Thinking Beyond Chickens Opens Up a New Universe of Possibilities
Some ins and outs on how chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese get along in a backyard coop.
A White Midget might be a fine flock addition.
Photo CC Turkzilla
It’s a well-known fact that people bitten by the poultry bug begin to collect. Rare breeds. Bantams. Asians and Americans. Top-knots or bearded. But there is life beyond chickens.
Consider turkeys. Drivers considerately do not mow down turkeys strutting in the middle of a busy intersection like Marin and San Pablo avenues. But turkeys can do more than stop traffic. They lay eggs, big ones with speckles. They gobble. And you can have a tom — since they don’t make that much noise, cities haven’t banned them yet. Therefore yoxqu can have poults, which is what the powers-that-be call baby turkeys.
You can have poults, that is, if you get heritage turkeys. Don’t start on the horrors that industrialization has done to turkeys who no longer can breed naturally (toms’ breasts are too big to mate), while hens have lost the instinct to set. Heritage breeds remember all that stuff, and better, can still do it. Smaller breeds such as Royal Palms, with their sharply defined black-and-white feathering, are good for smaller yards. Turkeys are as easy, perhaps even easier, to keep than chickens. Despite fake news, they are adaptable, learn quickly, and like elephants, remember for years.
Turkeys can change their skin color from red to blue to purple to white in a flash (beware — white equals DEFCON 1). Some breeds are glorious, such as Black Spanish, buffs, and blue slates. Besides enjoying your birds, you can congratulate yourself on helping to conserve a vital gene pool. For example, White Midgets (also called Beltsville Small) are on the Livestock Conservancy’s critical list. Threatened Royal Palms are just a step down. If you have chickens, small turkey breeds fit right in. They’ll head into the coop at night, just as your chickens do.
This, unfortunately, is not true of ducks, at least not in my experience. Ducks are the most charming of all poultry, with a huge sense of humor and a joy of living that’s contagious. If you give them a metal tub to swim in, they’ll delight you from day one. But you’ll have to round them up at night. If you’re out late at a concert, you’ll need a flashlight to search out the ducks, huddled under a bush while everyone else is in the coop, fast asleep. You can herd them inside in moments, but what about raccoons that show up at dusk? This can all be solved with good fencing or electric wire (including overhead, folks — predators climb), but don’t kid yourself that your ducks can stay outside all night.
Here’s a surprise: Some duck breeds lay better than chickens. For example, an excellent American breed called Anconas comes in various pinto colors and can lay 280 eggs per year. They are calm and friendly and are on the conservancy’s “Watch” list, a step under “Threatened.” (See livestockconservancy.org for varieties of poultry, sheep, horses, and more that need committed breeders.)
If you decide on ducks and are worried about noise (only the females make the loud “quack-quack;” males whisper by comparison), you might think of Muscovy ducks. These South American natives hiss like geese. They are bigger and more aggressive that other ducks, which has its pluses: males will attack intruders. Unfortunately, they may also attack your unfamiliar relatives, biting painfully at their calves.
It’s great to have birds that will head in at night without your say-so. Guinea fowl fulfill this basic requirement. They come in colors that sound like designer paints, such as pewter, pinto, royal purple, buff dundotte, pastel, coral blue, and the more familiar pearl gray. They are small, hunt ticks (so do turkeys), and do not eat much. However, there is only one condition in which you should entertain housing guinea fowl: You are hard of hearing and live on a deserted island.
Guinea alarm calls are louder than a peacock’s “yer-arm!” shout. And guineas alarm at a spider, a bird flying overhead, or their own wild fantasies. Once one starts, they all grasp they are about to die and start wailing. Five minutes later, they erupt again. Peacocks are mild in comparison.
Geese need water, and unlike ducks, adults are pretty scary to many predators. Like ducks, they will not reliably go inside a coop at night. Herding hissing geese in your evening wear after you return from a night in the city might amuse the neighbors but perhaps not you. By the way, it is tremendously easy to herd geese and ducks: Hold out your arms and dart back and forth behind your little flock, making encouraging noises. The herd will unerringly go where you “air-push” them. This is great dinner party entertainment for guests sitting indoors, laughing at your antics. Just don’t fall into a puddle.
Which brings up another consideration — chickens and turkeys are not great partners with geese and ducks. The web-footed ones can create an unholy mess of water and wet bedding in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Have you noticed how your chickens dash inside at the briefest squall? Re-creating that squall inside the coop will not gain you friends on the chicken front.
Suppose you want something even easier than chickens or turkeys: pheasants and partridges are possible, but even more charming and easily housed are pigeons. Rescued pigeons and doves urgently need homes, and these birds are friendly, great for kids and older folks, and don’t need 75 pound bags of feed. The Bay Area sports a wonderful rescue organization; check out PigeonRescue.org to find Palomacy. The website shows attractive, multifunctional, and easily built aviaries that can hold five or six doves or pigeons and also lists birds looking for fosters or forever homes. Think how nice the cooing of doves will sound off your bedroom window. Doves and pigeons can also live with your chickens in an enclosed area.
Thinking beyond chickens opens up a new universe of possibilities. Every individual has a distinct personality, and the breeds and varieties are fascinating. They’re waiting to make your acquaintance.
This article was originally published in our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.