When people ask me, “Mordechai, is there a good pet I can get that will actually give me something in return, but not nearly as much as I put into it?” I recommend chickens. Or cows, but I live in a smallish house. So, chickens. Though I did finally move them outside.
Because apparently, I’m a chicken farmer. Is it called being a farmer when you have two chickens? My wife has what she calls a garden and she grows like two vegetables, so…
But it’s definitely not called a chicken farm unless the chickens are living outside.
To refresh your memory, several months ago our daughter brought home a chick from kindergarten, which is the kind of thing we would normally contact the principal about except that our daughter actually teaches kindergarten. And then our son brought home a second chick from his friend’s farm, because the way parenting works is when one kid has something, the next kid wants it too, and apparently this doesn’t end when they start calling themselves adults.
So, we’re keeping them for now. (The chickens.) The school doesn’t want theirs back.
But, you see, the fun of having indoor chickens is that they always give you something to do, which sounds great unless you also work indoors. Because they don’t stay in their bin. The first week we got them, the bigger chicken jumped out and wandered into the dining room during our Shabbos seudah and said, “So… what’s everybody eating?”
When you have chickens in your living area, you always have to watch where you step. Always, always. And not because you might step on them. They will not let that happen. There are other things they leave around that you might step on. We try to be ever vigilant of where we step and are wiping the floor constantly, but, for example, my wife for the past few months has been in the middle of a contact lens trial regimen in which she, in conjunction with her eye doctor, are trying to see which lenses work for her, and which ones do not allow her to see the presents the chickens leave on the floor that are almost the same color as the hardwood.
Whichever contacts she settles on are going to be amazing.
I also don’t know when they actually sleep. Every time I think they’re sleeping, I squint a bit to investigate, and they immediately open their eyes.
For the first few weeks, I had to have a heat lamp on them constantly until their feathers grew in. And the thing about heat lamps—at least the one belonging to my daughter’s school—is that they give off light too, so the chickens always think it’s day. They never sleep. It’s just short naps. And some nights, well after midnight, they are still hopping out of the bin and jumping onto the back of my chair not knowing what to do with themselves.
After midnight is when I work! That’s when the kids go to bed!
So, at some point, I started covering the bin with towels and turning off the lamp so they think it’s night. I mean it is night, but now they think it is, too. And they assume it’s night until I uncover them in the morning. I can uncover them at 10:30 in the morning, and they’re like, “Okay, I guess it’s morning now!” They’re very gullible.
“Night was three hours longer than yesterday? Okay.”
But the thing is, as long as chickens think it’s night, they don’t eat. It helps that chickens have zero night vision. It’s only when a rooster yells, “Cock a doodle doo!” that chickens know they can start eating. That’s what that’s for.
So, we figure that maybe they will actually sleep if they’re outside, where there’s a gradual sundown—usually about the same time as the day before. Though it has to be noisier to sleep outside. I know this because of Sukkos. And July 4th.
Step one was to build a coop. Baruch Hashem, we have a son who’s a budding contractor. Yes, the one who has a friend who’s a farmer. It’s a very blue-collar class of kids who want to see how far they can get in life with a minimum of reading.
(HOW IT’S GOING: He has more disposable income than I do. Despite being in yeshiva.)
He’s still developing his skills.
But you know the project that some schools assign where the students have to design a contraption so they can drop an egg without cracking it? We gave my son a similar challenge—design a coop that will protect an egg (and also chickens)—from any of the wildlife that live in New Jersey.
So, our son built a whole gesheft, with levels and ramps and wood chips and a loft for sleeping that will also be convenient for us to collect the eggs from, assuming the chickens know we expect them to lay their eggs there… No raccoons are getting into this thing. I am, however, worried about the wind getting in. I would say the biggest question we get (whenever we tell people we moved our chickens outside) is, “What do you do about the cold?”
So, I don’t know if you know this, but chickens are farm animals, and farm animals live outside. In the wild, chickens don’t fly south for the winter. Chickens do not travel. They cross one road and everyone makes a huge deal. And they are literally made out of winter coats.
What they do need are wind blocks. No matter which direction the wind is coming from, they need some kind of nook to hide behind because however they have their feathers puffed out to keep warm, the wind blows their feathers around. I’m doing all this research, which I didn’t have time to do before my son built the coop, and I’m reading about how the coop has to have areas that aren’t drafty. I don’t think our house has areas that aren’t drafty. It’s a good thing they moved out.
For the most part, though, they are thrilled to be outside. There are bugs everywhere! Basically, the presents they leave behind attract flies, which they then eat, which is an amazing system that Hashem created, except that they don’t eat as many flies as they’re attracting, which means that if you’re in the coop taking care of your chickens, the flies are annoying you, and the chickens look at you like, “Why don’t you just eat them?” Point is that when they lived indoors, we were not providing them with nearly enough flies. If they wanted extra protein, they had to eat feathers. Which is an amazing system that Hashem created to get rid of extra feathers swirling around the floor, except that they don’t eat as many feathers as they’re producing, and also, it’s really weird to watch them do it.
The main downside for the chickens is that for the first couple of weeks at least, every single day when the sun started going down, they went into this panic, like, “What are we supposed to do, again? Where do we go?” I’ve shown them. And they run back and forth and look for a way out and look for us to take them in before it gets too dark for them to see anything and they call out to us…
Anyway, we’ve finally gotten to a point where they usually remember that they’re supposed to head upstairs, but they’ll go up at the wrong times. Like, if I come out to give them supper a little early, or it’s rainy outside, they’ll go up and sit on a perch waiting for night to come, and then after a while, they’ll come back down feeling all embarrassed, like, “Sorry. We jumped the gun.” And the other one will go, “I only went up because she went up.”
So now I’m thinking that we should post a sign on the coop with all the zmanim on it: shkiyah, neitz, etc., that they can check 500 times a day.
But having chickens outside has changed me in some weird ways. I’m always aware of what the temperature is on any given day, for example. Usually, I come home from shul and my wife asks, “How cold is it outside?” and I honestly do not know. But now, not only am I aware of the temperature, I’m also cognizant of what time it’s going to rain, what time sunrise and sunset are, and from which direction the wind is blowing. Because, in my normal daily life, I don’t really care which way the wind is coming from. Now, when my wife says, “It’s windy outside,” I will say, “Really? From which direction?”
I’ve also discovered a side of me that enjoys making little home improvements to the coop that my son didn’t think about. I’m constantly adding hooks and walkways and nesting boxes that you can’t really do to your house, because every time you make an addition to your house, you also have to finish the walls nicely when you’re done so your wife doesn’t yell at you. And it has to be the exact right color of paint… I don’t know what color my walls are. You’d think I could just check the walls, but no.
But I make improvements to the coop, and my wife does not care.
Point is: 1) I’ve moved the chickens outside, and 2) I’m still not getting any work done.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com. Read more of Mordechai Schmutter’s articles at 5TJT.com.