At a sprawling country residence in Kennett Square, cousins Kennedy and Lake, both 4, race to the backyard chicken coop—tin cans in hand— hoping to find some fresh eggs laid by the hens that morning. It’s the late-breakfast hour, and the sun’s been up for some time. Lake lifts the door to the nest box as Kennedy peeks inside. She turns around, beaming.
It’s a routine chore for Kennedy, who’s frequently here to visit her grandparents, Dawn Talley and her husband, Jack. Two of the couple’s three kids have flown the nest, but they share these bucolic four acres with four dogs, a cat, two rescued miniature horses—and 11 chickens. At one point, they had a dozen, but one turned out to be a rooster. “They’re supposed to be able to sex the chickens so you only get hens, but this happens a lot,” says Talley, who purchases week-old chicks in the springtime from the local hardware store. “The roosters are beautiful, but they’re noisy when you don’t want them to be. So they don’t get to stay.”
Backyard chicken farming has become more popular throughout the pandemic, mostly among folks looking to harvest their own eggs. “This is not a for-profit endeavor. You do it either because you love chickens or because you want the benefit of organic, fresh eggs,” Talley says.
It’s a bit of both for Dawn, a Pennsylvania native who grew up on a farm. Beside a standard coop with nest houses that she purchased, she has hand-built a 10-foot-by-8-foot wire run with a dirt floor and tarped roof. Inside, a brood of pretty lavender Orpingtons, speckled Cuckoo Marans, brown Buckeyes and black Australorps jerk and bob around. One shakes loose dirt all over its body in a bathing ritual. Another has thinning feathers, making it easy to see who’s at the bottom of the pecking order. “We don’t do free-range because of our dogs and the foxes, racoons and hawks,” says Talley. “They wouldn’t last very long. They also destroy my flower beds, and that doesn’t fly with me.”
“This is not a for-profit endeavor. You do it either because you love chickens or because you want the benefit of organic, fresh eggs.”
The run space provides ample sunlight and shade. Its wood siding sinks 18 inches into the earth to keep chickens in and predators out. Beds of trumpeted Asiatic lilies and purple mum wood flowers, just out of reach, taunt the more mischievous of the bunch. Chicks cost about $4 each (give or take) and typically begin laying eggs at about 16 weeks. Talley’s brood continues to lay eggs for 30 months. In the beginning, they’ll provide anywhere from seven to nine a day between the 11 chickens (260–270 a year per chicken).
Chickens reach “hen” age after a year. By their third year, egg production decreases significantly. That’s when Talley finds her girls a new home and introduces new spring chicks. “They’ll lay eggs year-round if you give them enough sunlight—about 12 to 14 hours a day,” she says.
In the fall and winter months, Talley introduces a low-wattage incandescent bulb to the coop and sets it on a timer. She adjusts it to those 12 hours as the daylight grows shorter. Maintenance is fairly low-key. It costs just shy of $40 a month to feed Talley’s flock. They enjoy a mix of Purina grains and vegetable and fruit scraps. “They also like stale crackers and cooked spaghetti noodles—no sauce,” says Talley.
The coop requires cleaning only once a month—maybe twice. Dawn chases the brood into the run and locks them out of their house while she scrapes out old wood chips and fills it with a fresh layer. As she demonstrates with her hands how she does this, a cackling sound comes from inside. When she lifts the lid, a proud hen lets us know she’s just laid an egg.
It’s time for breakfast.
“The Hetherstons paid about $6 per chicken and as high as $12 for more exotic breeds. “They used to be $3, but now chicken farming has gotten huge,” Dawn Hetherston says. “I think people were worried about food security during the pandemic.”
On a 2.5-acre farm in Landenberg, Caryn Hetherston and her husband, Gordon, house 17 chickens and two roosters. Like the Talleys, the couple had planned for only hens. But when they brought them home from Oxford Feed, the roosters later revealed their identity in the noisiest way possible. One rooster, Hops, had an “aggression problem” that led to an apt name change: Soup.
At Hetherstons’ place, chickens and hens are raised only for eggs. Once they’ve stopped laying them, the birds live out their retirement until something eats them or they die of natural causes. In a world of no predators, a chicken’s life span is about nine or 10 years. Here, only one chick has made it that long.
For few years, the couple had “a horrible problem” with sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. “They can’t carry them away, so they eat them in the place,” Hetherston says. “If we free-range, we’re going to lose some. That’s just the way it is.”
Today, all the birds cluck and coo in every direction—through bushes, under a shed and behind colorful beehives that sit high on this verdant piece of hillside. When Caryn rattles feed in a cup, they all come running. She appears to speak their language, interacting with her flock. Colonel Sanders is an Americana rooster who’s attractive but “not terribly smart,” and Princess Leia once had such a bad sinus infection her ears swelled up like cinnamon buns. There’s a Dominique chicken, an old breed brought over by settlers in Plymouth, Mass. Another Spanish chicken is “a bit hysterical.” Hetherston got that one by accident. “They all have different personalities,” she points out. “But only the ones with the biggest personalities get names.”
The Hetherstons paid about $6 per chicken and as high as $12 for more exotic breeds. “They used to be $3, but now chicken farming has gotten huge,” Hetherston says. “I think people were worried about food security during the pandemic.”
Hetherston learned about keeping chickens long ago from a Kennett Square woman she used to get eggs from. “She sold me a couple hens and told me what to do,” she says. “I took to it pretty quickly.”
A benefit of raising free-range birds is the robust diet of diverse bugs the land offers, which reduces the cost of feed. “I saw one eat a frog one time,” Hetherston recalls. “That freaked me out—the legs were sticking out of his beak.”
She also shares flock favorites like watermelon and cantaloupe, as well as other cooking scraps. “Once I was experimenting with sourdough and made a fermented mash for them—it’s a good probiotic,” she says.
They enjoy cooked chicken, too. “They’re dinosaurs,” Hetherston says with a smile and a shrug.
The brood heads into their coop at dusk, where they roost until dawn. “The older ones roost first, but the teenagers are reluctant to go in,” says Hetherston.
The birds are let out each morning—unless there’s been predator activity. Then they’re only allowed out after the couple is active in the yard. Hetherston collects over a dozen eggs a day—enough for the metalsmith and teacher at Delaware Art Museum to sell to some to her students.
For anyone interested in keeping their own chickens, the Hetherstons don’t recommend one method over another. But unless you have the stomach for a Natural Geographic episode unfolding outside your kitchen window, you might want to reconsider letting a flock roam free.