At first blush it may appear that chicken keeping would not be a good choice for those of us battling with chronic illness, however, I find the opposite to be true. I personally have suffered with moderate to severe fibromyalgia for the last 6 years. It began shortly after I got my first flock of chicks and has dogged me with ups and downs over the years. It has been a long, hard journey to better managed health. However, though disappointing at times, as I often would like to do more than I can do, keeping chickens has provided a much needed diversion from my health issues. I would even say it has been part of my therapy to better health.
Nature is healing. Keeping chickens is an easy way to bring nature into the backyard. On tough days, I can gaze out the window and watch the flock roam, scratching peacefully. Memories of my childhood flood my mind with thoughts of quieter, gentler days, replacing the stress from my current rushing suburbia. (Those with chronic illness know that stress is not your friend). I feel more at ease being closer to nature again. Fortunately my semi-suburban home allows an oasis in the middle of a growing city. I am thankful for that.
Chickens are also FUN to watch offering humor in an otherwise painful day. They are bird brains after all. Their silly antics from chickhood to adulthood are amusing and entertaining. I especially love to watch the "keep away" games. One bird sees a tasty tidbit, snatches it, and runs to keep it away from the others. Quickly a vigorous game of "chicken rugby" ensues as the rest of the flock tries to get it. (By the way, I've learned that chickens gather food like a rugby team, while turkeys synchronize graze. Really. They do!)
And my mother broodies with their chicks in tow. Who could resist that picture? I've done away with the mess and physical hassle of heat lamp brooding and use hens to hatch all my chicks. Mommas and babies are endearing as momma teaches them to be chickens. After lessons, momma settles, and they nestle into her feathers with little heads peeking out among her fluff. I nearly died of laughter when one broody wanted to move the babes beneath her to a better location. It was the nanny scene from the Nutcracker with all the children shuffling beneath her "skirt" as they moved in unison. And nothing is funnier than when my Silkie broody tells my Cochin bantam to back off from her chicks. The brief 2 second "battle" is about as threatening as a dust mop "thrashing" the feather duster. Both mommies quickly make peace, settle the flock order, and babies co-mingle with games for scratch the bug.
Further, chickens are actually easy to care for as pets. I don't have to deal with a messy cat box inside the house. I don't have to take them on a walk nor throw a ball. All they need is decent shelter (once built), accessible food and water (changed regularly), and land to dig in. They are happy. While I could, I don't have to coddle and pet them. They do not demand constant personal attention. They are content simply being chickens in my yard. Yet, when I've a mind to, and I often do, they eagerly interact with me. They come running when they see me arrive with the treat bucket, following me willingly around the yard. I enjoy interacting with my birds. I talk to them, cluck back at them, and give them silly names which they endure stoically.
In return, they magically supply beautiful and healthy eggs which are at the core of the no gluten, no grain diet my doctor has prescribed to combat inflammation. Even then, they make it fun. I still feel a little bit like a child with my Easter basket as I go out to collect the pretty eggs.
That brings me to another point. Keeping chickens forces me to get outside regularly into fresh air and do some physical activity, even when it hurts. While I have to be careful not to overdo, it is important for me to keep moving.Taking care of chickens gives me the incentive to bend, twist (gently), use my arms, walk around, as I do my daily chicken chores. The interaction with my feathered friends is my reward for diligently forcing my body to move even when it feels sluggish and "ouchy."
I have learned a few tricks to make chicken keeping physically easier so that my hens are well cared for even on days when I am less able.
My husband has built my 3 coops so that I do not have to bend over to clean them since my back and shoulders can be especially cranky. The floors are about hip to waist high, and have large access doors. All cleaning can be done while standing Roosts are placed so they are either removable or out of the way of head room. I cut up my empty, clean feed bags to create liners for the coop floor. I cover these coop liners with a good layer of pine shavings. My goal is to clean every 2 weeks, which generally works well. To remove old bedding, all I have to do is grab corners of the liners, roll them a bit like a burrito, and gently tug. All the old bedding easily dumps out of the coop through the access doors and onto the dirt in the run. I then simply deep litter the run. Since I can't shovel, I periodically let my gardening friends know that I have chicken compost for their gardens. They arrive with buckets and shovels in hand, smiling, to scoop up the wonderful black gold. I in turn get a clean run and a Tom Sawyer sense of accomplishment.
The coop generally stays pretty clean with the feed liners over the wood floors and inside the nest boxes (which are at waist level as well). When I feel up to it, I do a bit of deeper cleaning in the coops with a hydrogen peroxide solution. I take hydrogen peroxide laundry soap, like Oxyclean, and create about a 30% concentrate in warm water. I pour this over the dirty coop floors and let the solution sit for 30 minutes or so. That literally bubbles up any encrusted dirt so that it is very easy to scrape off, as my hands can also be sensitive to excessive labor.
