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Suzy Verrier
North Creek Farm

Garden Friendly Chickens

For gardeners living on the 'fringes of civilization' who can contemplate keeping 'farm animals' - let me direct the following...

I am a bird person and my gardens exist first for plants, next birds and then perhaps people. I've long had chickens in and about the gardens, both intentionally and not so on purpose. I've never been very successful at keeping my laying hens and accompanying roosters penned - and loose, these larger chickens admittedly wreck havoc. A very frustrating form of 'under-your-nose' garden destruction (especially vegetable) which usually outweighs any perceptible benefit. Chase and scold them as one may, they are right back at it as soon as one is 5 steps beyond clobbering them. The nerve wracking cry "chickens are loose" is stuff for nightmares. Untold devoured seeds - scratched up, crooked and botched rows - uprooted and shredded new transplants - tattered mesclun - dust bath craters in the garden - and such ...

And so last year I, with no remorse, actually gave away my entire laying flock of hens plus tag along roosters.

But now and here consider the case for bantams (miniaturized chickens.) This goes hand in hand with my small dog theory - smaller is better - kinder to the gardens and any attendant problems are also smaller!!

Bantams are not only littler, but wiser and more equipped with basic chicken instincts, not having been bred for mass egg or meat production. They possess good survival skills, among these flying quite respectably. They know to look upward when large dark forms fly overhead and to flee for cover (my rugosa thickets are the protection of preference.) Bantams are clever enough to exploit pet status and a number of mine have learned to 'beg' tidbits from our outdoor dining patrons. Also, bantams are admirable parents, both roosters and hens sharing the care and protection of chicks. Even the younger hens are excellent mothers and hatch out clutches of fuzzy, most adorable chicks. This is in itself a joyous thing and well worth any effort of keeping these nifty diminutive birds.

Bantam chickens are foragers par excellence and here is perhaps one of their best attributes. They will scratch/peck/forage an extensive area considering their size, because of this much less bagged and bought feed is necessary. All grubs, bug type pests and notably ticks are fair game. Within my banties' range there are almost virtually no ticks. ( Don't tell me about guinea hens unless into sonar torture and foolish birds.) And, an important product of foraging are the eggs, which are smaller but so excellent due to a varied, natural and healthy diet. The eggs have a larger ratio of yolk to whites and rock hard shells attesting to their superior qualities. Though bantams don't lay prolific numbers of eggs at specific times, they do lay consistently year 'round and for a very much longer period than layer breeds. To be admitted, in warmer months, some of these little darlings are hell bent on brooding/hatching chicks and will lay nests of eggs in the darned-est and most peculiar places but there are always enough eggs for breakfast in the coop boxes.

As for care, and as to be expected, smaller is easier. Less grain, less water to be lugged in winter, a smaller coop, make do roosts and laying boxes will all do as these clever chickens know how to make the best of given conditions. Requirements and/or chicken tending skills are minimal. Most important the coup should be secure, as in able to be closed tight at night - very important - to protect from nighttime predators. A light - one bulb is OK and recommended. Clean bedding from time to time (wood shavings are my preference) but banties require so much less as they are out and about in all conditions excepting deep snow. Don't worry about warmth (except where chicks are concerned) as long as their coop isn't drafty, these are very hardy birds. As to roosters, I say required. Roosters protect the flock and warn of impending danger, search out food for the hens, tend the chicks and what is the point of chickens without the sound of a cockerel at dawn