Archive for May, 2010

Home to Roost Makes the Paper!

Home to Roost is taking the press by storm! Ok, well, at least the Oak Park press. The Wednesday Journal decided that urban chickens was something to cluck about and featured two hot chicks and me (oh, wait, that would be THREE hot chicks – but I don’t need a heat lamp!) in this week’s edition.

A few months ago, Oak Parker Bruce Caughran asked Alcuin Middle School students to build a chicken ark for him. The students completed the project, and Bruce approached me to purchase the supplies and chicks (my Busy Biddies Add-On Service!) and provide my New Babies Consultation to teach him and his daughter about chicks. He set up the completed ark (very nice, I might add!) in his yard and invited the students who built it to come, as well as reporter Terry Dean.

You can read more details about the event here and a little bit of random chicken trivia here!

Home to Roost’s own press crew covered the event, but they have been running around like chickens… oh, wait. Bad metaphor. Let’s just say they’ve been busy. I’m hoping to post my own coverage soon!

Home to Roost at Navy Pier’s Green Fest

Come out for the chicken panel at the Green Festival on Navy Pier!

Saturday, May 22 at 2:00pm in the Green Homes Pavilion

Martha Boyd from Angelic Organics is leading a panel discussion about chickens in Chicago, chicken care basics, backyard chicken-keeping experiences and advice, the egg business, chicken supply delivery business, and resources for urban chicken owners.

Meet the panelists after the discussion to ask questions!


The following are common questions about raising chickens:

  • “So how much money will having my own chickens save me?”
  • “Will having my own hens benefit me financially?”
  • “Is having chickens a cost-effective strategy?”

The answer varies widely, and Joshua Levin, who has chickens in New York City, does a good job examining the economics in his article “Backyard Chicken Economics: Are They Actually Cost Effective?”

Here is a brief summary:

Set-Up Costs: $121 (chicken wire, waterer, feeder, grit, hens)

Per-Month Variable Costs: $31.50 (organic feed) or $13.50 (non-organic feed)

Value Produced per Month: $27.66 (40 eggs = $20, fertilizer = $7.66)

In Levin’s estimation, the cost of feed determines whether or not your operation is profitable. If you use non-organic feed, you will break even in 6 months; organic feed, 14 months.

Levin’s Cost-Saving Strategies

  • Build the coop yourself
  • Procure free items – structure for coop, wire, other building materials
  • Buy non-organic feed
  • Supplement the hens’ diet with table scraps (do this with caution, as lots of roughage can lead to crop impaction and sour crop) and allow them to free range.
  • Use newspaper as bedding rather than wood chips (but know that newspaper packs more easily, gets wet more easily, and has to be changed more often to prevent mold, which can cause aspergillosis – but it can be composted more readily)
  • Add another hen, which does not considerably change the costs.
  • Harvest your chicken manure.

Follow-Up Comment

A follow-up comment on Levin’s article, posted by Patricia Foreman, gave the following as positive reasons to raise hens that are not figured into Levin’s purely capitalistic perspective:

  1. Contribute to the backyard agriculture movement by perpetuating knowledge of animal husbandry and local food production
  2. Recycle waste to keep it from landfills by using chickens to recycle biomass
  3. Reduce fossil fuel use and carbon footprint by reducing the amount of oil we use to feed ourselves in packaging, transportation, and production
  4. Prepare for emergencies by having a food source on hand

It’s a great article; if you found my summary helpful, check out the article at GoodEater Collaborative.

Levin has chickens in New York City

Home to Roost at Manor Garden Club

I’ll be speaking at the Manor Garden Club meeting on Monday, May 17, about the basics of backyard chickens.

The club meeting starts at 7:30, followed by refreshments and a book raffle between the meeting and my talk. The talk will begin around 8:15-8:30 PM.

The meeting will be at Luther Memorial Church at 2500 West Wilson (at Campbell).  Entry is through the side Campbell street door.  Go down a few steps to the main room.  Street parking – which is tighter nowadays since the schoolyard went all green.

The meeting is open to the public, and there is no charge.

It’s a chicken… No, it’s a quail!


