Say “backyard chickens” and most people think of eggs. It’s true that fresh eggs alone are worth the effort of keeping hens, but I’ve found that over the past seven years our hens have helped our backyard in some unexpected ways. If tastier eggs aren’t enough to lure you over to the cluck side, consider these bonus benefits:
1. Natural pest control
One of the best moments of my life as a new chicken owner happened when I saw one of our white leghorn hens methodically eating thirsty fire ants off the dripping end of the garden hose. I’ve since seen our birds eat worms, spiders, cockroaches and even the occasional small snake.
2. Healthier grass
Our Bermuda grass lawn still goes dormant during the heat of Austin’s summer, but when the rains come it turns a deep shade of green, thanks to our free-ranging chickens. I haven’t fertilized in years—it’s time-consuming and expensive, and our location next to a creek makes it risky to apply products that may just run off into the watershed. With only a dozen hens on our large lot, I don’t have to worry about contaminating the creek.
3. Supercharged compost
The downside of backyard poultry management is that someone has to clean out the coop. The upside is that chicken litter is rocket fuel for the compost pile—all that nitrogen helps speed things along. Yes, you have to give it time to fully break down and make sure the pile gets hot enough to kill pathogens, but the finished product is worth it.
4. Healthier pets
Remember the pest control benefit? Our dogs and rabbits are tick-free, even though they spend plenty of time in the grass. And once a week we let the chickens into the bunny barn, where they browse the litter under the hutches for fly larvae that could otherwise become serious pests on the rabbits.
There are “social” benefits, too. A feral cat showed up a few years ago and volunteered for henhouse mousing duty. She now lives under the coop, gets regular meals, and spends her days patrolling the area and resting in the shade with the chickens. (One hen even moved in with her for a few weeks during a pecking-order dispute.) Our oldest rabbit, a ten-year old grump, hops out to the henhouse in the mornings to see who’s on the nest box before heading back to her pen. It might be a stretch to say these animals have created a community, but it’s undeniable that they interact with each other in ways that seem to meet some need.
Are there downsides to keeping hens? There can be, and I’ll write about those—and ways to counter them—in an upcoming post. But on balance our hens have proved so beneficial that I would keep a few even if they didn’t lay eggs.
Guest blogger Casey Kelly-Barton is a professional freelance writer based in Austin. When she’s not turning out copy for commercial clients or writing feature articles, she’s in the backyard with her kids, a dozen hens, two dogs, one cat, and seven rabbits.