Archive for October, 2010

10/30 Home to Roost Speaking at HalloweeM 2010

I’ll be at the Chicagoland Mensa group’s HalloweeM event on 10/30 at 12:30. For more information, see the Mensa site.

I’ll cover the basics of backyard hens and will bring along 2 feathered friends!

Lombard, IL, Considers Chickens

I answered my phone yesterday and found myself speaking to a reporter from the Lombard Daily Herald. It seems Lombard residents have caught the chicken bug (not to be confused with avian flu) and are working to get their city council to consider allowing backyard fowl! Let’s hope that Lombard’s efforts have the same effect as Evanston’s! Check out the Daily Herald article here.

Read more about Evanston’s successful efforts: Evanston Debates Chicken Ordinance, Chickens now allowed to roost in Evanston!

More on backyard chickens in urban areas: Chicagoland’s Chicken Population: For the ‘Burbs? Are Hens Right for Your City? 5 Reasons for Urban Chickens, Reasons to Raise Chickens

The bottom line, in the opinion of the urban chicken consultant, is education. A well-informed chicken-keeping populace makes decisions that are better for the neighbors, the hens, and the city. Education goes a long way in convincing city council that this is a valid and worthwhile prospect.

Thinking about chickens? Join me for the Backyard Chicken Basics class on 11/6!

The Urban Chicken Consultant Recommends… the Rubber Chicken Purse!

Rubber chicken purse

Rubber chicken purse


Might I recommend the snazzy and memorable rubber chicken purse, not to be confused with the dead rubber chicken? This nice, roomy handbag can hold wallet, keys, business cards, dental floss, Altoids, camera bag, pens, CTA card, Post-It notes, gloves, flashlight, spare pair of shoes…

The rubber chicken purse makes a definite statement. I’m not quite sure what that statement is yet, but I’ve found that people remember the purse more than they remember me. Either that, or they leave lots of room on either side of me as I walk down the street.

For an urban chicken consultant, this purse also functions as a marketing tool. Nothing gets a conversation going like a rubber chicken purse. Therefore it is a tax-deductible business expense (I’m hoping my accountant isn’t reading this…).

Chicago residents can find this chicksessory at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and Hoypoloi Gallery (my FAVORITE Chicago art gallery). Those not lucky enough to have access to Hoypoloi Gallery (or Chicago) can purchase the purse online.

For those who truly want to maximize accessorizing potential, try the rubber chicken change purse.

Rubber chicken coin purse

Rubber chicken coin purse

My First Chickens

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Roll back the years to 1985. I was in fourth grade, Mr. Summers’ science class. We did a project on embryology, lining up rows of white eggs marked + and 0, pointed end slightly downward, in a white styrofoam incubator. I remember peering through the plastic windows, looking at those eggs. Twenty-one days is a long time when you’re only 10 years old.

Mr. Summers taught us how to candle the eggs with a flashlight to determine the viability of the embryo. The phrase “one rotten egg spoils the whole bunch”… oh, wait, that’s the Swedish version… nevertheless, it’s true. Gases escaping from an infertile or unviable egg can ruin the hatch. We pulled those out and threw them away.

We used a scalpel and cut a tiny window in one hard calcium shell, using wax to seal it off with plastic wrap. Blood vessels carried oxygen-rich fluid to a tiny heart, beating a pulse of new life. I liked the egg with the window and candling. How exciting to see something come from nothing, a tiny life form from what would otherwise be breakfast.

The days passed. We turned the eggs. More days passed. And finally one day, there was moisture on the incubator windows. A tiny yellow chick, wet, weak, and weary, had arrived. The rest of the flock soon followed, and before long the little guys were dry, energetic balls of fluff.

Sadly, the one we’d had a window on, whose development we’d watched with curiosity over the last three weeks, didn’t make it. Like Schroedinger’s cat, it seemed the very observation of life in the making destroyed it. My 10-year-old’s heart was sad for that chick and sorry that our curiosity and desire to know more had killed it.

