New book describes challenges, joys of having backyard hens

“Like most people, I initially got chickens because I wanted a source of eggs from hens who I knew had lived good lives,” freelance journalist Tove Danovich says. “It kind of spiraled from there.”

Danovich’s “spiral” took her into a fascinating investigative journey to get a wider view of chickens, their evolution, their lives and the ways in which they are used.

The result is her engaging new book, “Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them” (Agate, $27) that seamlessly blends memoir with animal welfare journalism.

Danovich’s book outlines “the pros and cons of the (backyard chicken) movement with stories from my flock as well as looking out a bit more at who chickens are as a species and why I think they’re so lovely.”

She lives with her flock of eight hens and documents their activities on Instagram at @bestlittlehenhouse.

“Each of my girls very much has her own personality,” she says. “My tiny bantam Emmylou won’t come back into the coop until I’ve hand-fed her treats.”

Her head hen, Peggy, is the flock peacemaker. “She calmly runs up to insert herself between anyone who is fighting and gives them a warning stare,” Danovich says. “If anyone tries to start something after that, she’ll give them a good peck or two.”

"Under the Henfluence" author Tove Danovich kicks off Mill Valley Public Library's Earth Month series on Mar. 30. (Photo by Jaime Bosworth)
“I hope that wherever people start off, that they care about chickens a little bit more after they finish the book,” says “Under the Henfluence” author Tove Danovich. 

When she got her first hens, she read everything that she could find about chickens at her local library.

“There were a lot of books about raising them, or how we farm them, but nothing that really captured the essence of chickendom, the delight of living alongside these quirky, fascinating birds,” she says.

So, she wrote one.

“Some readers will have not thought about chickens much before reading it and others will probably already be very interested in animal welfare,” she says. “I hope that wherever people start off, that they care about chickens a little bit more after they finish the book.

“I’d love to see our standards for chicken farming, slaughter, and really everything about the commercial egg and poultry industry improve. As it stands, they are easily the most numerous and worst treated farm animal out there.”

Chickens, she says, are smarter than people give them credit for. “They make over 24 different sounds which all refer to specific things and you can even train them,” she says. “The flock always has funny dramas and friendships going on that are as interesting to guess at as a soap opera. It’s been such a joy to try and understand how they see the world.”

Are backyard chickens for everyone?

“Whenever the economy goes down, people get chickens,” she says. She appreciates that it gives people a chance to get to know and fall in love with chickens, but warns against “panic-buying” animals.

“It is not great for the animals and can lead to a lot of ill-prepared people,” she says.

Even with high prices, factory-farmed eggs “are still incredibly cheap because commercial farms use economies of scale and optimize everything about these birds’ genetics, feed, and conditions to have the most output at the lowest prices,” she says.

“You’re just not going to get that in your backyard. Getting chickens can be wonderful but it’s rarely a cost-saving measure.”

Raising backyard chickens can be the answer, however, for those who want to eat eggs but are concerned about the planet and the humane treatment of animals in factory farms.

Emmylou, a Belgian Barbu d'Uccle bantam, sits on her nest in Tove Danovich's Portland coop. (Photo by Tove Danovich)
Emmylou, a Belgian Barbu d’Uccle bantam, sits on her nest in Tove Danovich’s Portland coop. 

“There’s been a lot of talk about how red meat is bad for the planet and has a huge carbon footprint but chicken isn’t without problems and we raise these birds and eat them in much higher quantities,” she says.

Chicken manure on a large scale, she points out, can be bad for the planet.

“When you raise hundreds of thousands of birds in a small area, you simply don’t have enough places to put it where the plants can process it,” she says, adding that it’s just one of many ecological issues related to chicken farming.

“Areas in the ‘broiler belt’ where meat chickens are raised, have huge issues with algal blooms in the waterways and other pollution from nitrogen runoff, a lot of which is caused by chicken production.”

If you want to raise your own backyard flock, here are Danovich’s top tips:

• Choose a solid coop that protects against raccoons, raptors and other predators.  “A lot of premade coops sold online or in farm stores are not big enough or safe for chickens. Getting chickens just to have them all eaten by predators is terrible for everyone”.

• Deter rats. “Protect the coop from digging or climbing pests before you move the chickens in because retrofitting it is going to be a pain.”

• Do your research. “There are so many groups on social media and Youtube devoted to raising chickens as well as how-to books, and now ‘Under the Henfluence’ that can make sure you’re providing the best care for your flock.”

• Protect flocks, especially free-ranging ones near any body of water, from the contagious and deadly avian flu. “If any one of your flock gets avian flu, they all have to be euthanized. I change my shoes if I’ve been walking outside of my yard before I get close to the flock and have recently moved them into a larger coop-and-run so I can keep them inside during migration season.”

• Be responsible.  “Dumping animals is always bad and also illegal in many areas. Hens can always be re-homed no matter how old they are. Someone will want them. And the older girls can be wonderful members of the flock even if their egg production has slowed a bit.” Roosters “are a little harder to place but backyard chicken groups on Facebook, if not the local humane society, are all good options to post about a rooster needing a new home.”

• Eat for the planet. “Not everyone can or wants to become vegan or vegetarian but eating fewer animal products is always going to be one of the most impactful things you can do for animals like chickens and the planet,” she says.

• Help change laws. “The percent of people who can afford to switch to pasture-raised eggs is small,” she says. “Changing laws to provide chickens with more space, access to dust bathing so they can stay clean, and the ability to nest and do other behaviors would be so impactful.”

• Adopt, don’t shop. “I’d love to see more people rescue chickens from egg farms. Most egg laying hens are killed before they’re 2 years old ,but some organizations, such as Hen Harbor in Santa Cruz, are working to save and re-home these hens. They’re so sweet and have never gotten to really be a chicken. Watching them transform thanks to your care is absolutely wonderful.”

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