Can you pull the trigger?

I don’t know. We have a chicken that clearly needs to go. She must be culled. We have no choice now. The big risk with keeping an egg eater around is that sooner or later she will teach the others to do it too. Then you not only have to cull the one, but the entire flock. And I definitely don’t want that. When I read the book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” a couple years ago, I recall the description that Michael Pollan wrote about taking part in a chicken slaughter for the first time. He’d never killed an animal and here he was with a knife in his hand and everyone waiting for him to kill the chicken. Strangely it was a very spiritual description of his experience.

Certainly taking the life of another being in order to feed yourself is a powerful act and not something to take lightly. I imagine that it would teach you something about your own mortality. I recently took a hunter course with the sole intent that sometime soon I would like to hunt. I feel that if I am going to eat meat, rather than passing the dirty deed of death onto someone else, I should experience the feeling of killing an animal. I should experience what that feels like. I do not think in anyway that it would be a pleasant experience. In fact, I think I would feel quite terrible about it. But is it not hypocritical to eat animals and not be able to pull the trigger yourself?

And so here I am, facing this dilemma, much sooner than I thought I would have to. We eat chicken. We have a chicken that we need to cull. And I don’t want to do it. Sure we could call up our friend who raises chickens and ask him to do it. That would be easier. But, I feel that I have a responsibility to do this. I feel that I should know what it feels like. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we have to cull a chicken. So am I just putting off the inevitable if I don’t do it now? And then if I can actually do it. Then what? Do we just bury her in the ground? Well then that seems like a waste, doesn’t it? They are food after all. And didn’t we move out her for food? To see and learn where our food comes from. Well, here it is…


The trouble with animals and the reality of rural living

Neither Darcie or I grew up in the country. We were both born and raised in the City. Our parents on both sides were city dwellers for their wholes lives as well. So the realities of living in the rural setting were unknown to us, aside from what others had told us to expect. But we both agreed, when moving out here, that we didn’t move here to have an easy life. We expected difficulties and challenges and we have had our fair share since Day 1, whether it be a flat tire, a broken garage door, a truck that breaks down, locking your keys in the car, being snowed in, dealing with a power outage, and so on – if it can happen to you, it probably will. Still, one thing that we had not yet experienced, but knew was an eventual guarantee, was DEATH.

To real farmers, I imagine, death is a common occurrence on the farm. It happens. It’s not taken for granted, per se, but kids who grow up with farm animals learn early on about the concepts of life and death, and are often present for both of those experiences on innumerable occasions through their young lives. Darcie and I, on the other hand, we had never experienced it. Sure, we have had pets that needed to be euthanized when they were old, but there was always a separation and a distance to it. We had never really seen something die. And certainly neither of us have killed anything ourselves.

Last winter when I had been studying up on raising backyard chickens for our tiny urban lot, I read several books on raising chickens, what they need to eat, how an egg is formed, building a coop, et cetera. Most of it was very positive, optimistic and cheerful. But one thing that worried me: What do we do when they get old or sick? This question was never really answered in the books I’d read, but to be honest, I didn’t really want to think about it. When the time came, I’d deal with it, I reassured myself. I recall reading an article though that was a criticism of the urban backyard chicken movement in the USA. Many cities and towns were now allowing people to have 3-4 hens – people, like ourselves, hipster environmentalists and animal lovers who wanted a taste of the rural life without losing the comfortable, easy life of the city. It is certainly an appealing idea! But there was starting to be a big problem with either old hens who’d stopped laying or those that had gotten ill. These well-intentioned folks had no idea what to do with them. The article talked about people abandoning these hens in fields, at vet clinics, and farms. They weren’t able to deal with the other side of farm life – or at least, did not feel that “urban” farm life needed to deal with that one dreaded fact: things die.

I certainly didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to even think about it. When people would ask me what I would do when that inevitable time came I told them the truth: I have no idea. Well, in the past few weeks, this time came. First it was Ruth, our big black Australorp.


