There are more than 150 different breeds of chicken in existence, all of varying plumage, size and temperament. Andy Cawthray, the author of a number of books on poultry, advises doing your research first. “If you are looking specifically for pets, then focusing on the breeds with docile temperaments is perhaps the best route. If space is limited or young children are involved, then a bantam breed like the Pekin can make a good starter. If you have more room and older children, then it’s hard to beat the Brahma for appeal, entertainment and temperament. However, the more docile breeds are often not usually high egg producers.”
For the feel-good factor, Charlotte says it’s worth considering a bird that’s spent the first part of its life indoors. “Not only are ex-caged hens cheap, but it’s such a rewarding feeling to know you have rescued them from a horrible experience and it’s a great opportunity to watch them thrive. Ex-caged hens are often featherless and suffering from muscle damage, but after a few weeks the chickens will be nearly feathered and running up and down the garden.”
Five-year-old Daisy cuddles up to her new feathered friend (Jay Williams)
In the end we decided to go to a local breeder. We selected two Cuckoo Marans, known for their friendly temperament and high egg production, and two Light Sussex, said to be excellent layers but also meaty table birds (just in case we changed our minds and went for the casserole option).
Something about bringing them home reminded me of the times we’d brought each of our babies home from hospital. We tucked them safely into the back of the car, only in cardboard boxes rather than Maxi-Cosi contraptions, and set off on a new chapter in our lives, approaching the speed bumps with the kind of trepidation usually reserved for transporting newborns.
At home, we prised the birds from the box, still not quite sure how to handle them, before leaving them to explore their hopefully fox-proof new surroundings.
Shortly afterwards, I heard screaming from the garden: “Mummeeeee!”
Heart racing, I pegged it outside to fight off whatever predator was savaging our new flock. The kids were crowded around the coop.
“What’s happened?” I asked, warily.
“It’s done an egg!” squealed Daisy, five, revealing untold excitement and a slight blurring of bodily functions.
“Laid an egg,” I corrected, peering in to verify this everyday marvel.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known where eggs come from, there’s still something disproportionately pleasing about seeing it for yourself.
One minute this ball of feathers was scratching in the dirt, the next it had conjured up an egg. Just like that. Just like the ones they sold in shops. Not even bloody, or dirty.
Such was the novelty of eating the eggs that magically appeared within a few metres of the back door that we ended up getting three more birds to keep up with the exponential increase in omelette consumption that followed.
Henrietta, Olga, Wilma and Emerald were joined by a pair of Blue Marans, jointly named as The Blues, and another hen of unknown breed, which the kids named Goldie, on account of the medallion marking around her neck. Collectively, they were all just The Girls.
The Blues turned out to be blighters and were constantly escaping from God knows where until we ended up replacing half the garden fence — far outweighing the value of any eggs they were likely to produce over a lifetime.
Yet I couldn’t help feeling slightly in awe of these birds that effectively gave birth every day, without so much as a whiff of gas and air, let alone an epidural. I’m no geometrist, but the size of an egg relative to the stuffing end of a roast chicken seems roughly analogous to the size of a baby and a birth canal. And being 10cm dilated is not an experience I’d like to repeat on a daily basis.
But as we soon discovered, chickens are more than just egg machines. After a couple of weeks they’d run to greet us, eat out of our hands and even allow the children to pick them up, proving themselves to be a match for any dog or cat, minus the hassle.
Andy Cawthray agrees. He says: “They are a wonderfully accessible form of livestock. Not only are they capable of providing food for the kitchen, they are also tremendously engaging characters with very identifiable personalities. They interact with you as the keeper just as well, if not better, than many of the more commonly encountered pets.”
A few months on and I’m turning into a chicken evangelist. The Girls are completely undemanding, but always delighted to see us, requiring only clean bedding, food and water. In essence: the perfect pet. They even put themselves to bed at night, which is more than can be said of the kids.
I’m not sure what will happen when egg production tails off in old age. Now that the chickens have ingratiated themselves into family life, casserole is no longer an option. I guess that means we’ll be providing a bunch of menopausal chickens with free BB in years to come. It would be rude not to.
Know your chickens
Chickens are sociable animals and like to be part of a flock, so should be kept in groups of at least three.
Chickens are omnivorous. However, it is illegal to feed them kitchen food waste due to the risk of disease.
Avoid washing the eggs as the shell is porous, so pathogens can travel through, presenting a possible health risk.
Leaving a radio on during the day where chickens are free-ranging is said to help deter foxes.
Eggshell colour is related to the colour of the hen’s earlobes – the darker the lobe, the darker the egg