7, 2005: To begin, I must disclose that I have no
experience raising chickens. Before I read this book, I didn’t
know a pullet from a pip. But the birds fascinate me, and
I love eggs, so I dove into Storey’s Guide to Raising
Chickens with the enthusiasm of a novice.
From the start, Gail Damerow has a word of warning for people
like me: “Many have thought … chickens could care
for themselves by scratching out a romantic existence in the
back lot.” But a harsh reality sets in, she says, and
many find it difficult to keep up. She may be right. After
reading all but the glossary and index of this dense book,
I felt overwhelmed. Choosing your variety, housing and range,
feeding, egg production, meat production, breeding, showing,
incubation, chick care: All of these topics Damerow covers
at length. Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens
is nothing if not complete. But 340 pages later, I wondered,
Is it really this difficult? Or do I need a book to teach
me the alphabet before I try to write the novel? Something
tells me I need the primer. Even though it’s a “guide,”
Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens is like
the hiking guide written for people who already know the trails.
I talked with the family down the street, who, I learned
while researching this review, keep two hens in their backyard.
(I was surprised to learn that while it is illegal to raise
male chickens in my town—population 26,000—the
ordinances here do not preclude backyard hens.) I asked my
neighbor, “Just how difficult is it to keep chickens?
And how did you get started?”
“It’s easy,” he said. “A rancher
we know thought the kids should have the experience of raising
chickens, so she gave us a couple of hens. We have a coop
in the garage, and we get about 240 eggs from each of them
each year.” My self-confidence returned. If two attorneys
and their children could produce forty dozen eggs a year behind
their house, then I could too, my dog population notwithstanding.
I looked at Storey’s Guide in a new light.
It’s really a reference book, not a how-to book. The
chapters on breeding, incubation, hatching—this is material
for the advanced producer. I can return to it after I retire
to 40 acres in the country. In the meantime, I’ll bookmark
For the egg consumer, “Table Eggs” may be the
most interesting chapter in the book. It covers everything
from recipes for pickled eggs to the debate over cholesterol
to egg storage (two weeks at 68 degrees if thermostabilized!).
How do you cook eggs for easy peeling? Damerow dedicates a
full paragraph to the question. If you like eggs, it’s
worth checking the book out from your library for this chapter
For those of us who still buy our eggs at the grocer, the
book is also a wake-up call to the not-so-pleasant realities
of raising chickens. For example, Damerow encourages owners
to caponize (castrate) cockerls if you want to keep them beyond
the “stag stage,” which they reach at 5-6 weeks.
This makes cockerls more docile and their meat more tender.
Caponization is not a minor procedure, as the bird’s
testicles lie inside his body. Most states, Damerow admits,
require the surgery to be performed by a vet. Despite this,
she explains how to caponize a cockerl and concludes, “If
you chance to kill a bird, don’t feel bad about it—even
the most experienced caponizer occasionally loses one.”
As for the incision, she writes, “If it makes you feel
better, coat it with a dab of Neosporin.” Damerow is
just as cavalier about beak-clipping (done when birds cannibalize)
and toe-clipping (performed as a last resort when cockerls
injure hens while “treading” them). I am very
likely naïve about even “humanely produced”
eggs, but my friend who grows and sells broiler hens to specialty
markets in Iowa tells me these procedures can be avoided in
small-scale chicken operations.
Furthermore, Damerow gives organic poultry short shrift.
To her credit, the book was published in 1995, before the
boom in organic agriculture and before many people worried
about growth hormones and antibiotics in the food they eat.
If she were writing today for the same audience, I wonder
if Damerow would encourage spraying brooding nests with pesticides.
And would she reconsider dismissing organic certification
as a “marketing tool?”
I haven’t yet ordered my first brood of pullets. When
I do, I will reach for Storey’s Guide. But
I will also look around for a basic manual, and one that more
fully considers humane and organic production. Short of other
resources, this book is a fine place for the beginner to start.
But don’t let its abundant details scare you off before
you’ve even built the coop.
Laurie Milford is a writer and fundraiser living in Laramie,