When Christa Daring and their partner Dan Staples bought a Lauraville home with a yard, they thought it would be fun adventure to raise chickens.
In the four years since, there have been a lot of feathers. A lot of beautiful eggs. And a lot of adventure, although not all fun. Fox attacks have caused the deaths of five chickens, including Louise, who was mortally wounded the day after Thanksgiving. A vet was not available, so, through tears, Daring had to euthanize Louise at home with an ax while following instructions from YouTube videos.
Then there was Dandelion, a chick who grew to be a rooster. It took several months for the couple to find Dandelion a new home in the country, and in the interim, they moved him into their basement each night so his crowing would not wake the neighbors.
As spiking egg prices have some brooding over raising their own chickens, Daring, 36, has a few words of advice.
“You’re not going to save any money by keeping chickens,” said Daring, who uses the pronouns they/ them. “Do you want a moderate-to-expensive hobby? Great. Do you want a weird pet? Awesome. I don’t want to discourage people, but it’s a lot of work and a lot of heartbreak.”
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been increased interest in raising backyard chickens, said Maryland Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Steve Connelly. Some people see raising chickens as a way to minimize their environmental impact or move toward a more off-the-grid lifestyle. Others think of it as a wholesome, back-to-nature hobby.
And, with bird flu outbreaks causing egg prices to more than double over a year, some people think raising chickens will ensure a steady supply of eggs. Google searches for “raising chickens” have shot up in recent weeks, nearly as high as they did at the start of the pandemic.
But those hatching plans for raising their own chicks could be in for a big surprise, backyard chicken tenders said.
Daring, the executive director for the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy, spends about $40 a month for feed for Thelma, Lucy, Octavia, Poppy, Coach Beard, Penny, Radish, Rosa, Blackberry and Rutabaga, and another $50 on treats and supplements. It also cost them about $600 to build a cozy coop with an insulated floor for the chickens.
“I did not understand how expensive it was to keep chickens,” they said.
Betty Lightner, 43, spends about $20 per week for a 50-pound bag of feed for her flock of a dozen birds in Parkton. She and her husband purchased their chicks for about $4 each at The Mill in Hereford and learned the basics in a class called “Chicks Night Out.”
They chose a variety of breeds with different characteristics: Ameraucanas lay pastel blue eggs. Black maran eggs are a deep chocolate brown. Rhode Island reds are winter hardy, producing light brown eggs through the darkest months, when other birds just can’t muster the energy to lay.
Chickens don’t produce eggs throughout their entire lifespan. It takes them about five to eight months to reach maturity, and the first eggs often come out wonky. Their laying abilities peak around age 2 and 3, and then slowly taper off at 4, although they often live a few more years.
“Some of our chickens are good layers, and some of them have earned their free pass to just live their lives,” said Lightner, a speech pathologist.
For the Lightners, the biggest challenge has been losing chickens to predators. At first, the couple’s three daughters took charge of chicken care, but after a few mistakes led to attacks, the parents took over.
“It’s devastating when the chickens get eaten,” said Lightner. “Foxes just grab a chicken and go. But when a raccoon gets in ... it looks like a massacre.”
Kari Miller is also acutely aware that predators are interested in her four chickens: Goldie, Dumpling, Take Out and Time Out. Hawks perch on the roof of her Mayfield home, staring down at the birds as they peck about below.
While Miller, the artist behind Tiny Dog Press letterpress company, and her husband have yet to lose a chicken to a predator, they did have one, Big Mama, die of cancer. The chickens are often their own worst enemies, Miller said. Time Out got her name because the other chickens harassed her so much she needed to get away.
“Chickens are very funny. They’re very communal. They have this hilarious hierarchy,” she said. “But they can be very mean. They pick on each other.”
Time Out grew weak and thin after the other chickens prevented her from eating, Miller said. She nursed the chicken back to health in her basement for several weeks, then returned her to the coop where the other chickens, still nursing a grudge, pecked off her feathers. Miller purchased a protective garment for Time Out called a chicken saddle, which looks just like it sounds.
Miller’s chickens rarely produce eggs this time of year. Chickens need about 14 hours of daylight to lay, although artificial lights can keep them popping out eggs through the winter. “I feel like they need a break,” she said.
In the summer months, chickens lay an egg a day, an event they herald with much squawking. “They scream whenever they lay an egg,” Miller said.
Recently, chicken owners on social media have been clucking about decreased egg production, which they attribute to changes in the formulation of commercial feed. “Get your tin foil hats on for this one,” begins one video tagged #chicktok that has been liked more than 38,000 times. The chicken owners say egg production began to pick up after they switched to homemade feed.
Connelly, the deputy agriculture secretary, said he was not aware of such rumors, but dismissed it as “social media misinformation.”
He attributed changes in laying habits to the natural slowdown that happens in winter. And he said all chicken feed sold in Maryland is inspected to ensure the label is accurate. “It is all registered with the Maryland state chemist,” Connelly said.
Patrick Donovan and Nicole Stafford of Oella are among those who started tending to chickens to find healthier and humane ways to obtain food. Donovan, 35, also hunts, and like several of the people interviewed for this article, keeps bees.
“Our food system in this country is not the most ethical and environmentally friendly,” said Donovan, an electrician. “To be a little closer to our food, not just physically, but on a spiritual level, that means a lot to me.”
Donovan said that the chickens help keep him and his wife in the present moment. They like to let the chickens run around their yard in the summer, but that requires the couple to stay close by to keep predators away. They’ve yet to lose a chicken to a fox or hawk — although neighbors have lost several— but they did have a scare when one chicken, Eggie Azalea, had an egg stuck in her.
It’s hard to find a vet who treats chickens, and even harder to find an appointment with those who do. So like many chicken owners, Donovan found himself turning to YouTube to figure out how to free the egg. (Like other birds, chickens have a single opening, the cloaca, for their digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts.)
It was an alarming scene: Eggie Azalea’s innards were slipping out of her, a bloom of red tissue. Chickens peck at red things, Donovan said, so Eggie Azalea needed to be isolated from her sisters for her safety. Donovan and his wife held the hen in a warm bath with Epsom salts. Then, as Stafford held the bird down, Donovan put on latex gloves and tried to work the egg out of the chicken’s cloaca.
After a lot of tugging and twisting, clucking and pecking, the egg finally came free. Eggie’s innards retracted and, remarkably, she hasn’t had a problem laying eggs since. Just as remarkably, Donovan and Stafford still enjoy raising chickens.
“It is very fun, despite the story I just told you,” said Donovan.