Meet the world of backyard chickens – Marin Independent Journal
Backyard chickens, such as Tove Danovich’s Blanche and Rose, Cochin Bantams, are the subject of her talk at the Mill Valley Public Library’s Earth Month launch event.
“Like most people, I originally bought chickens because I wanted a source of eggs from chickens I knew had had a good life,” says freelance journalist Tove Danovich. “It kind of meandered from there.”
Danovich’s “Spiral” took her on a fascinating journey of exploration to get a broader view of chickens, their evolution, life and the way they are used.
The result is her compelling new book, Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them (Agate, March 2023, $27), which seamlessly blends memoir with animal welfare journalism.
On March 30, Danovich will kick off Mill Valley Public Library’s Earth Month with a talk on “The World of Backyard Chickens,” designed to inspire locals to build a more sustainable Marin.
The free Earth Month program at the library includes a clothes swap and mending meeting on April 8th, a lecture on telescopes on April 17th, a discussion on mushrooms on April 19th, a lecture on bees on April 26th, and a citizen – Meeting of the Minded Book Club on April 27th. The full schedule is posted at millvalleylibrary.org/earthmonth.
The library will also have a booth at the Earth Day Marin Festival on April 23 from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Mill Valley Recreation Center at 180 Camino Alto in Mill Valley.
Danovich’s talk will “cover the ins and outs of the (backyard chicken) movement with stories from my flock and go a little more into who chickens are as a species and why I find them so beautiful.”
She lives with her flock of eight hens and documents her activities on Instagram at @bestlittlehenhouse.
“Each of my girls has very much their own personality,” she says. “My little bantam Emmylou won’t come back to the coop until I hand feed her treats.
Her chief hen, Peggy, is the peacemaker of the flock. “She calmly runs over to squeeze in between the combatants and gives them a warning look,” says Danovich. “After that, if anyone tries to start something, she gives them a good kiss or two.”
Photo by Jaime Bosworth
“I hope that by the time people finish the book, wherever they start, they will care a little bit more about chickens,” says Under the Henfluence author Tove Danovich.
When she got her first chickens, she read everything she could about chickens in her local library.
“There have been many books about how we raise them or how we breed them, but nothing that really captured the essence of chickendom, the joy of living alongside these whimsical, fascinating birds,” she says.
So she wrote one.
“Some readers will not have given much thought to chickens before reading it, while others are probably already very interested in animal welfare,” she says. “I hope that wherever people start, they care a little bit more about chickens after they finish the book.
“I would like to see our standards for chicken rearing, slaughtering and really everything in the commercial egg and poultry industry improve. By the looks of it, they are by far the most numerous and most mistreated livestock out there.”
Chickens, she says, are smarter than you give them credit for. “They make over 24 different sounds, all related to specific things, and you can even train them,” she says. “The herd always has fun drama and friendships that are as interesting to guess as a soap opera. It was such a joy trying to understand how they see the world.”
Are backyard chickens for everyone?
“Whenever the economy collapses, people get chickens,” she says. She appreciates it gives people a chance to meet and fall in love with chickens, but warns against “panic buying”.
“It’s not good for the animals and can lead to a lot of ill-prepared people,” she says.
Even with high prices, industrially farmed eggs are “still incredibly cheap because commercial farms use economies of scale and tweak everything about the genetics, feed and conditions of these birds to get the greatest performance at the lowest prices,” she says.
“You just don’t get that in your backyard. Getting chickens can be wonderful, but it’s rarely a cost-saving measure.”
However, raising backyard chickens may be the answer for those who want to eat eggs but are concerned about the planet and the humane treatment of animals in factory farms.
Photo by Tove Danovich
Emmylou, a Belgian Bantam Barbu d’Uccle, sits on her nest at Tove Danovich’s barn in Portland.
“There’s been a lot of talk about red meat being bad for the planet and having a huge carbon footprint, but chicken isn’t without its problems, and we breed these birds and eat them in much larger quantities,” she says.
She points out that chicken manure on a large scale can be bad for the planet.
“When you’re raising hundreds of thousands of birds in a small space, you just don’t have enough space to put it where the plants can process it,” she says, adding that it’s just one of many ecological issues associated with the bird chicken farming is.
“Areas in the ‘Broiler Belt’ where meat chickens are raised have major problems with algal blooms in the waterways and other pollution from nitrogen runoff, much of which is caused by chicken production.”
If you’re looking to raise your own herd in the backyard, here are Danovich’s top tips:
• Choose a solid coop that protects against raccoons, raptors and other predators. “Many prefab coops sold online or in farm shops are not big enough or safe enough for chickens. Getting chickens only to have them all eaten by predators is terrible for everyone.
• Scare off rats. “Protect the coop from burrowing or climbing pests before you bring the chickens in because retrofitting will be a hassle.”
• Please investigate. “There are so many groups on social media and YouTube dedicated to raising chickens, as well as instruction books and now Under the Henfluence, that can ensure you are providing the best care for your flock.”
• Protect flocks from the contagious and deadly bird flu, particularly those roaming free near bodies of water. “If one of your flock gets sick with bird flu, they all have to be euthanized. I change my shoes when I’ve walked outside my yard before approaching the herd, and recently put them in a larger coop-and-run so I can keep them indoors during migration season.”
• To be responsible. “Abandoning animals is always bad and illegal in many areas. Hens can always be re-homed, no matter how old they are. Someone will want her. And the older girls can be wonderful members of the herd, even if their egg production has dropped a bit.”
Roosters “are a little more difficult to place, but backyard chicken groups on Facebook, if not your local animal welfare society, are all good options for posting about a rooster that needs a new home.”
• Eat for the planet. “Not everyone can or wants to go vegan or vegetarian, but eating less animal products will always be one of the most impactful things you can do for animals like chickens and the planet,” she says.
• Help change laws. “The percentage of people who can afford to switch to grass-fed eggs is small,” she says. “Changing laws to give chickens more space, access to dust bathing to keep them clean, and the ability to build nests and engage in other behaviors would be so impactful.”
• Adopt, don’t shop. “I would love to see more people rescue chickens from egg farms. Most laying hens are killed before they are 2 years old, but some organizations, like Hen Harbor in Santa Cruz, are working to rescue these chickens and give them new homes. They are so cute and never really became a chicken. To see them transform thanks to your care is absolutely wonderful.”
Details: “The World of Backyard Chickens,” a free lecture with Tove Danovich, will be held on March 30 at 7:00 p.m. in the Mill Valley Public Library’s Creekside Room on Throckmorton Ave. 375 in Mill Valley. Call 415-389-4292 or go to millvalleylibrary.org/earthmonth
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PJ Bremier writes on home, garden, design and entertainment topics every Saturday. She can be contacted at PO Box 412, Kentfield 94914 or at [email protected].