She had always had something strange about her from the get-go. She had an engorged crop (the crop is the area of the esophagus where digestion initially begins) and never really appeared that healthy. But she never looked to be suffering and ate normally. But then she gradually stopped laying eggs, which we thought might have been due to the winter as egg production usually slows down then. Then one day, out of the blue, we came home and there she was lying there, still. Ruth was dead. We were both pretty shocked by it. I picked her up – I’d never held a dead thing before (aside from a fish maybe) – we bagged her up and said, “well, I guess that happens.” I was a little sad, but it didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would.

As the winter was drawing to an end and weather was starting to warm up we planned to get a couple more chickens. My concern was now with only two chickens left, if another one died, then the last one would too (chickens need companions and will die of loneliness if they don’t have a partner). Four weeks ago, at about 4am, the dog started barking (which she never does) and we were awoken to a horrible shrieking sound. I bolted up in bed and looked out the window. The fence around the chicken coop was shaking. I ran outside in the freezing weather. Whatever it was – a fox, a coyote, I don’t know – was gone, I had grabbed a flashlight and there 15 feet from the coop, our little Barred Rock hen, Hildi, was dragging her back leg and groaning. I rushed over and picked her up. We looked at her only to find a large tear of flesh from her side. The first thing I thought was, “what am I going to do?” Here this poor little bird was clearly injured severely. I’ve never felt so much sorrow for an animal before. We took her into the house, cleaned her wound and put a large bandage on her while we contemplated our options. I thought we needed to end her suffering. But I couldn’t conceive of killing her myself. The thought made my stomach turn and my heart ache. I know a real farmer wouldn’t have thought twice about what to do. He likely would have put her out of her misery immediately. But maybe she would be ok? How am I supposed to know? So instead we did what we do when our animal is in need of help. We took her to the vet. Although the vet initially thought she might make it, once they did an X-ray and found she had a broken leg, that was the end. She said, “we should help her go to heaven.” Gah, I felt so terrible. This was how death felt.

We were now down to our last chicken, Marge, the Buff Orpington. We needed her to have some friends though, quickly. Darcie made some calls and we found a heritage breeder who was willing to sell us two hens the next weekend. But in between the four days from Hildi’s death to us getting the new hens, perhaps out of boredom or trauma, I’m not sure, Marge started to eat her own eggs. Oh yes, it’s the worst! So disgusting. I frantically read information on how to stop egg eating, which I’d previously read is a very bad problem. If it becomes a habit/addiction it is impossible to stop. We tried using fake wood eggs (thought being that they peck the egg and hurt their beak) – fail. We tried draining the egg yolk and filling the shell with mustard (apparently they find mustard disgusting) – fail. She ate three mustard eggs, shell and all! We tried collecting the eggs as soon as possible, but working during the day, it was impossible to do so. We tried feeding her more protein (scrambled eggs for a week) – fail. The last option was to build a nesting box with a sloped bottom (the thought being here that they lay the egg and it rolls away down the ramp into a covered area). I built the box and we prayed that this would work. It was the last thing to do besides “culling” (the nice word for getting rid of or killing her). Fail. She started laying in other parts of the coop and we found the broken shells scattered throughout.

By this point we’d gotten our two new chickens: Mrs. Bouvier (a red Chantecler) and Jackie Brown (a cream legbar – notice the afro). They were super cool chickens. Very sweet and gentle. And Marge, well, she was a total ass! She would peck at them and chase them around. She was very mean. Let’s just say she wasn’t earning any sympathy given her current plight. We decided to give her one more week, try the nesting box, move them to the larger coop I’d built, give them more space, feed her lots of protein and hope that she snaps out of it. Well, day 7 is here. I walked to the coop only to find yet another egg shattered and eaten. Now what?

The Big Coop Move

When we purchased the land, one of our first thoughts after the excitement of closing the deal was… “Crap, what are we going to do with our chicken coop/shed.” I’d spent a ton of time on it, too much money, and plus it was just way too awesome to leave behind.