Did we want to take some home? was the question Mr. Summers posed. Of course, yes! My two little chicks landed in a cardboard box behind the chair in the living room. They were soon joined by my friend Sam’s chicks (her parents decided that chickens weren’t a good idea) and a fuzzy buff-colored chick from my Pappy. I’d inspect the box of avian energy several times a day, to which my mother said, “Don’t pester those chicks! You’ll kill them!”

Far from that: After all my high-quality handling, those were some of the tamest white Leghorns on the planet. Personalities became evident, and naming soon followed: Baby, the sweet, docile hen; Jitterbug, the slightly schizo, easily startled hen; Hot Stuff, alpha male; and his subservient sidekick, Little Boy. The buff-colored one, well, she  was just Red Hen.

A life-long fascination (obsession?) with chickens and other fowl followed hard on the heels of those first little fuzzy critters. I soon had my own incubator. I sold chicks at Easter, eggs to the neighbors, boxes of fowl at stock market. Ducks, peafowl, turkeys, quail, golden pheasants, geese, pigeons… The incubator was running almost all summer, and I candled and turned, and turned and candled, enjoying taking part in the process of new life. But I never cut a hole in an egg to watch a chick grow.

Hen-apalooza, Chicago, October 3, 2010

Backyard hens had a chance to meet a number of two-legged mammal critters on October 3, during the Hen-apalooza Coop Tour in Chicago on October 3, 2010.

Encompassing several neighborhoods that have been overtaken by barnyard fowl, the tour, organized by the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts and Martha Boyd of Angelic Organics Learning Center, offered chicken owners, would-be owners, and the curious public the opportunity to take a peek inside the city’s backyard poultry fad.

Chicago’s chicken keepers and folks as far away as northern Indiana had a chance to swap tips, see new ideas in action, and connect with other chicken keepers. Home to Roost Urban Chicken Consulting presented a short six-point inspection–a quick chicken check-up to assess a bird’s health.

The Chicago Sun-Times deemed the event worthy of coverage, and their scoop on the coop tour is here.

Despite it being a crisp, fall day, the turn-out at the 15 featured coop locations was impressive considering the short time frame from inception to event. The Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts are working on a bigger and better Hen-apalooza for the future! Stay tuned!

Upcoming Fall Events

October 30

Home to Roost will be presenting at Mensa’s HalloweeM 35, the annual Chicagoland gathering of quirky high-IQ folks. For more information, see the HalloweeM home page!

November 4

Home to Roost will appear on Chicago Tonight, WTTW Channel 11!

November 6

Home to Roost will be teaching a workshop on the basics of raising backyard chickens. For more info and to register, head to the Backyard Chicken Basics page.

Keep an eye/ear on Mindful Metropolis and Vocalo, 89.5, Chicago. I’ve also granted interviews there.

Reasons to Raise Chickens

Why raise chickens?

Well, being a chicken fancier, I’d say the answer is obvious. But if you need some convincing—better yet, if your spouse/significant other/parents need some convincing!—here’s my list of answers to that question.

