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Book Review: Keeping Chickens with Ashley English (Ashley English)

I read this book because my wife and I have decided to keep chickens.  My wife is driving the project, but I figured I should participate fully.  I started with this book.  I would have been better off starting with the Internet.

Reading this book is like reading a Williams-Sonoma catalog.  At the end, you feel somewhat uplifted by contact with a superior lifestyle—but you also feel your life is vaguely inferior to that portrayed in the glossy pictures.  You know a smattering of new things, and you sense opportunities that may arise from those new things.  But you don’t actually KNOW what you NEED to know about those new things to actually ACCOMPLISH anything.  That’s fine when the catalog is meant to create the buying impulse.  In a book subtitled “All You Need To Know To Care For A Happy, Healthy Flock,” offering little you need to know is a pretty gross failing—although I suppose you might have a happy, healthy flock with the information in this book, just not one you have any idea how to make productive and useful.

What I needed to know was pretty simple.  The main thing was how exactly chickens would benefit me, and how those benefits could be accomplished.  Pretty obviously chickens can provide meat and eggs.  As to meat, the book rejects providing any relevant information out of hand:  the author is a vegetarian, although she disclaims proselytizing.  But other than a few mentions of types of birds that might provide meat, and lifespan to meat production, there is no information on raising chickens for meat and certainly none at all on slaughtering.  Nor is there any on the expected productive life of egg layers, nor on what can be done with them when that productivity ends.  Ignoring half of what chickens provide automatically makes the book half as useful as it could be.

So that leaves eggs.  There is talk of how eggs are created inside the chicken.  There is talk of roosting.  There is talk of shelter and runs.  There is talk of nesting boxes.  There is talk of “broody” chickens.  And so on.  But nowhere are these elements defined and brought together to say precisely how the process works to produce eggs in the owner’s hand.  The book is, as James Jesus Angleton said of spycraft, a wilderness of mirrors—bright shards that reflect onto each other but provide no whole picture.

From the Internet, it appears that chickens roost on poles at night; then they enter the nesting boxes to lay eggs; then the eggs are retrieved by the owner.  But it doesn’t say that anywhere in the book, or much else that is precise.  For example, the book doesn’t say if the hen normally leaves the nesting box and the egg behind, or the owner has to retrieve it from under the chicken.  It doesn’t say if there’s any trick to it, or if the chickens object.  It doesn’t say when to do this.  It says pretty much nothing at all about the actual mechanics of harvesting eggs.

Let’s take nesting boxes.  Three pages, or approximately 3% of the book, is taken up with detailed plans for building nesting boxes.  But nowhere at all does it say in the book WHAT A NESTING BOX IS.  If you look in the glossary, though, it says “The location in which a chicken lays eggs; ideally, it should be situated in the darkest, quietest part of the henhouse.”  You would think critical information like that should be the central core of an entire chapter—entitled, perhaps, “Nesting Boxes And How To Use Them”?  Nope.

On the plus side, there is a fairly detailed description of chicken breeds (with glossy pictures!).  This includes discussion of which breeds are good for what purposes, including producing lots of eggs, being dual purpose (eggs and meat), being good with children, etc.  There is much information about chicken diseases (of limited use, given that a veterinarian would be critical in most instances).  A discussion of types of chicken coops, flooring, etc. seems helpful.  There is an introduction to hatching chickens from eggs, and a reasonable discussion of whether to start with chicks, young chickens, or grown hens.  But much of the book is padding.  20% of the book is recipes (with glossy pictures!)  Sidebars profiling chicken owners, mostly environmentalist dead-enders, don’t add much.  There is also constant mention of how wonderful it is to watch chickens, “better than a therapist.”  Maybe.  But I need a therapist after reading this book, to manage my rage, and I need to find a book that actually tells me the mechanics of using chickens to benefit me and my family productively.

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