I started to look into our options. I made a few phone calls to some moving companies and eventually found one that was willing to come by and take a look at it for us. My original thought was to hire a picker truck and flat bed trailer. I was told the cost would be $350/hour. Ouch. But if that’s what it took, then so be it.

They had their operator come by and take a look at it for me. “Ha, not a chance, buddy,” were his first words to me. I felt deflated. With the power lines overhead he would not be able to lift it and to get a truck and winch in there simply wasn’t enough clearance in the back lane to drag the coop out and onto the truck bed. Double crap.

“Ok, is there anything else we can do?” I begged him. “What is this thing anyway?” He asked. “Uh, it’s a shed and uh, a chicken coop.” (At this time we had not been publicizing our illegal activity). “You have chickens in the city?? Right on, man!” He told me that he raised free-range organic chickens just outside city. I didn’t even have to ask him where his farm was, I had an overwhelming sense that I just knew. “It’s just near Pike Lake,” he said. Ha, I knew it! “That’s where we are too!” I said. I explained our location and he was familiar with it. From that point on he was way more motivated to help us out. “Ok, let’s figure this out,” he pondered.

He explained that he could perhaps get a big forklift, slide it under the back, wrap the coop/shed in chains, drag it out, then come around to the front, lift it up with the forklift, turn 90°, drive down the alley, and place it onto a flatbed trailer. All of this sounded terrifying and dangerous. But we had no other options. “It’ll definitely be one of my toughest moves,” he said, “But I’m 90% sure it’ll work.” Also it was a lot cheaper that $350/hour.

We set a date for two weeks from then.

During that time, Darcie and I found a spot and laid down cindercrete blocks that I salvaged from my buddy’s retaining wall that he was tearing down. The next weekend, we slaved like prisoner’s on hard labour (perhaps paying penance for our illegal city chickens?), breaking the ground and laying and levelling the bricks.

D-Day finally came. 9am Saturday he would be there. At 9:20 I heard some heavy machinery rolling up the alley. It’s go time.

We’d had a friend come by and take apart the fence (as I was still lamed up because of having my face jackhammered in surgery the week before). He brought the forklift around and gently slid it under the back of the coop/shed. It went, really, just like he explained, only smoother. I was so impressed. I had totally expected the coop to just disintegrate or at the least to break in two as he lifted and dragged it, but it held together and in the end there was not a nick or scratch on it.




We drove out to the property with him following us. It was so exciting to see the coop being hauled down the road like that.

When we arrived at the land, he got out and exclaimed, “How did you score a place like this!?” He was impressed, to say the least, with our view of the river. He also offered to take me hunting if I wanted because, he explained, this was a prime spot for deer trails along the lower river valley. “You could sit here in your lawn chair and hunt.”

Then it was onto the easy part. He lifted the coop/shed off and placed it gently on the foundation we’d made. Done. OMG, that was awesome.




(Originally posted August 28, 2014)

Backyard Chickens

Ok confession time. Darcie and I are evil criminal masterminds. It’s true! You’d never know it by looking at us, but for the past 6 months we’ve been breaking the law... by keeping really cool chickens in our backyard in Saskatoon!


Our master plan was foiled last week by the stealthy detective work of Animal Control Services, who read about us having backyard chickens in the StarPhoenix newspaper.

We’ll get to that but first, a bit of background information.

I’d always thought that chickens were pretty neat. I’m not sure exactly when Darcie and I became interested in backyard chickens, but I recall looking at magazines of people with beautiful homes and couple of chickens pecking around in the backyard.

Last year, the Better Good Store in Saskatoon (a sustainable, ethical home products shop) put on the Yard + Garden Tour through their neighbourhood. Darcie and I decided to go along and check it out. She had just recently quit her high-stress sales job in which she had travelled the province weekly and we were now looking for a way to get away from that lifestyle become more sustainable at home.

