived at the post office in a box poked with holes from the Murray McMurray Hatchery. (Although those fuzzy yellow chicks are adorable, you inevitably end up with a rooster or two, which are prohibited in many towns and must be given away).
The birds squawk loudly and peck at themselves nervously until we reach the end of Jim’s winding, bumpy gravel driveway. The squawking morphs into gurgles. Finally they are quiet but standing alert as we head south on the Taconic to our “farm” in Nyack.
My husband and I give each other a look that says, “Is this really our life?”
Eighteen months later, we have some answers. There is absolutely nothing like a fresh egg. Nothing! That first brown oval we collected was a little warm miracle. Fresh eggs piling up in the fridge (in warm weather we get three to four a day) transforms you from a short-order cook scrambling eggs to Jacques Pepin — whipping up eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce (four eggs plus four egg yolks). My husband specifically looks for baking recipes that use a lot of eggs. We come to friends’ houses bearing baskets of eggs.
Keeping hens — we have two Barred Rocks, two Sex-links, and two Rhode Island Reds — sure makes for amusing anecdotes. As everyone rightly says, the birds are comically entertaining. They dart for position. They perch. They preen. They roll in the dust and take dust baths. They eat grass faster than it grows. Near sunset they gather together and cluck softly. They gaze into the sunset wistfully. At sundown, they throw themselves into a pile inside the coop and sleep in a trance, eyes open. Some of this I’d expected from reading Chickens in Your Backyard and from checking out posts on www.backyardchickens.com — but experiencing it firsthand is different.
When I walk down the path the girls sound like a choir warming up, with their high-pitched whine that in “chicken” likely means, “Where’s our fruit and veggie scraps?” It’s Pavlovian — I’m the lunch lady. When my husband’s car rolls up, they’re apoplectic with delight.
My young daughter Julia loves to feed them live worms. She has named them: Miracle, Gloria, Nina, Nicole, Layla, and Lila.
To protect the utterly defenseless hens from coyotes, raccoons, foxes, and hawks, we house them in a coop with Yale locks that are pulled tight at night. During the day, they move back and forth between their coop and an attached run that is enclosed on all four sides and overhead.