My new office assistant


On Friday I got a call about a chicken that was found in a forest preserve. I asked the person how big, what it looked like, what size the comb was. “Well, it’s brown with markings, and it doesn’t have a comb.”

Hmmm… I decided that was not a chicken! When he brought the bird over, and it was a lovely little Japanese coturnix quail hen!

About Coturnix

The word coturnix is Latin, and the Spanish word for quail is codorniz, which is derived by regular sound change (sorry, I had to work in linguistics!). Japanese coturnix quail are not indigenous to the United States, so wildlife rescues will not take them.

I used to hatch them when I was growing up. Incubation takes 17 days, and the chicks hatch all at once – you lift the incubator lid, and it looks like black and tan popcorn! The chicks have black and tan “racing stripes” – very appropriate since the babies are very fast and very high energy! They will sometimes trample each other, so they need ample room in a brooder box. Weak or slow chicks should be removed from the box that holds the lively ones until they are “up to speed.”

Coturnix are raised for their eggs and meat, which are considered gourmet. You can read more about coturnix here and see pictures of eggs and babies here and here.

Back to the Quail…

Her back end had the feathers torn off, as if she’d been run over by a mower or caught by a dog. The skin was fine, and the feathers were growing back. As I was carrying her in, tucked against my chest, she started making these little contented quail noises. She was cooing!

I examined her away from the parakeets to prevent spread of disease and noticed that her eyes were rheumy looking and irritated; she had been scratching them. I put antibiotic ophthalmic ointment on them and washed my hands thoroughly. She was not lice infested and was eating and drinking well, so I put her in my bird carrying cage.


The little quail loves to snuggle in my arm as I work on the computer!


She loves to snuggle in the crook of my arms as I work at the computer and make little happy quail noises! We’re going for a vet check-up on Wednesday.

It’s a Hen… or Maybe Not! Gender-Bending Chickens

One of your hens suddenly stops laying. Her comb and wattles enlarge, and (s)he starts crowing… WHAT is going on?

Weird science, yes. And other people have found it weird, but they did not consider it to be science—Gail Damerow reports in The Chicken Health Handbook that, in 1474, a rooster named Basel was burned at the stake for laying eggs.

Normal Physiology

A hen has two ovaries. Normally the left ovary atrophies during development of the chick, and only the right ovary produces eggs. However, in some rare and bizarre cases, alterations in the bird’s ovaries cause sex hormone changes.

Female Changing to Male

On rare occasions, the right ovary ceases normal function—perhaps due to a tumor or an infection, and the left ovary becomes functional, sometimes producing testosterone. This hormone switch causes the bird to develop typically male features: larger comb and wattles, male plumage, male vocalization.

For some fowl gender-benders, check out these photos.

Male Changing to Female

Then there is the recently reported bizarre story of the Italian rooster, Gianni, whose flock of hens was lost to a fox raid. Gianni became Gianna and started producing eggs!

The article cites a “bizarre DNA mix”; however, I posit that the bird’s genetics are not the issue. The bird’s genotype did not change; only the phenotype (expression of the genes) is altered.

Perhaps the right ovary was initially nonproductive, causing a testosterone-laden female bird with male sex characteristics. The right ovary then decided to quit the picket lines and return to production, et voilà – a rooster-turned-hen!

However, further reading indicates that it is highly unlikely that these birds will ever assume the full reproductive roles of the newly acquired gender.

Practically Speaking

For those of you who are content with your two backyard hens who quietly sing and cackle occasionally, no need to panic about being woken in the middle of the night to crowing. This is not a common phenomenon! But if Henrietta suddenly starts acting like Henry, please don’t burn him/her at the stake. The only devilry going on is hormonal!


Daily Mail Reporter. April 22, 2010. “Now I’m a chick! Gianni the gender-bending cockerel starts to lay eggs, baffling scientists.”

Damerow, Gail. 1994. The Chicken Health Handbook. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA.

Jacob, J. and F. Ben Mather. “Sex reversal in chickens.” Factsheet PS-53. University of Florida Extension: Institute of Food and Agricultural Science.

“Sex Change in Poultry.”