The garden tour was inspiring. All of the homes were very similar to ours – small urban lots without much room for what I would typically consider to be a garden. However these people had knocked it out of the park! There was food forests and permaculture and, yes, backyard chickens. Four of the eight houses had chickens. They stole the show. Darcie and I left the tour and decided that night that we needed to get chickens.

Darcie, in quitting her job, had also decided that she was no longer going to drive a car. She had purchased a bicycle and was going to ride that as her means of transportation (which she totally has! Even through -40° celsius winter mornings. She is hardcore). We now had a useless parking space in our backyard… we started to envision this as the future home of our yet to be purchased chickens.

Within about two weeks I had researched plans about chicken coops and sheds online (we needed a shed to store Darcie’s bikes). There was a really deadly shed (yes, sheds can be deadly if done right) and a sexy chicken coop (seriously) that I came across. There were no plans for building, but in my naivety I thought, “Hey, I’ve never built anything in my life before, but how hard could it be to simply morph these two highly involved and clearly very skilled constructions into one ultra-awesome coop/shed masterpiece?”

I enlisted the services of my friend Benjamin who actually had built stuff before: decks and fences for money and his own extensive home renos; and we set to work building the coop/shed.

First, we moved the fence and levelled the ground. This took one entire day. The ground might as well of been concrete as it had been used as a parking spot for decades. The two pickaxes we used barely seemed to make a dent.

The next day Ben and I built the foundation. Then it was nighttime. Crap, I thought we’d be done by now. Also Ben had to go back to work the next day so it was just up to me and Darcie.

I had the week off so I spent 10-12 hour days constructing, researching, undoing, and redoing, and of course, not sleeping due to fear of failure and embarrassment. By the following weekend though I was pleased that it wasn’t looking half bad.

After three weeks the coop was completely done and was looking pretty dang nice. I was also quite impressed with myself having never built anything before. Sure it wasn’t totally square, but it close enough, and I couldn’t push it over with both hands so I was happy.

Here are a few process shots for your viewing pleasure:

Before (boring parking spot):


Framing the base:


That’s a wall:


Now it’s looking like something:


Now it’s really looking like something!


Ta-Da! Finished!



Not too shabby I thought. I totally wanted to show it off and post it on Instagram – but I had to stop myself. We couldn’t let people know what we were doing! It had to remain a top secret black ops type of thing. So when people would ask me what I’d been up to I’d simply say “oh, just building a boring old garden shed.” Of course that didn’t quite get across to people what I was doing. It was a bit underwhelming, but oh well.

Over the fall and winter months I read about chickens. First some websites and a few other blogs. I then read a short book from organic gardening magazine on raising backyard chickens. Though the best resource was “A Chicken in Every Yard” which I picked up from Turning the Tide bookstore. I also bought “Backyard Chickens for Dummies” (it seriously exists). By the late winter I was as ready as I possibly could be to have chickens. I’d also researched a chicken supplier of heritage birds who was just south of Swift Current SK. The difference between heritage chickens and the others was that heritage, as the name implies, are long standing breeds that have been pure bred (like a cat or dog) to maintain certain characteristics of that breed that were present before the “modern” breed of chickens – those of which have been more scientifically bred to produce a greater number of eggs or rear more meat – often at the sacrifice of the overall health of the bird in the long run. Anyways we’d decided on three chickens to start with and elected to go with a variety pack: Buff Orpington, Black Australorp, and a Barred Plymouth Rock. April 12th was the day we drove to the Swift Current poultry and exotic bird show.



They were a lot cuter than I expected. I dunno I always thought chickens were pretty ugly beasts, but these guys were downright handsome little devils. From right to left, we named them Hildie, Marge, and Ruth.

We had a lot of fun with these little guys introducing them to our neighbours, friends and family.  They were 8-week old “pullets” – basically teenagers. They don’t start laying eggs until they are fully mature at about 16-20 weeks old. So for 12-weeks these guys freeloaded off of us. Eating lots of feed and making us clean up after them every week.


