There is no food more simple and elegant than the humble egg. Each egg is a single, perfect cell, miraculously able to poof a souffle, smooth into a hollandaise sauce, or transform a dish of fresh salsa into huevos rancheros.
Grocery store shelves offer more types of eggs than ever before. White, brown, medium, large, and grade AA are standards in the shell game. Many markets also offer “cage free,” “free range,” and “omega-3 enhanced” eggs, terms undefined by the FDA, which may not, well, be all they’re cracked up to be. With all these options, many people are finding the simplest, healthiest, and most humane choice is adding a few chickens to the garden and raising eggs in one’s own backyard.
The difference between a store-bought egg and homegrown can be as dramatic as the difference between one of those off-season “tomatoes” and a roma picked ripe from the vine. Depending on the breed of chicken, eggs will be white, blue, green, or gingerbread-colored, with bright, marigold-orange yolks. Just like tomatoes, homegrown eggs are more flavorful and substantially more nutritious than their commercial counterparts. A study done by Mother Earth News in 2005 found more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E, folic acid, and beta carotene in eggs from chickens allowed to wander their organic gardens, compared with grocery-store eggs. Best of all, its flock’s eggs had about half the cholesterol. By raising your own eggs, you will also be avoiding the antibiotics, chemicals, and other unmentionables routinely fed to factory-farmed hens.
As nutritious and versatile as eggs are, the commercial egg industry is enough to make any ethical cook swear off the dollar-per-dozen special. “Egg operations are the worst, from everything I’ve read; I haven’t managed to actually get into one of these places since journalists are unwelcome there,” wrote Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (at the risk of sounding “like one of the animal people”). “Beef cattle in America at least still live outdoors. : And broiler chickens, although they get their beaks snipped off with a hot knife to keep them from cannibalizing one another under the stress of their confinement, at least don’t spend their lives in cages too small to ever stretch a wing.
“That fate is reserved for the American laying hen,” Pollan continued, “who spends her brief span of days piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage, the floor of which [one page of this newspaper] could carpet wall to wall. Every natural instinct of this hen is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral ‘vices’ that can include cannibalizing her cage mates and rubbing her breast against the wire mesh until it is completely bald and bleeding. : And when the output of the survivors begins to ebb, the hens will be ‘force-molted’-starved of food and water and light for several days in order to stimulate a final bout of egg laying before their life’s work is done.”
Contrast this appalling scene with the image of chickens calmly exploring the yard, scratching for bugs, softly clucking to one another and the answer becomes clear: The chickens come first, then the eggs.
Keeping chickens is surprisingly easy, and with some basic “good neighbor” common sense, you can keep chickens almost anywhere. One online chicken fan, frustrated that her neighbors were allowed to keep parakeets while the homeowner’s association prevented chickens, got around the rules by keeping “wild jungle fowl.” She shares the fresh eggs to keep the peace.
Many people are surprised to learn that hens do not need a rooster to produce eggs. Hens lay eggs whether or not a rooster is around, though without a rooster, the eggs will never become chicks. No problem for city chicken-ers. Boastful hens will cackle from time to time, but most chickens are quieter than the neighbor’s Maltese. Here again, the breed of chicken makes a difference, and-as with people-some hens are more “talkative” than others.
A coop for three to four happy hens takes about the same amount of space as a couple of lounge chairs. A mini flock this size will produce more than a dozen eggs a week in exchange for some organic chicken feed and kitchen scraps. Ideally, chickens are given time to patrol a pesticide-free garden, where they gobble up cutworms and other pests, leaving nitrogen-rich fertilizer behind.
Island Seed & Feed in Goleta sells a variety of chicks in their “peep show,” from exotic feather-footed Silky Bantams to ye olde Rhode Island Reds, each a little larger and only slightly heavier than a ping pong ball. They even offer heritage poultry, including turkeys, from Blue Oak Ranch. Island Seed & Feed owner Matt Buckmaster estimates they sell about 1,500 chicks per year.
Baby chicks need to be kept in an indoor, heated environment for the first few weeks. Hens will begin laying when they are about four months old. Most will lay fewer eggs in winter, and take a break during their annual molt.
The online site MyPetChicken.com is a good resource for beginners, and includes a short quiz to help you choose the right variety of chicken for your needs. Do you want a docile chicken? A super-producer? Finding the right breed will make a difference. One well-loved breed is the Buff Orpington, a heavy golden-blond breed well known for having a quiet disposition and sweet temperament. Araucanas (or the related Ameraucanas) are flightier than Orpies, but lay lovely blue and green eggs. Whatever type you choose, handle the young chicks as often as possible so you’ll have good pets as well as good eggs.