What a dander, er dandy, idea
We have been pet-free for several years, much to my children’s dismay.
After our last remaining cat died in 2007, we took a break.
Excuse rolled over onto excuse: We’ll get a new one when the kids are a little older ... after we get back from vacation ... as soon as we get through this busy period at work.
Truth is, I was tired of hairballs and litter boxes.
Then we discovered, after a sniffly play date at a friend’s house, that our daughter is slightly allergic to cats and dogs.
Not wanting one of those rat-like hairless cats, we suspended our pet shopping. (At least I did; my daughter continues to leave pet adoption websites open for me to find.)
Until I heard about this backyard chicken movement.
Chickens wouldn’t be my first choice for a pet, but I figured they have their advantages:
— Free eggs.
— Free meat (though that involves the touchy issue of actually killing your child’s pet).
— Potential exercise: “Kids, go round up the chickens!”
— No dander (or so I thought).
My husband, who was raised in Nebraska — Omaha-born and corn-fed — is not shocked by this idea. He insists that when he was young his mom could buy live chicks at just about any store. And baby alligators.
In Omaha, maybe. Not where I come from (aka the real world).
Anyway, I called in a chicken expert for advice: my friend Janice, who has her own chicken coop just south of Urbana.
At one time she and her husband had 70 chickens, 50 of them “meat birds.”
They’re down to two. Plus two in the freezer.
Meat birds, I’m told, are bred to grow and mature very quickly, so they’re “only part of the family for three months,” she said. Not long enough to bond.
The “layers,” by contrast, can live to be 8 or 9 years old. Her kids gave them all names, including Big Boy and Snow White, two big white birds.
One year her son was going to show them at a 4-H fair, so he gave them a bath and even blow-dried their hair. He put them in a cage, whereupon Big Boy immediately decided to, er, use the restroom. All over Snow White.
“She was covered with poop,” Janice said.
Snow White died last year. When Janice opened the coop that morning, she found Big Boy sitting by the body. Not pooping.
“It was very sweet,” she said.
Janice, the vegetarian of the family, makes it clear that the idea to raise chickens wasn’t hers. She likes the eggs — a “layer” produces about five a week — but if you factor in the money spent on feed, “the eggs are probably $10 a dozen.”
Plus, the birds aren’t particularly affectionate, and some breeds will peck.
“If we let them roam around our yard they’ll come up on our front porch and poop. And it’s a big, wet poop,” she said.
I’m sensing a theme here.
Janice doesn’t want to discourage anyone else, though. She said chickens don’t require a huge time commitment: “It’s a really fun hobby, and I think it’s fun for kids to get to watch the whole life cycle and collect the eggs.”
So, I ask, do they have to just eat feed, or could they also eat fruit from a tree? Say, for argument’s sake, a ginkgo tree?
Sure, she said, along with bugs or table scraps.
This could be a win-win.
Still, I’m not sure I’d be able to get my kids to clean a litter box, much less scoop up chicken droppings.
We also have plenty of wildlife in our backyard, not to mention neighborhood cats and dogs, that would likely see the chickens as a new menu item.
Besides — and I’m sorry about this poultry lovers — they’re just not cute. And it turns out they do have dander.
I asked my daughter about the idea. She paused: “Not what I had in mind for a lifelong friend,” she replied.
But she dutifully made a list of the pros and cons.
On the plus side:
— “Keep you company when home alone.”
— “Keep burglars away.”
If an intruder came, she explained, she could just open the coop and yell, “Go long!” whereupon the chickens would presumably peck him to death.
“You know what I’d really like?” she added. “A porcupine, because they could shoot those things at a burglar.”
Sometimes she frightens me.
Back to the cons:
— “You have to witness a murder (of the chicken).”
— “Don’t let kids learn how their dinner was prepared.”
— “I don’t want to see the chickens die.”
This is all sounding a bit traumatic.
So — maybe a baby alligator? Now THAT would keep burglars away.
Plus, no dander — as far as I know.
Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/jawurth.
Photo: A chicken wanders on Sheila Paul's backyard near Homer on Nov. 4, 2013.