Early mornings are especially difficult for me, so I am not up with my chickens. I have arranged the food and water so that my birds have access to that in their enclosed run in the mornings. (Think exercise yard at the prison, as I sometimes humorously remind them.) They remain locked up until mid-morning at which point I come out to let them into the main chicken yard or general yard for free ranging. I check feed and water at that time. I do a final check again at night after the flock has put itself to bed (I love that part about birds...they put themselves to bed!). I fill any feed or water at night time if needed, so they have access in the morning. Their run is enclosed with chicken wire, buried into the ground, and the entry doors, which are tall enough to walk through comfortably (no bending for me, remember), lock as well. Fortunately, we do not have a lot of ground predators in my area (although a few have come by from time to time, which is why I always lock up at night even if I don't feel well). We do have to watch more for the aerial kind, hawks and such. My husband has strung up hawk netting securely over the chicken runs for daytime protection. Also, waiting until mid-morning to let the flock out into the runs provides protection for them from the early morning hunts of hawks.
I do find rodents can become a problem if you do not pick up feed at night. I have managed to keep them at bay (mostly) by using metal traps (which my husband sets) and putting plaster of paris balls filled with bird seed out as a non-poison solution to rats. (The rats eat the soft plaster of paris which then hardens to create a blockage. It does seem to really help. I would feel sadder for the terrible death it must cause the rat if it weren't for the fact that rats will overrun chicken coops quickly, bringing all sorts of disease to my girls and myself.) I've also sprinkled cayenne pepper or hot paprika on the chicken feed which hangs about beak high in a regular chicken feeder (that helps the girls not to bill out the feed so much). Rodents really don't seem to eat the hot spices, and it doesn't bother the birds. Cayenne has been shown in some studies to be a mild anti-helminthic (wormer), however, I use feed based Hygromycin B (Durvet Strike III or Rooster Booster Multi-Wormer) seasonally to do that job for me. Hygromycin B is easy to apply in the feed, and most importantly, FDA approved for layers since I like to sell eggs to offset my feed costs as I do lose a bit to rodents from time to time. My son has promised to design for me an auto-feeder that is rat proof. I look forward to eradicating the rat problem completely with something like that. My husband carries the feed bags and dumps them into a metal garbage container, with lid, that is close to the back door of the coop. I find the 30 gal a good size since it holds 50 pounds of feed, and is also a good height for me to bend into. It provides a waist high side to lean on while I bend into the can to scoop feed (that darn back again).
The easiest system for water for me is the 2 gallon heated blue dog bowls. I purchased them for about $20 on Amazon one winter. They can be plugged into an extension cord to provide heat during cold snaps so that the water bowls do not freeze, preventing me from having to haul water to the flock. I have found them easy to simply kick over and fill with a water hose, which is permanently placed near the chicken coop. Apple cider vinegar in the water keeps the chickens healthy and the bowls much cleaner, so I don't have to bend and scrub often. A heated bowl can be inverted and used as a base for a chick waterer in my broody hutch for those cold winter chick hatches.
The hardest thing in chicken care for me can be external parasites. It is very exacerbating to my back to try to physically dust 15 plus birds. Overall, I have done well by keeping permethrin poultry dust amply sprinkled in the coops and nests. I also have had my husband set up a kiddie pool filled with sand, fireplace ash, and loose dirt for a regular dusting area. (Much needed in our Oregon wet). I sprinkle poultry dust on that too so the birds can dust themselves. Last summer I had my first outbreak ever of mites.For that I had to resort to Ivermectin cattle pour on. It is easy to fill into plastic syringes and then administer to the flock at night, which are nicely perched waist high for me. (Be sure to buy a lot of cheap plastic syringes and prefill so you don't have to fill at the coop for each bird.) I prefer not to use Ivermectin as it requires me to pull eggs (and lose sales), but it is very effective for mites and can be effective for internal parasites if they have not been over exposed to it. I am currently using No Mite strips hanging on the entry doors. I do see marked improvement with that, and it is very easy to use as the birds apply permethrin every time they brush against the dangling strips. (Do not use poultry dust and the strips, however). After reading on BYC, I plan to try Gordon's poultry spray to prevent further outbreaks as that is something I could easily spray flock and coop at night without a lot of strain.
Keeping chickens when you are physically limited does require getting some physical help as I can't lift feed bags nor dig out runs. But I do find with, occasionally, a little help from my friends, and family, my flock is easy to care for. More importantly, along with nourishing eggs to help heal my body, it has brought me much joy, fresh air, and amusement even when life is painful.
I would like to encourage those who have chronic illness and are considering keeping a flock to do so. With some careful planning, a little help, and smart management, chicken keeping can become therapy for the mind, body, and soul.
Lady of McCamley
The broody hutch and grow out pen (you can see one of the feed liners in the left photo)
my main coops and interconnecting wired run (I have a more diversified flock now)
Fruits of my favorite past time