MADISON, Wis., March 7 (UPI) -- Keeping chickens as backyard pets was fairly uneventful until the day a hen inadvertently rode to the mall in my car.
My very sociable hens are in a coop at night but roam the backyard by day. One morning, while cleaning my car, I had all the doors open and a hen we call The Mensa Chicken found her way into the garage and into the back seat of my car.
I drove off without seeing her, and without knowing she had hopped up on the arm rest behind me and was looking out the window. I was puzzled why people in cars around me were smiling and pointing until she softly and contentedly chirped behind me and I realized The Mensa Chicken was on board.
Not all chickens are that clever. They are in fact very dumb, which is why you need to learn how to protect them and keep them healthy if backyard chickens are in your future.
Many towns and cities now allow backyard hens and for good reasons -- chicken eggs are rich in protein and far tastier than store-bought eggs, chicken poop is high in nitrogen and a great source of organic fertilizer and chickens are pest-control naturals at gobbling up aphids, grubs and mosquito larvae, which reduces the need to use chemicals in the yard.
They're also great company and follow me around the garden on summer mornings waiting for me to turn over rocks so they can scoop up baby slugs. At sundown, they voluntarily seek the shelter of their coop and sleepily chirp a goodnight to me when I close them up to keep them safe from predators, such as raccoons and hawks. A sturdy coop is a must since raccoons are strong enough to tear off wire, pull boards and burrow under the sides of a coop.
Chickens eat an amazing variety of food, including mice who inadvertently wander a little too close to a quick chicken's beak. I pamper my backyard hens with warm cornbread, oatmeal with raisins and crickets from the local pet store.
My friend Naimhe Jeanne Raia, who has a 10-acre homestead in Freeport, Ill., thrills her 38 Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds and Bard Rocks with the entrails of deer and cattle.
"We think of it as recycling," Raia said. "Chickens will choose (entrails) over grain anytime."
Online, you can learn a lot about backyard chickens and meet other chicken owners at UrbanChickens.org, which even has state-by-state lists detailing ordinances about keeping chickens. Many communities these days allow a homeowner to keep three to six hens, but no roosters because they are obstreperously noisy -- especially at dawn.
For print sources, my chicken bibles are Gail Damerow's "Raising Chickens" and "The Chicken Health Handbook," both from Storey Publishing. There's far more in those books than you need to know if you're raising just a few hens, but they are well worth owning if you're serious about keeping healthy, happy birds.
If you decide chickens have a place in your future, take a look at McMurrayHatchery.com, based in Webster City, Iowa. McMurrary, and a number of other hatcheries, start shipping chicks this month and have a dazzling variety of breeds.
I'm fond of Buff Orpingtons because they tend to be sociable, friendly birds able to weather the frigid winters where I live in the Upper Midwest. (On the coldest of nights, I still put a safe ceramic heater in the coop and rub Vaseline on the hens' combs, which can be prone to frostbite.)
When I started keeping backyard chickens years ago, I was in the minority. In recent years, however, the ranks of backyard chicken owners have swelled, forcing zoning boards and city councils to reconsider their rules.
I knew things were turning in favor of backyard chicken owners when I saw this bumper sticker on a mini-van at our very suburban mall:
"Wherever chickens are outlawed, only outlaws will have chickens."