How to Get Around Zoning Boards

The Associated Press reported today that a girl in Easthampton, MA, was granted a variance for her four hens. It seems that neighbors complained about the chickens to a zoning enforcement officer. The girl lives in a zoning district that prohibits poultry and farm animals.

The ten-year old girl went before the zoning board and convinced them that her hens were pets, not livestock. The 5 members of the zoning board agreed. One was quoted as saying, “What’s a farm animal? Dogs live on farms. Are they farm animals, too? I disagree that a chicken is always a farm animal. I think that it can be a pet.”

So, the chickens stay, with the restriction that only four hens can be on the property. Sounds like a sensible ruling to me.

Running Water

On the corner post of the chicken run fence, just out of HenCam view, is a water spigot. It’s where I fill the waterer in the morning. I often leave the water running as I scrub the red plastic bottom of the waterer. The water streams into a narrow channel that the hens have scratched out along the fence line.

Chickens love moving water. They’ll even leave corn and crackers when they see it rolling along, like a tiny flash flood. They’ll drink as if they haven’t seen water in days. I’m not sure why this is – they certainly aren’t thirsty. And I don’t think that they care about the difference in taste between water in a plastic tub and water flowing through dirt.

I think that it’s the sparkles. Chickens love shiny things. They peck at raindrops hanging on a fence after a storm, they love my pants with buttons sewn on the hem, and when I pick up a hen, she’ll look astonished and delighted at my diamond ring. Good thing diamonds are hard.

I’ve never kept hens in a field with a stream, but my guess is that the chickens wouldn’t be as enamored with that as they are with the suddenly shiny, moving, drinkable corner of their yard.

Baking Disaster

I ruined a pie with my hens’ good eggs. For his birthday, my husband, Steve, asked for pie. I didn’t have on hand the can of evaporated skim milk that I usually put in my pumpkin pie, so I pulled out a recipe from an old Mennonite cookbook that needed exactly what I had in the pantry – pureed pumpkin and eggs.

The recipe read rather like a chiffon pie – the eggs are separated and the whites whipped until firm and then stirred back in. A nice, light pie, I thought. Very light, I thought, as I folded the mass of egg whites in.

I was surprised to see that the directions called for an unbaked crust and an initial oven temperature of 425 for 10 minutes, then only another 20 minutes at 350. I did as told. The top of the pie browned, the crust, however did not, and the center was jiggly. Twenty minutes of further cooking brought the interior to a better consistency, but not perfect.

However, the pie tasted wonderful, and we have eaten it all up. Still, what went wrong? The old expression, do as I say, not as I do, applies here. In my Farmstead Egg Cookbook I write about how eggs from backyard flocks come in various sizes and that for baking recipes, one should weigh them first. I didn’t. I since have. It turns out that what looks normal to me these days are jumbo eggs. Huge. Duck sized. Who knew that Alma was laying eggs that top the scales at 2 3/4 ounces? And that no one was laying a medium egg, or even a standard large 2 ounce egg? I’ll spare you the math, but with three eggs in that pie, I used 40% more eggs than the recipe called for.

Next time, I’ll weigh my eggs first. Steve says that I just need to make a bigger pie.

The egg on the left is the only 2 ounce egg in the carton. Buffy laid it. The one on the right is the 2 3/4 egg from Alma.



If you are thinking about getting chickens, you probably want to know how much time it takes to care for them. I’m not the best person to ask- I’ve been schooled in the fastidious ways of British stable managers (ingrained in me years ago at a riding school) and I keep the chicken coop raked and tidied in a manner that would make Mrs. Sivewright proud.

But, really, even my compulsive efforts in the barn take very little time. In the morning, the hens are tossed some “scratch” (cracked grains that are good for their digestion and keeps them busy), the waterer is emptied, scrubbed and refilled, the pellet feeder is checked to make sure there’s still food, and the nesting boxes are cleaned out (the party girls like to roost there, I clean it out with a kitty litter scoop). In the afternoon, I make sure that everyone is okay and I collect eggs. When it gets dark, the hens in the new barn are closed in because their run doesn’t have predator/hawk netting. Altogether it takes less than 15 minutes.

About once a week I decide that the coop needs cleaning and I shovel up the mess under the roosts and add fresh shavings. In the spacious new barn, every other day or so, I use a fine-tined pitch fork to pick up droppings. Just like cleaning a stall, but the manure is on a smaller scale!

The coops’ dirt runs are raked clean about once a week. Some people like to leave a litter of straw, but I don’t like the mess or the smell. In the winter, when the ground and the poops freeze, I do put down a layer of hay, and add more as needed. In the spring, it gets raked up and composted.

Many people justify keeping a flock to “teach the kids responsibility.” I suppose that is a good idea. But my children don’t take care of the hens. My husband and I like doing the chores too much to let the kids have a turn.

Chicken Breeds and Personalities

I have recently spent time with a few of my chickens meeting and greeting the public in Whole Foods parking lots (thankfully under tents, in shade, with ample snacks for both me and the girls.)

The first thing that people comment on is how pretty my hens are. The feathers aren’t just brown or white! I explain that, just like there are dog breeds, there are chicken breeds. I go on to explain that the differences between chickens are more than skin (feather!) deep. Just like a Golden Retriever has a different personality than a Jack Russell, that so too, does my Barred Rock hen act differently than the Americauna.

I am not surprised about how little the average person knows about chickens, but I am still taken aback at how rarely they apply what they do know about pets to domestic farm animals.

That a person can live with a dog, and talk on and on about Fido’s personality, and yet find it surprising that other animals also have individual temperaments is interesting to me. Have we really so separated farm animals into a class by themselves that they are seen, by the average person, more like a green beans than animals?

Of course, even within breeds, there are differences between individuals. I can tell – from a distance – which of my New Hampshire Reds is Marge. She’s the one making a complaining ruckus. Petunia is quiet. Of the Australorps, Twinkydink is bolder; Blackie can’t bear being anywhere but in the coop near the others. Of the party girls, Egger likes to be held, Betsy only puts up with it.

This idea, that even the animals who provide us with food, are individuals, is discomforting for many people. It’s a lot easier to buy and eat eggs that come from what look like Photoshopped clones. It’s easier to eat bacon when all of the pigs are simply piggy animals eating at the same trough.

Oops, sorry for slipping into this diatribe. I’m not a vegetarian. I’m not even an extreme animal rightist. But I do believe in being thoughtful. Personally, knowing my animals brings me great pleasure. Buying meat from farmers who know their animals brings me satisfaction. I hope it does for you, too.