After all the preparatory work and reading I’d done I was really surprised at how easy they were to take care of. Certainly they required some basic knowledge and understanding (what to eat, how often to clean the coop, how to clean it, when to introduce them to other pets, etc etc), but overall they weren’t that much work. Basically we’d let them out of the insulated henhouse in the morning. If it was cool in the night then I would turn on the heat lamp I’d installed (I also installed a thermometer inside the coop that we could monitor from inside our house to make sure they didn’t get too cold). In the morning they’d trot down the ramp, eat some food, take a few craps, and drink some water. The rest of the day they’d scratch around in their coop and then at night they’d walk up the ramp and back into their henhouse. Pretty simple.

For the first few nights they weren’t sleeping on the roosts. I’d read that it was instinct for them to sleep on the planks of wood that I’d installed in the henhouse. But instead I’d find them sleeping on the nesting box, in the nesting box, or huddled in the corner. C’mon you dumb chickens! It’s supposed to be instinctual! So for the next few days, after dark, we’d open the henhouse and place them on the roost. Most mornings they were elsewhere, but after a week Ruth stayed on it all night, and by the next night all three perched there until morning. Since then we’d never had an issue. Great success!

We resisted introducing them to the dog for several weeks out of fear that she would kill them or more likely that the hens would peck out our French Bulldog’s eyeballs. Needless to say, Fiona, the dog, was highly curious of these weird creatures that had suddenly shown up in her backyard.


However after about 6 weeks, Fiona didn’t seem to care about them anymore and the chickens equally seemed uninterested in her. Also, they were getting bigger and, although their coop was plenty big enough for them, they seemed a bit bored. Cooped up, you might say (ha!).We discussed it and thought, maybe we should try letting them out in the backyard and seeing how they do. We were prepared for the worst: feathers, blood, eyeballs, all of it.



But none of that happened! In fact, it was positively uneventful. Boring you might say. I had prepared myself for blood and there was none. They just walked around, took a couple of craps, and when Fiona tried to sniff one they freaked out and ran back into their coop.

In late June we got our first egg courtesy of Ruth. We were so excited about it. But then had to laugh, why were we so excited that a chicken had laid an egg? Isn’t that their job? Isn’t that just what chickens normally do? Still it was pretty awesome.


Also, the chickens were being regularly let into the yard in the morning when I got up and when we were in the backyard. Fiona was less than impressed.


Around this time we were asked by Laura and Cory at the Better Good if we’d like to be apart of their Garden + Yard Tour this year as they had planned for it to go through our neighbourhood.

Hmm… we’d been trying to keep this super duper secret thus far, but at the same time we wanted people know what we were doing. I’d been reading books about urban farming and urban homesteading and certainly backyard chickens was a big thing that these movements talked about. We’d also already bought our land by this point, so we thought, what the heck, let’s do it.

By the way, Saskatoon, our city, is a funny place. We have many young, forward-thinking and progressive people doing a lot of very interesting things in a variety of disciplines, but for whatever reason, our city hall and council are very happy with the status quo (i.e. doing nothing progressive or forward thinking). It took 10 years for us to develop a city-wide recycling program for goodness sake.

As the time got closer to the garden tour, Cory called me and said that the StarPhoenix, the local newspaper, was very interested in the backyard chickens and wanted to do a story on it. They’d be coming on the tour and wanted to talk to us.

Ok, now we hadn’t planned for that. We were a bit nervous now. I was fine letting a hundred or so people in on our secret backyard chicken operation, but the whole city… yikes.

But as we talked with Cory and Laura, we realized that we were actually in a unique position, we had planned on listing our house this Fall (another post on that later) and moving the chicken coop out to our land at the end of month. Our good friends were kind enough to agree to add our hens to their existing flock, so really, we had nothing to lose. If we got in trouble it really wouldn’t be a big deal. So we thought, ok, bring on the press! Let’s confess!