  1. Eggs. ‘Nuff said. Actually, they’re fresher, tastier, and look better than store-bought eggs. The yolk will be perky and a deep yellow from natural compounds called xanthophylls that the hens get from corn, alfalfa, or other greens. For more info on eggs and egg-carton labels, see my post Egg Labels: What’s in a Name?
  2. Education. Kids as much as adults need to realize that a good answer for the question, “Where do eggs come from?” is not “The store.” It’s a great educational process (as well as an exercise in responsibility) for kids (and adults) to care for another living creature.
  3. Health. Yup, those backyard eggs will most likely be salmonella free! Hens that are well kept will not succumb to disease and will most likely not harbor salmonella bacteria. For more info, see my post The Scoop on Salmonella in Eggs.
  4. Self-Sufficiency. The closeted pioneer in all of us swells with pride when we see a source of food running around in the backyard. Whether folks choose to eat just the eggs or to eat the chickens, too, we feel we’re pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, contributing to a larger good for the health of the world.
  5. Animal Welfare. If you’ve not seen pictures of laying hens in battery cages, Google it. It’s not a pretty sight. For every hen in someone’s backyard, one less battery hen will be tortured for her short (2 years max) existence. We all get that one.
  6. Composting. So if your kids won’t turn your compost pile, the chickens will! Lots of tasty creepy-crawlies live in compost heaps. Hens want these delectable sources of protein—so they scratch and dig for them. They also love to dustbathe, which involves kicking up all kinds of dirt.
  7. Poop. Mmmmm… Nitrogen-rich fertilizer! What could be better for the garden? Chicken poop has lots of ammonia, which decomposes into nitrogen. Caveat emptor, however: chicken poop is hot compost and should be properly processed before applying to plants. For more info on this see The scoop on poop, or how is poop like raku pottery?
  8. Personality. Yep, chickens have them—in abundance. You’ll discover the mischievous one, the singer, the clown, the psychopath, the leader, the sweetheart. They’re all out there,  waiting to meet you!
  9. Simplicity. There is something sacred and unique that ties people with animals with the land. Keeping chickens is a celebration of something less hurried, more wholesome, and timeless, a kind of ecological synergy.
  10. Fun. I’ve always had fun with chickens, since I was 10. Baby chicks are about the cutest things you’ll ever see, next to… well, I can’t think of anything! It’s great to watch them grow into awkward teenagers, with their gangly legs and changing voices. And getting your first egg is really something to crow about! The ladies are endlessly entertaining as they pick up their skirts and chase some tasty tidbit or come in for an afternoon snack on the porch.

Have some reasons of your own? Please feel free to post!

Egg Carton Labels: What’s in a Name?

Free range. Organic. Cage Free. Omega-3. Farm Fresh. All Natural.

The labels on egg cartons are sometimes not all they’re cracked up to be. What do all these terms mean? If you don’t have your own chickens, how can you know you’re getting eggs from humanely treated hens?

A label you won’t see is battery. About 98% of the eggs produced in North America are from battery hens, who “live” in horrific conditions: allotted a space no bigger than their bodies in tight quarters with other hens, they are force-molted through starvation to keep up egg production. Their beaks are trimmed with a hot wire to prevent pecking. The birds are handled with no concern for their lives or safety, and their bones are broken in handling. Many live their lives not even able to flap their wings.  They die from starvation if they get stuck in their cages, and often dead hens are not discovered and remain in the cage until after they have decomposed.  To learn more about the conditions in battery-cage facilities, click here or here.

So, what’s a better option, and what do all those labels on the more expensive eggs mean anyway?

Here’s the skinny on all the labels. Truthfully, many don’t hold a lot of meaning in terms of animal welfare, so investigate before you buy.

Find a pdf summary of this information in table format here: Egg Carton Labels.

Farm fresh: This term is largely meaningless, and hens are battery kept.

All natural: This term is largely meaningless, and hens are battery kept.

Omega-3 Enhanced: This means the chickens were fed large amounts of food containing omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed, which are expressed in the egg. The hens are mostly battery-cage hens. A better alternative to omega-3 enhanced eggs is to simply eat more foods with these fats, since eggs are not a great source.

Cage-Free or Free-Run: These terms apply to chickens who are not kept in battery cages. They live in henhouses with free access to the enclosed space but do not get outdoors. They are force-molted and treated like battery hens. These facilities are not inspected to assure conditions are as advertised.

Free-Range: These hens are house in conditions similar to those in cage-free or free-run environments, with the exception that they have access to the outdoors. Sometimes this consists of a small door on the henhouse that may or may not be kept open. These facilities are not inspected to assure conditions are as advertised.

Pasteurized: These eggs have been processed to eliminate salmonella bacteria. They have been heated very quickly to a very high temperature to kill bacteria and present less of a risk if eaten raw.

