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The Coop Life: A Chicken Keeping Story

By Carina DeVera

Carina DeVera (she/her) is an animal advocate, outdoor enthusiast, and writer. She has been a dedicated champion for animals since she was a child, when — to the chagrin of her parents — she began to rescue underweight hedgehogs and abandoned baby birds from local parks. In the years since, she has lived this passion both personally and professionally by working, volunteering, and serving on the boards of Bay Area animal welfare organizations.

Last year, a lifelong dream of mine came true, literally decades in the making: I welcomed a small flock of chickens to my city backyard.

Birds have always been some of my favorite animals. As a child, I had a particular fascination with parrots, but any kind of bird content would do. At home, we had pet parakeets and cockatiels, and I memorized the names of all the local songbirds. One fateful day in the mid-90s, I went to the local library to once again look for any available books on birds. One of the books I found was about chickens, and I realized I knew a lot about wild animals and pets, but not much at all about farmed birds.

As it turned out, that particular volume was about industrial chicken farming and processing. And while the images were only black and white, they did get the picture across. I realized then, at 12 years old, that the animals depicted in the book were not very different from the cherished pet birds I had at home. That they, too, had emotions and personalities. They could suffer and feel immense fear. And if I didn’t want this to happen to my beloved pet birds, why would I want someone else to do it to other birds?

It’s the kind of powerful realization you can’t quite, well, un-realize. And while it did take this teenager on a direct path to vegetarianism (and later veganism), it would still be a long way until I actually came face-to-face with a group of live, happy Gallus gallus domesticus. That’s because farmed animals are usually hidden from view, locked away in staggering numbers behind closed doors. The life of an average egg-laying chicken is relatively short and immensely miserable — and the pastoral scenes depicted on egg cartons a cynical lie.

In my late 20s, I had the opportunity to volunteer at Animal Place, an animal sanctuary that rescues commercial hens from being euphemistically “depopulated” once their egg-laying slows down even a little. These hens arrived in bad shape; just over two years old, many had lost a good portion of their feathers and were riddled with parasites. But within a few short weeks, they would acclimate to their newfound freedom, happily scratching in the dirt, hunting for bugs, and sunbathing for the first time — natural behaviors they hadn't been allowed to express in their crammed, dirty cages. It was a joy to watch, but quite a bittersweet experience as well. I knew all these hens were adoptable, and that the organization was hoping to find loving, caring homes for these survivors. At the time I was renting a small apartment with no outdoor space and no pets allowed, so the dream of caring for a small flock of these rescued hens seemed impossibly far off.

I was thrilled, then, when many years later I finally found myself in a position to consider adopting some chickens. After checking local ordinances and conferring with the neighbors, I reached out to Isabelle of Clorofil for a consultation. I knew I needed to get this right the first time — I didn’t want to inadvertently create conditions that were unsafe (for the hens) or unpleasant (for myself or the neighbors). My biggest question was which coop would best suit my needs, and how to choose among the countless options available. After careful consideration, I ended up buying a sleek, compact, and easy-to-clean model.

After weeks of research and preparation, it was finally time! I had an adoption appointment with Animal Place — the very same organization where I’d volunteered so many years before. They brought out three stately hens who had been in the sanctuary’s expert care for a while, and I carefully (and proudly) loaded them into the pet carriers I had brought for this very purpose. As soon as we arrived at home, watching my small flock eagerly explore their new environment felt very rewarding.

One thing I didn’t expect, however, was just how serious the hens were about enforcing their pecking order! A little while after the chickens had settled in, I adopted a single hen from a nearby animal control facility. The white leghorn’s past was unknown, but she urgently needed a home. I was excited to add Hennifer to the flock. Surely, they would welcome her with open arms (wings?) and live harmoniously ever after. After all, isn’t that what birds do, flock together?

They did not.

After a short and uneasy period of mutual suspicion and tentative pecking, the fighting started in earnest. This was my first new chicken introduction and I hadn’t done my homework. I frantically reached out to an experienced coworker and friend, who diplomatically explained that she also didn’t have good luck just bringing a new bird into established territory. She urged me to put up a barrier for the newcomer’s protection and to rotate the birds’ locations. Once acclimated, they could later enjoy supervised interactions in a neutral open space with lots of treats on the ground to keep everyone busy.

With everyone secured for the time being, I could formulate a better plan — something I should have done well ahead of time. I had relied on my experience introducing small pets like guinea pigs and rabbits. This episode made it very clear that animals are individuals, and different strategies are needed for different species — and that some species, like chickens, require a lot of patience. It took the hens three weeks to settle into a balanced and peaceful flock, but when they eventually did, it was well worth the effort.

I’ve truly enjoyed the time I got to spend with my chickens so far. I’m particularly happy with my decision to purchase an automatic coop door, which will safely tuck the hens in at night — and most importantly, let them back outside right after sunrise, while I’m still cozy in bed. I’ve grown quite fond of their occasional egg song (a “bawk bawk bawk”-ing type of serenade that last for only a few minutes) as well as their expectant little clucks and “bok bok” sounds whenever they notice me approach the coop. You know, just in case I might have another treat for them.


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