The Garden Tour was August 17th and it was super fun. We had about 120 people through our backyard and the response was completely positive. Everyone was so interested in the chickens and our coop. We fielded innumerable questions about what our neighbours thought (they thought it was fun/cool), if we’d had any complaints (no), if they stink (no only if you don’t clean the coop), if they are loud (no they’re not roosters; they make a bit of squawking in morning when they wanted out and occasionally bok-bok-boking, but that’s about it), and many others. There were several people interested in starting their own flock in the city and a few others that also had chickens (co-conspirators!).

Also the StarPhoenix came through a took a bunch of notes and photos. After the tour, we waited for the article to be published and for any fall out.

Oh and I was going for surgery the next day.

The article was published in Monday’s paper. It was short and sweet and had a lovely description of our little setup. Hildie, the Barred Rock, was also featured in a photo (article is at the end of this post).

On Tuesday, as I lay on the couch moaning and bleeding out of my face while Darcie tended to my post-surgical wounds, the doorbell rang. “Um, this looks serious,” she said. A person in a fancy uniform was standing at our door. Darcie opened the door. Animal Control Services. Wow that was faster than we had anticipated. “I’m here about a report of chickens in your backyard. Are you aware of the bylaw?” “Yes, I am”, Darcie said. I was ready to be dragged off in handcuffs, crying and bleeding. Darcie told her, “They’re actually going to be moved out at the end of the week and the coop as well.” She also asked what the complaint was? “It’s regarding the newspaper article,” the official person lady said, “I’ll be back next week to make sure they’re gone.”

Just as Darcie sat back down and I breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t been thrown in shackles and strung up in the town square, the doorbell rang again. What the heck now?

It was the reporter from the StarPhoenix. “What was that all about?” She asked. Darcie explained to her that we’d been busted. “Well I’d like to interview you about the chickens and the bylaw and why you have them despite it. Can you do it now? I can have a photographer here right away.” Darcie tried to explain that I was on death’s doorstop, but I, like trooper I am, said to just do the interview.

For the next half hour Darcie talked to the reporter, took a short video, and had a bunch of photos snapped. The reporter told us it would likely be a front page article. Oh damn. (See attached article at the end of this post).

On Thursday the news broke. Sure enough, It was front and centre on page #1. Darcie smiling and holding Marge (the Buff Orpington) and the headline reading “Councillor says chickens can be deadly.” Frick. That really doesn’t sound like what we were going for. We don’t want to be the crazy evil chicken people. However as you read the article it quickly became clear that that statement was simply ludicrous. They had interviewed three city councillors, the first guy was very deadset against chickens. Reading his comments was like reading an article on The Onion. His statements were so preposterous that I was laughing out loud at several occasions. The second councillor was also misinformed quite badly, but at least he was open to a pilot project for chickens in the city. And the third, one of the only rational voices on the city council, Charlie Clark, commented that he actually lived next to a house that kept backyard chickens, was completely supportive about it and had many valid, well-informed and thoughtful ideas about backyard chickens.

The response to the article from the public was remarkably and overwhelmingly positive. I read through all of the Facebook comments that I could that were linked to the article through various sources or shared on other pages. I was surprised at the incredible majority (well over 95%) of people who were in favour and supportive of having chickens in the city. It was also very rewarding to hear the comments from our neighbours (who we had not previously talked to about chickens), who enjoyed the quiet clucking they heard in the morning and that it “made them love their neighbourhood even more” and others who said they’d “miss not hearing the clucking.” We were also very happy to read a number of comments from people who were on the tour that were inspired by our mini urban homestead.

Overall we have really enjoyed the process of having chickens in the city, although short-lived due to our move out to the country. It has been such a pleasure to have the hens in our backyard. It brings a great sense of satisfaction when you can learn about something, research it, make it into a reality and see other people be inspired and excited about it too.


YARD TOUR SHOWCASES SUSTAINABILITY – The StarPhoenix – August 18, 2014

COUNCILLOR SAYS CHICKENS CAN BE DEADLY – The StarPhoenix – August 22, 2014

(Originally posted August 24, 2014)