Chickens: Egg-Laying Weed-Cultivating Pest-Eating Garbage Disposals


Backyard chickens.  Such underestimated powerhouses.  Pest control, garbage disposal, egg factory, all packed into one small feathery body.

 Consider bringing a few of these marvels of nature and domestication into your life.  We live in a time when we are waking up to the linear, one directional production chains that humans have created.  We can’t keep taking without giving something wholesome back.

Because that’s not how nature works. With Nature, everything is a circle.  Linear doesn’t exist.  And its so exciting that we can create these circles in our very homes. So without further ado, I present to you, the humble chicken. 

They've been with us for a really long time...

Chickens as we know them have a long road of domestication, transportation, and alteration.  Much of the beginning of this story is still murky, but there are a few things researchers understand.

red jungle fowl

Chickens descend from the red jungle fowl of South East Asia. This ancestor still exists in the wild, in tropical regions.  Scientists suspect that hybridization took place with several other jungle fowl species, contributing to the genetic soup used to create the modern chicken.

This domestication process is estimated to have started between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago.  It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly this happened, as genetic evidence does not preserve well in hot, humid zones.  It is believed that the first chickens were bred for cockfighting and not consumption.

Moving forward to some hard evidence.

By 2000 B.C.E. references to chickens appear on clay tablets throughout the Middle East.  Not long after they debut in Egypt. And over the course of a millennia, the Egyptians grew adept at artificially incubating the eggs, which greatly contributed to the chickens expansion into daily life, as well as its introduction to other cultures.

By 800 B.C.E. chicken bones exist throughout the Mediterranean, backed by writings that show the Romans had a fondness for the bird, as food. 

There is also some evidence and speculation that during this time the chicken moved eastward from Asia.  There is some hotly debated support suggesting that chickens may have been brought to the Americas in the pre-columbian era by Pacific island sailors. 

You can read a more in depth story of the chicken’s journey around the world here.

leghorn rhode island red silkie bantam egyptian fayoumi polish bhrama
Top Left to Bottom Right: Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, Silkie Bantam, Egyptian Fayoumi, Polish, Brahma

A seriously versatile creature.

Every time the chicken arrives in a new culture and geography, it changes.  It was bred to different purposes, and to survive in different climates. From the heat of Africa to the freezing cold of Iceland, for maximum egg production or putting on weight for the table, the chicken could do it all.

This has produced a wide variety of specific breeds characterized by different combinations of traits.  Some grow plump speedily, which makes them great as meat birds.  Others start producing eggs at a younger age, meaning you’ll see your farm fresh breakfast sooner form the time of hatching.  And others lay over a longer span of the year, or for more years.  Even ornamental chickens exist, just in case you wish to decorate with live poultry.

Each of these traits can be accompanied by a different personalities as well.  Some breeds are much more territorial.  Others are extremely calm and docile.  If you’re interested in self-sufficient chickens you will want something with a strong mothering instinct.

Okay, how do they fit into a circular economy home?

I’m glad you asked.  In nature, everything is in a constant state of eating something and being eaten by something.  The time scale for these two states differs for different organisms, but it’s there. 

Insects are born and reproduce quickly, and are consumed quickly.  A deer eats plants and occasionally gets eaten by a mountain lion, or a wolf.  Those predators may live a long time, but when they die, the insects eat them too.  Even a long lived sequoia deals with insects and fungi eating it throughout its life, and will be completely consumed when it dies.

With the chickens, we are eating them.  But what are they eating?

Chickens eat pretty much anything...

Chickens are omnivores, much like ourselves.So they’ll eat pretty much anything.  And that voracious appetite can be used constructively. 

To start with, chickens love eating insects and other invertebrates. Love them!

This insectivore-habit can be really useful in a back yard or garden.  Chickens seek out the critters that are eating your fruits and vegetables, as well as things like ticks that pose a risk to you.  *Warning, they may also go after things like strawberries and tomatoes, and certain greens, so you’ll want to do your homework before letting them run amuck.

Part of their hunting strategy is to scratch the ground.  You’ve probably seen this if you’ve ever ever watched a clip of chickens just existing. They are constantly scratching the ground.  This stirs up insects that might be in the grass or just beneath the top layer of the soil.

This behavior can be used as a cultivator around garden plants, disturbing weed seedlings before they have an opportunity to become established.

In addition to bugs and grubs, chickens love your leftovers.  Really.  Before putting your leftovers in the compost bin, let the chickens peck them over.  This can help to significantly reduce the feed bill, and with some breeds, eliminate it entirely. 

chickens and closed loop systems

Here’s where the magic really gets going!

Last nights spaghetti becomes -presto- this morning’s breakfast!

While your chickens are busy eating insects and plants from your lawn and garden, plus your cooking scraps and leftovers, they are rearranging those organic molecules and packaging them into perfect little containers.  We call them eggs.

Science note: these are not unborn chickens being killed.  In order for an egg to be “alive” with a developing chick inside, it has to be fertilized by a rooster.  So as long as you aren’t keeping any roosters with your hens, there is literally no way for the eggs to be fertilized.  Basically, a hen gets her period everyday.  No rooster, no baby chickens, just the egg.

Many breeds of chickens will lay an egg every day for about two thirds of the years.  This has been achieved through centuries of selective breeding.  Not artificial genetic modification.  It is possible to “trick” chickens into laying eggs for a greater portion of the year using artificial lighting, however it’s best for their health to allow them a period of dormancy during the winter months.

Don’t forget to put those eggshells back into the system!  Chickens go crazy for eggshells, which makes sense because it’s a concentrated form of calcium and minerals needed for making more eggshells.  Just make sure to break them up before handing them over; chickens have been known to form an association between eggshells that still look like eggs and actual fresh eggs, which they then start eating for the same reason.

broken eggshells

Get on the chicken band wagon!

This isn’t simply about being a “chicken farmer.” You enter into a complex relationship with these creatures, and the environment of your home.  You feed the chickens, the chickens feed you, the chickens help the garden, the garden helps you and the chickens.

And it’s these kinds of biodynamic interactions that we’ve eliminated from the production chain.  In mass poultry production, you’ve got farmers growing corn.  The corn is ground up and fed to the chickens. The chickens poop, but the poop rarely gets back to where the corn came from.  The chickens become our dinner, and what’s left of them goes out in the trash.  Just a straight line. No recycling of nutrients. No relationship.

So consider getting your own feathered egg-laying garbage disposal.  It’s one more way to create sustainable practices at home.

Are you thinking about getting chickens, currently have chickens, or have had chickens in the past?  Ask a question or share some chicken wisdom in the comments below.

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Built by humans. Inspired by Nature.

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