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The beauty of raising chickens…. eggs

Making the Case for Urban Chickens

Locals explain why chickens are the next best thing

It is hard to know the life expectancy of a chicken. Usually they end up on someone’s plate long before they can reach old age.

Yet Karen Donaldson has had chickens live more than ten years.

To see Donaldson’s chickens, you have to make your way to Miami and find the former urban trash heap that she reclaimed and transformed into an animal sanctuary 15 years ago. Once a terrible neighborhood eyesore, she now occupies these two lots with geese, rabbits, ducks, and, of course, chickens.

“I raise chickens because they lay eggs and eat bugs,” she says.

Originally from Maricopa, Donaldson has been raising chickens for the last 30 years, her entire adult life. She has a good 24 chickens, which she keeps in a multi-level outdoor coop, which keeps predators out.

Raising urban chickens has been trending in recent years as the organic and self-sufficiency food movements take hold in urban communities. More cities are facing the question: should chickens be legal? The debate has continued into this year in cities like: La Mesa, Calif., Chattanooga, Tenn., Joliet, Ill., Tampa, Fla., and Huntsville, AL.

Donaldson’s resounding response, of course, is yes.

Donaldson's granddaughter holds a basket of fresh chicken eggs collected first thing in the morning.
Donaldson’s granddaughter holds a basket of fresh chicken eggs collected first thing in the morning.

When the debate came to Gila County, she vocalized her opinion, even organizing demonstrations. An ordinance was passed this past summer in Globe allowing people to raise chickens, as long as they have a permit. No livestock ordinances have been passed in Miami, though there is a nuisance ordinance.

“If you have space, you ought to be able to have livestock,” Donaldson says. “I believe people ought to have some authority over their own space.”

“At the same time we have to be good neighbors,” she adds.

By that she means cleaning up after livestock, and being mindful of noise. But, without their male counterpart, hens aren’t all that noisy. Chicken manure doesn’t smell, and it happens to make a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, a valuable commodity for anyone who plants things. Chickens also eat what humans tend to have most trouble getting rid of. That includes not only fleas and ticks, but also food scraps and weeds, and scorpions!

Chickens make great pets, as well, Donaldson claims. They are generally easy to handle, and they don’t fly (not far, anyway).

“They will eat right out of your hand,” she says. “My three-year-old granddaughter picks them up.”

And, of course, as long as they get enough sun (14 hours at least), they produce a lot of eggs. A hen will lay eggs for 28 to 36 days, and then rest before producing again. Of course, you don’t need as many birds as Donaldson has in order to get eggs. For a consistent egg supply, you only need three hens.

Some of her chickens Donaldson raises specifically for eggs. The others, namely the purebreds, she raises with her son Isaac to show in 4-H. She leans toward raising dual-purpose chickens, because they are big enough to eat, but are not strictly meat birds. They also don’t require incubators for their eggs.

Chickens come in hundreds of breeds, some beautiful and exotic. Have you heard of Japanese silkies? Bantam cochins are exceptional mothers. The Ameraucanas lay blue eggs, while the Marans lay chocolate-colored eggs. The Dorking is thought to originally hail from Italy, and the Sicilian Buttercup is named after its cup-shaped comb (a chicken’s comb is the often red, flesh growth on top of its head).

I wouldn’t know any of this, of course, had I not stood in Donaldson’s lot talking chickens for a couple hours.

For this reason, Donaldson raises chicken breeds that the American Livestock Conservancy considers threatened. The organization emphasizes genetic diversity, the importance of alternative livestock in the food system, and the conservation of genetic traits like disease resistance, self-sufficiency, fertility, and maternal instincts. In other words, Donaldson raises chicken breeds that, if it weren’t for people like her, would be eliminated from our food system and replaced by homogenized breeds without people like me realizing it.

Donaldson holds one of her purebreds, which will be ready to show in the near future.
Donaldson holds one of her purebreds, which will be ready to show in the near future.

Nowadays, she might go to poultry shows to get different breeds, or even mail order from hatcheries in Pennsylvania. Otherwise, she gets her chickens from Mary Hysong.

Hysong is a Miami native. She has always been fascinated with breeding animals, starting with tropical fish and hamsters as a preadolescent. After a stint in Texas, she returned to Miami and started breeding chickens. She is perhaps the only chicken breeder in town. She breeds a lot of chickens that, unless you are a chicken enthusiast of sorts, you probably wouldn’t recognize the names of, such as the aforementioned Ameraucanas and Marans.

“I love genetics,” Hysong says. “I just enjoy breeding, picking a male and female, and evaluating their young to see improvements in their size, color and egg-laying abilities.”

Good, quality livestock is hard to come by in Arizona, according to Hysong, especially animals bred to a standard of perfection.

Birds are even harder to find, which is why Hysong started breeding chickens here in Globe-Miami. Like Donaldson, she raises threatened breeds. She was particularly concerned for the Plymouth Rock, since she knows of no breeders west of the Mississippi River. They are considered a recovering breed by the conservancy that became popular for characteristics such as “hardiness, docility, broodiness, excellent production of brown eggs, and meat that was considered tasty and juicy.”

Indeed, Hysong and Donaldson agree, if you don’t get too emotionally attached to them, home-raised chickens are great in the freezer, too.

Donaldson has about 24 chickens. They are kept in a multi-level outdoor coop, which keeps predators out.
Donaldson has about 24 chickens. They are kept in a multi-level outdoor coop, which keeps predators out.

In contrast, she says, her chickens are not nearly as large, but they are much healthier. They get plenty of sunlight as well as shade, air, and space to run.

And, if they don’t get stuck in the freezer, they have a chance to live more than ten years.

In fact, Hysong relies on her ducks and chickens for meat, and hasn’t bought store meat in more than a year, with the exception of a package of bacon.

“Butchering has been a part of my life,” she says. “My kids grew up at my knee in Texas.”

Often, they were told, “those bunnies are probably going to be for dinner.”

“I rarely go to the grocery store,” Donaldson adds. “And most of what comes on the property doesn’t leave. Our food scraps go to the chickens.”

The two agree there are many perks to eating home-raised chickens and their eggs. You don’t get the hormones and antibiotics that so often come with store-bought meats. You know they were raised in humane, non-stressful conditions, and you know how they died—all of which affect the taste and quality of the chicken and its eggs.

For instance, Donaldson says Cornish chickens, which are most often used in the meat industry, are fed such high-protein diets that they grow faster than they can support their weight.

And, if they don’t get stuck in the freezer, they have a chance to live more than ten years.

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About Jenn Walker

Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.

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