We walked into getting chickens eager for fresh eggs and getting "back to the roots" of our food. But in the end, it has been about much more than that and had a profound affect on our lives, and our parenting.
Here are a few things I never expected to learn from our flock of chickens, some of them may surprise you a little.
A flock of 40 hens with four randy roosters will create a property that is rife with fowl sex. From the first foray into the yard in the morning, to lying in wait while the hens come to roost for the night, the biggest thing on a young roosters mind is getting on top of his hens.
Our kids' first introduction to this was graphic and surprising. After the "first mount" the kids ran inside, eyes bright, asking me "mom, what is SEX? Dad said the rooster was mounting the hen to have SEX."
Our kids were two and half, six and eight, and while we had danced around these talks, actually seeing it in action forced me to dive into details.
Three years in, our kids can now explain not only the reproduction process of a fowl, but have also seen the results as the baby chicks hatch each spring. This has also led us to pretty awesome conversations about genetics in general.
My only fear is that they will all walk away thinking that sex takes 30 seconds and involves the male jumping on his ladies back and biting her ear.
No matter how healthy you keep your flock, chickens have a pretty quick expiry date. Most only living a few years, our coops residents only stick around for so long. Our first chicken death was hard on everyone. Coming from the city and animal was a pet, and cherished in our home. The loss left an impact.
Chicken #1 was buried with full honours and many tears. Chicken number two the same.
By the time chicken #15 passed, it was tossed into a shallow hole, or (gasp) thrown on the fire.
Loss is always painful, but after a certain amount of time you understand the even though a life is short, it doesn't mean it wasn't full. There is nothing you can do to fight death, or reverse it, and so acceptance comes a little easier the more you see it.
Like good city-folk-turned-country we thought that we were getting "family chickens," much like parents would get a family dog and expect the kids to clean up after it and take it for morning walks.
After a few years of spending our weekends mucking out the coop while the kids played in the meadow, hubby and I had a better idea.
Our chickens weren't pets, they were a source of food and potential income. THAT is the reason we kept them healthy and maintained, and the sooner the kids could see that ROI, the better.
Each of our kids (now aged five, nine, and 11) gets one month to work our farm stand. They need to wake early, tend the chickens, deal with illness and injury and stock the stand with eggs and fruit and veggies from the garden. They clean the coop and feed their flock, and in return, they retain ALL the proceeds from the farm stand.
On a good month this can be $300.
Since starting this process, the kids' idea of the hens and the responsibility towards them has changed. They still love to tote around the favourites, but not for a second do they take them for granted, finally understanding that you get out, what you put in.
And that the cleaner the nesting boxes, the less time you need to spend scrubbing the eggs for sale.
The first time I had to choose to end an animal's suffering was when I was in my 30s. I had been protected from this previously, and it took years of understanding that sometimes, no matter HOW hard we try, in the end the only option is to let go.
My 11-year-old is currently fighting to save her little hen. She Googles natural remedies to help this ailing bird, and checks her twice daily to ensure she is fed, watered and able to get outside of her "hospital coop."
We have talked about other solutions, and how her hen may be suffering and eventually she may need to make a decision to let her go. She understands and will soon arrive at that place, knowing that a life lived in pain is no life for a pet.
I'll hold her as we help her little bird go. She will cry. We will probably eat chocolate and snuggle. But in the end she will be able to accept the weight of responsibility we have towards our animals, and feel relief that she was strong enough to make the right choice for her pet.
Every morning we wake up and enjoy fresh eggs. We watch our flock scratch and range around the property, and are able to appreciate everything they brought to us. Even the chickens orgies that happen at the most inappropriate times.