My chickens came home to roost

HIRING CHOOKS WAS AN experiment, like dipping my toe in country living without having to change much at all - a kind of tree-change without a postcode change or even a long-term commitment.

After just a few emails, Fleur Baker, from Book a Chook, delivered two of her finest rental birds - chosen for their chutzpah, particularly in standing up to cats (more on that later). They came with a handsome-looking coop, built by a chap who also makes harps, and all the feed and straw two girls could need for a month in the city.

My cursory ''research'' - devoted almost entirely to seven pages dedicated to the topic in Arabella Forge's Frugavore - revealed backyard chickens would: eat all our vegetable scraps, provide the five of us (two adults, three children) with eggs, and make great pets to boot. But the reality of keeping chooks in a slate-paved courtyard, though rewarding, was a little more nuanced.

Here are 10 lessons I learnt about keeping chooks.

1. Chickens eat mice (but only occasionally - they prefer porridge and yoghurt, and eggs).

It was probably a week after Buffy and Betty arrived. Their usual, steady, rhythmic strut around the yard turned suddenly to mayhem. Betty dashed between some pots, Buffy clucked a lot. Seconds later, Betty reappeared with the back-end of a mouse hanging limply from her beak. Who knew? The rental agreement clearly says, ''Do not feed any animal products'', yet there they were hunting - and not just insects.

Fleur told us we could supplement the supplied grain with porridge (preferably warmed on cooler days), yoghurt and eggs. Eggs? The trick is not to let on that those things they lay are also eggs (serve them without the shell), or they may peck at their own. Oh, and mashed potato with garlic.

What about the vegetable scraps? They'll peck out their favourite bits (Betty likes greens, Buffy is keen on corn), but 90 per cent of kitchen scraps get left (as bait for mice?).

2. A chicken will have a go at a cat.

A few months before the chooks arrived, Gus, the Burmese cat arrived. He was already a year old when we got him and we were still getting to know each other. I thought all cats were programmed to attack everything with feathers, but Fleur assured me that cats and chickens stay out of each other's way. She had only one ''incident'' in two years. ''And that was with a Burmese,'' she said in an absolving tone - as in, there's absolutely nothing to worry about, unless, my cat was Burmese.

Initially, Gus smelt their coop and watched them through wide eyes from a high vantage. Occasionally he stalked them but never made the deadly lunge. He sometimes got close, triggering Buffy to puff herself up and flap at him, which made him walk off. Mostly, he and his flicky tail tolerated them.

3. It's cheaper to buy eggs than to keep chickens for their eggs.

Both Fleur and free-range egg farmer Phil Westwood say keeping chickens for eggs alone doesn't add up economically. And, when I checked with a friend who keeps two chickens in her backyard, she agreed, recalling a recent $245 vet bill.

It may be cheaper to buy eggs off the shelf, but who rushes to a uniformly stacked shelf bursting with anticipation?

Every morning and afternoon my children made a dash for the coop, ducking inside and more often than not emerging victorious with warm egg held aloft. Seeing who got to check for eggs became a bargaining tool for me - a reward for well-behaved children.

Every time we cracked open one of their little eggs, with bright yellow yolks, we were chuffed, a little bit honoured even, that they had made them for us, and we uttered a little ''thanks, girls''. For the record, the girls averaged one egg each a day.

4. All chickens have a crop, which, to a beginner, can look a lot like a tumour.

While on the subject of vet bills, my advice is to wait 24 hours before rushing your chook and her giant tumour-like lump to the vet. It's called a crop.This pouch at the bottom of her neck is where she stores food.

When chooks have just eaten, their crop may protrude until the food moves through.

Fleur takes a lot of calls from worried novice chook fanciers about this, and warned me off the bat.

5. Watching chooks is more absorbing than watching television.

We had our Attenborough moment with the mouse: us pressed against the glass, locked in morbid wonder. But there were tender moments, too. Betty and Buffy had to be by each other's side at all times. They looked out for each other and settled into bed together of an evening. They would come to the back door, seeking our company.

Of course, they taught the children a bit about where food comes from and to respect it. To say nothing of how simply lovely it is to see chooks pootling around the yard and even to have the pleasant-looking timber coop.

6. Poo can be a problem.

For us, with our paved courtyard and decking (full up with bikes and a barbecue), poo became an issue. Despite keeping everyone inside while I patrolled for poo morning and night (collecting it, bucketing down baked-on or sloppy patches and sweeping), one child or another always skidded over in a big wet blob. It accumulated over the course of the day, it stunk and it brought flies.

If I had spread the month's poo over our pots and patches of garden, as I had imagined I would, I would have smothered the plants. We would have had just mounds of poo in pots.

7. The neighbours will hear them.

Councils generally don't allow residents to keep roosters in suburban backyards because of their dawn cock-a-doodle-doo. In the 6am silence of Fitzroy, the clucking of two chickens keen to be let out of their coop seemed as loud as a dog barking. It echoed off the surrounding houses and fences and made me shoot out of bed to do their bidding.

8. Like dogs and cats, chickens can be pure-bred or mongrel.

Book a Chook's chickens are pure-bred pekin bantams, known for their small size (better for suburban backyards), fabulous bustled

bottom feathers (which makes them look like 19th-century ladies) and their cool-headed temperament. They are also pretty prolific layers.

9. You need more space than I have to keep chooks.

We have a big, raised patch of dirt beneath a jacaranda tree into which the girls could retreat and bathe in dirt, as is their wont. They were free to eat all the sage, Thai basil, mint, blackberry and apple-tree leaves, rainbow chard and pomegranate they liked.

But we drew the line at letting them come inside, which they tried to do constantly. Fleur tells us they are allowed to enter homes on some of their holidays in suburbia.

10. You might miss them when they're gone.

Since Buffy and Betty left, the backyard looks neat, yet kind of empty. Yes, we can leave the back door open and not worry about chickens coming inside. But it was always

a bit of laugh watching my two-year-old attempting to boss them out. We have less flies and more kitchen scraps, and we're a lot fussier about the eggs we buy. Our cat Gus is definitely happier.

I sometimes wonder where they are now. I heard recently that their host family frequently found the girls making themselves at home on the bed. They're like an inverse Thelma and Louise: escaping the country for suburbia, constantly pushing the limits, giving their all for domestic bliss. And, not just theirs - they gave us a little.

Book a Chook, seebookachook.com.au.
$170 for a month, including feed, feeders, bedding and housing, plus delivery (varies) and bond ($100). Week-by-week rentals and packages to buy are also options.

The story My chickens came home to roost first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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