The Sheer Brutality of Backyard Chickens
Fresh eggs don’t come easy
Words by Zack Grossenbacher
It was Thanksgiving night. Jackson, Mississippi based architect Jeff Seabold was wrapping up his festivities. As he was headed toward bed, he heard a squawk from his backyard.
Seabold keeps a dozen chickens in a spacious run in his backyard, and normally they don’t make a sound. “You wouldn’t know I had chickens unless I told you or showed you,” he said. So, when he heard one of his hens making a ruckus, his mind immediately went to an incident a few weeks prior, during which one of his chickens had been attacked—presumably by an opossum. Seabold, wearing just his underwear, threw on his “chicken boots'' and ran out into the backyard carrying a pellet gun. Leering out from inside the supposed safety of the chicken runs were two red eyes. His fears confirmed, Seabold took aim with the pellet gun and felled the intrusive opossum. “It was the most Mississippi thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
Birds of all kinds used to make Seabold uncomfortable. “They used to creep me out a lot,” he said. But a love for fresh eggs got him curious about the prospect of raising some laying hens. He started his journey—as all prospective hobbyist poultrymen should—with some research. He learned about the proper way to construct coops and runs, the ennclosure placed around a coop to provide a secure area for chickens to move about and graze. He delved deep into the different varieties, which to the uninitiated can seem exotic to the point of daunting: the Silkie Bantam, known for its ornamental, fur-like feathers; the Scots Dumpy, a breed of ‘creeper chicken’ with distinct, squat legs; and the Serama, which is the smallest common chicken breed in the world. And he looked into local ordinances concerning residential or urban chicken management, which can sometimes be opaque to the point of inscrutability.
After getting his proverbial ducks in a row, Seabold placed an order through a website specializing in mailing different chicken breeds, and a few days later, a dozen chicks, two each of six different breeds, arrived via the United States Postal Service. Despite shipping chickens being a service the USPS has offered since 1918 (along with shipping neonatal emu, bees, and scorpion), Seabold was afraid some would die in transit. “I was surprised when all dozen arrived alive and clucking,” he said.
Jackson area urban farmer Sam Humphrey says that anyone looking to raise chickens, or livestock of any kind for that matter, would do well to remember that raising animals is not for the faint of heart. “To put it bluntly,” he said, “don’t do it if you're not ready to kill that chicken and put it in the ground.” And Humphrey would know. At one point he was the laying hen manager for White Oak Pastures, one of the largest organic, grass fed livestock operations in the country. He was responsible for 10,000 chickens that produced about 8,000 eggs a day.
Humphrey’s passion for poultry started early. His major college research project was a novel investigation into the relationship between food choice (specifically fermented versus wet feed) and the production of coliform bacteria (read: e. Coli) in chickens’ eggs. Food is crucially important to a healthy chicken, says Humphrey. “Their diet needs to be a third grain, a third greens, and a third insects,” he said, and if “one amino acid is missing from their diet” it can lead to severely adverse outcomes “like cannibalism.”
Humphrey says that to best care for chickens, you should feed them properly and from a feeder—you should not scatter the feed on the ground, like you’ve seen in countless pop-cultural depictions. Both Humphrey and Seabold agree that being aware of local restrictions is also essential. Most restrictions prohibit the owning of roosters, as they will make noise in response to light sources. In an urban context, this can mean loud noise at all times of night, because of car headlights or streetlights. “It really just comes down to being a good neighbor,” says Seabold.
In the roughly two years since getting his brood of hens, Seabold has gotten about an egg a day during the right parts of the year. “When it gets too hot, they stop laying,” he said,“but the rest of the year I get about an egg a day from [each of] the hens.” This means that, at times, he has more eggs than he knows what to do with. “I’ve got some people, a handful of clients, that I give eggs to.”
Seabold calls his chicken operation “The Sexy Mother Cluckers Urban Farm.” And this experience, what he has called his “immersion therapy,” has alleviated his discomfort around birds. Humphrey now runs a quarter-acre urban farm in Jackson called Fertile Ground Farms. He exclusively grows fruits and vegetables for the time being but hopes to one day expand the operation to include poultry of some sort. As a professional, he implores hobbyists to take the responsibility of raising animals seriously, and be wary of the harsh realities that may arise. “Don’t ask your local farmer to kill a bird for you if something goes wrong,” he says.
Thankfully, on that Thanksgiving night, Jeff Seabold responded quickly enough to save his chickens, but the experience did emphasize something that he has come to call “the sheer brutality of backyard chickens.” Luckily, there was only one galline victim of the night’s attack. She was blinded in one eye.
Seabold has set up catch and release opossum traps to ward off future attacks. He cares for the health of his chickens as pets. One of them is even named “Mimi,” after his mother. He does his best to ward against the sheer brutality. After all, as he says, “I’ve raised them since they were two days old.”