Give a farm animal a name, and, its life expectancy seems to leap to history-making proportions. It's a fact that holds true for chickens, especially once they've crossed into the Shangri-la world of schoolyard flock member and best friend to a room full of children.
Teachers across the country are using small chicken flocks to teach students about agriculture and basic biology. In some cases, these flocks allow students from diverse backgrounds and with various learning styles to connect on a deeper level.
Jennifer Ferrell, a teacher at Lawton Elementary, in Oviedo, Florida, recalls the day a special-needs boy met the school's chickens for the first time.
"He petted Caramel, our Buff Orpington," she recalls. "His whole demeanor changed. He went from restless and anxious, to calm and focused. He was so proud of himself."
That's the kind of story that makes Katie Signorelli feel what she's doing is making a difference on a whole new level. She is backyard flock marketing manager with Purina Animal Nutrition, which, in recent years, has promoted the use of chicken flocks as a teaching tool in schools.
Signorelli says chickens add something exciting to a school's curriculum. They build students' senses of responsibility and help them learn animal care and where food comes from.
"We've had great conversations with teachers who added backyard chickens to their school curriculums," Signorelli says. "They are reinventing the way lessons are taught; their students are learning by doing."
She adds the school chickens can add to those inevitable, end-of-the-day conversations parents and children often have.
"When parents ask, 'What did you learn in school today?', their children share this newfound flock knowledge," she says. "We've seen teachers incorporate lessons on how to hatch eggs, what chickens eat and how an egg is formed and laid."
Nancy Dimitriades believes in the power of chickens. The science teacher at St. Paul's School, Brooklandville, Maryland, has raised both chickens and ducks with her students for more than two years starting in April 2016.
"The students built both the brooder and the coop," she says of their facilities. "They collect eggs daily, and, we've even hatched chicks and ducklings in our classroom. Through this project, they've learned about the life cycle of a chicken in a hands-on way."
St. Paul's has used its flock to help create bonds with other schools from the surrounding Baltimore city area.
"We have an educational organization called 'Bridges'," Dimitriades explains. "It brings motivated Baltimore city students to our campus and offers enriching, educational experiences to them. Bridges' fourth- and fifth-graders have built dust baths for the chickens, chicken swings and boredom busters."
Urban areas and inner cities are some of the most significant growth centers for flocks. Jennifer Musick, a third-grade educator at Rosamond Elementary School, in California, says "kids from all grade levels go to the garden first thing in the morning to let the chickens out. It has taught our students respect for their surroundings, along with responsibility, concern and empathy for living creatures."
Along with the teaching moments that can come with chickens, there's a more basic reason flocks seem to be multiplying in urban areas. Patrick Biggs says, simply put, people want more control over what they eat.
Biggs is a nutritionist with Purina. "It's an opportunity to be a farmer on some level without having to be a large farmer. That's how people see this," he says.
There are unique challenges that come with having chickens in a small area, whether it's a backyard or on school property. Biggs says it's important to consider from the start what size flock you want and how much space that is going to require.
"I'd start by saying you don't just want to have one chicken," he notes. "I recommend having at least three. One chicken is always kind of confused; she's looking for her flock. With two, you usually have an alpha, and the other one gets picked on. With three, you distribute the pecking order behavior, and, there's less stress on the birds."
A rule of thumb with regards to space is about 3 square feet per chicken—inside the coop. Outside the coop, figure a minimum of 10 square feet per chicken. And remember: Too little space creates stress and leads to behavior problems, illness or death.
FOCUS ON FEED
Biggs says as pampered as some chickens are today, they often aren't having their nutritional needs met.
"There is a lot more to feeding chickens than throwing out a handful of ground corn or scratch grains," he says. "A lot of people think that's all it takes, but, in a backyard setting, where there's not a lot to choose from, it's really important to give them a complete feed. The scratch grains are fine as a treat, but, they are like candy, and they should be no more than 10% of what you feed. The other 90% should be a complete feed with the 38 different nutrients chickens need to be able to lay eggs and remain healthy."
He adds it's vital to feed to stage of life. A chick has different nutritional needs than a hen laying eggs.
While a lot of farmers might find the whole city-chicken connection puzzling, Biggs says he sees it as an opportunity for people to feel a connection with traditional agriculture. Aside from the idea of naming the chickens, that is.
"To be honest, most people in urban areas see these chickens as more pets than livestock. They are pampered and cared for. The family, or the school, has put time into raising them, and they have names. And, we all know, once you give a chicken a name, it's really hard to put her in a pot for dinner."
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