Certified Organic: These hens get an organic diet and have access to the outdoors and vegetation. Their beaks may be trimmed and they may be force molted. Organic eggs must be certified by inspectors. However, the food advocacy group Cornucopia Institute recently found that an “organic” egg-production facilities are using battery production methods. Read their report here.

Animal Welfare Approved: These hens are raised humanely indoors and are cage free. They are not force molted, and beak trimming is very limited. This is the highest standard available, but these eggs are not sold in stores. They are inspected by the Animal Welfare Institute. Find more information here.

American Humane Certified: These birds have more room than battery-cage hens (the size of a piece of legal-sized paper) and they are not force molted, but their beaks may still be trimmed, and studies show that this method of caging is still detrimental to health. These facilities are inspected by a third-party verifying agency.

United Egg Producers Certified: This means the hens have access to fresh food and water. They may be battery kept and force molted, and their beaks may be trimmed. More info on UEP here.

Pastured: The hens that lay these eggs are kept on pasture (or in backyards) and are not confined. They have access to bugs, worms, and other natural foods, and they also eat grains. For more information on pastured eggs, click here. These eggs have more omega-3 fatty acids and higher concentrations of certain vitamins.

As you buy eggs, be aware that commercial egg producers slaughter all male chicks (50% of the hatch) shortly after they hatch. Male chicks are of no use to the egg industry.

So, there you have it. If you don’t have your own chickens, you can make a wiser decision about where your eggs come from.


The Humane Society of the United States. “Egg Carton Labels.” The Humane Society of the United States. Posted Nov. 9, 2009.

Copley, Jennifer. “Egg Labels–Free Range, Organic, and Omega-3.” Suite Posted Jan. 8 2010.

Butler, Kiera. “Is Your Favorite Organic Egg Brand a Factory Farm in Disguise?” Posted Oct. 4, 2010.

Certified Humane: The hens live in barns, uncaged, and they can do normal chicken things like dusting. They are not starved to force a molt but their beaks may be trimmed.  These facilities are inspected

The Scoop on Salmonella in Eggs

For those of you who have chickens, you may be asking, “How safe are MY eggs from Salmonella contamination?”

The good news is, they are likely VERY safe.

Salmonella are bacteria that live in human and animal intestinal tracts. The bacteria can pass in fecal matter and so may be found in soil, water, and other matter that has come into contact with fecal matter.

So how do the bacteria get into eggs? There are two ways this might happen:

1) Chicken poop gets on the shell of the egg. The bacteria pass through the pores and proliferate inside the egg.

2) An industrial egg-laying hen whose ovaries are contaminated with salmonella bacteria passes the bacteria along in the egg-formation process.

Solutions are fairly simple.

1) Give your hens adequate space and good living conditions. This includes clean food and water daily. Hens in poor living conditions, like battery-caged layers, are more susceptible to illness (like salmonella) due to overcrowded, stressful living conditions. In your backyard coop, one nest for every four hens is adequate.

2) Keep your nest boxes free of fecal matter. Wood shavings are good for this, because the poop can easily be scooped out in clumps, much like clumping kitty litter.

3) Collect your eggs daily and refrigerate them right away. Industrial eggs have many stops: candling, sizing, packaging, shipping, shipping again, shelf stocking. Along the way temperatures can fluctuate, leading to bacterial growth. Keeping your eggs refrigerated will prevent this.

4) Wash your eggs only when you are ready to use them. When a hen lays an egg, she secretes a wet covering that seals off the pores from pathogens. If you see a freshly laid egg, you will notice that it looks wet and then quickly dries. This is called the cuticle or bloom. Keep this coating intact until you are ready to use the egg. Brush or sand off any foreign material that is on the eggshell.

5) Cook eggs completely. Cooking eggs to 160 degrees will prevent illness.

If your hens are contaminated with salmonella, you will most likely have built up immunity to the particular strain they carry.

Enjoy your fresh eggs!

(Sources: Damerow, Gail. “Backyard Chicken Eggs Are Safe,” and Jansen Matthews, Lisa. “Safe Egg Handling,” both in Backyard Poultry, October/November 2010, 6.)