Backyard hobby comes home to roost

Move over, Cock-o-mos. Sorry, Labradoodles. Right now, the trendiest pets in town may just be Buff Orpingtons, Partridge Cochins or Black Australorps. Whether inspired by the farm-to-table movement, the desire for a family project, or necessity due to allergies, a growing number of Wilton families are raising chickens in their backyards. You might say  the chicken has become the new dog.

Patti and Glenn Hoffman bought their first baby chicks for $1.50 each from a hatchery in Iowa four years ago, when their daughter was 10.

“The Wilton Post Office called to say our livestock had arrived. When we picked up the box, we could hear them peeping inside,” Patti recalls. The chicks were just two days old, so the Hoffmans kept them in the house for several weeks. Glenn built a Nantucket-style coop surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence to deter predators, and Patti and her daughter painted clouds on the ceiling and the interior walls yellow and green. After they moved the chicks into the coop, they let them range free in the yard during the day. “They’re our natural landscapers. When they scratch, they dethatch our yard; they also eat ticks and other insects,” Patti said laughing. Their 11 hens include several breeds, from White Leghorns, Redstars, Rhode Island Reds, Bantam Silver Laced Wyandotes, Cochin Bantam Blue, Black Australorp, to Speckled Sussex, and each one has a name: Nellie, Peep, Georgette, Henrietta, Peaches, Purdy, Waddles, Claire, Fiona, Sugar and Spice.

After attending a presentation at Millstone Farm about raising chickens, Karen Seelert decided to become a chicken farmer. With her husband and kids, then ages 5, 8 and 11, in tow, she drove to Benedict’s Home & Garden Center in Monroe, and returned home with six different breeds of day-old chicks. The Seelerts kept them indoors in a cage with a heat lamp for several weeks, which gave Karen and her husband time to research coop designs online and construct one.

“We’d never built anything before,” she said with a laugh, “but we found detailed instructions, and followed them down to the specific list of materials.”

Around the same time, her son came home from kindergarten with a chick that had hatched during a class project.

“We named it Buttercup because we thought it was a girl, but it turned out to be a rooster. We still have him; he’s still Buttercup. We also have Lucy, Speckles, Skittles, George — who’s a girl, but who we also thought was a boy — Salty, and Coco.”

Occasionally, the Seelerts have allowed some fertilized eggs to hatch, and they now have two chicken coops to handle their growing flock.

“Raising chickens was really my son’s idea,” admits Tammy Case. Her two boys wanted pets, but family allergies ruled out dogs and cats, so raising chickens seemed like a great alternative.

“Plus, my husband and I were interested in homesteading activities,” she adds. The Cases bought pullets, or young hens, from a farm in Newtown. They ordered a coop online, and assembled it themselves. They currently have three hens — Chicken Nugget, Harriet, and Snowball.

“Our boys and their neighborhood friends love to dig up worms and feed them,” says Tammy.

Five years ago, when Dan Mahony, his wife Alix, and daughter Caroline decided to raise chickens, they also bought pullets.

“It probably would have been more economical to start with baby chicks, but the upside was that we started getting eggs within two weeks,” says Dan. They adapted a wooden garbage bin as their first coop, but eventually enlisted student volunteers from Ambler Farm to build what Dan refers to as the “Taj McChicken” — a real chicken coop. Caroline, now 10, considers the chickens her pets, and has given them names based on their personality or appearance.

Her 10 hens include Beaky, who’s loud, Goldie, who has golden feathers, and Braveheart, who’s fearless.

“My friends love to come over to play with them, and feed them,” Caroline explains, as she shakes a metal cup full of dried corn, and on cue, 10 hens scramble to the spot where she is standing.

Some local chicken farmers allow their hens to range free; others have built large fenced enclosures attached to the coop so their flock has room to roam safely. Most feed them organic chicken feed, purchased from Benedict’s, Acme or Agway, often supplemented with kitchen scraps — pasta, vegetables and fruits, even eggs shells (but never chicken meat).

“The feed contains vitamins which helps chickens lay eggs,” explains Tammy Case, who discovered this after her family’s hens initially failed to produce any eggs. Patti Hoffman gives her chickens a supplement of oyster shells to boost their calcium levels, and adds apple cider vinegar to their water to help keep them parasite-free

Hens generally do not produce eggs until they are at least 15 weeks old. The Hoffmans used a golf ball to teach theirs to lay eggs in the coop’s nesting box.

“They get very excited, and squawk when they’re laying an egg,” Patti says. Egg size and color varies by breed. Karen Seelert recalls that her family used to play a game to guess which chicken laid which egg, but now they can tell easily.

These families wax poetic about the joy of raising chickens, and especially, about fresh eggs.

“Fresh free-range eggs have deep rich yolks. When you crack them, they’re firm, not runny. They’re like heaven in your hand,” insists Patti.

Caroline Mahony claims, “I’ll never eat commercial eggs again.” For backyard chicken farmers, it seems raising hens is really all it’s cracked up to be.