First-time chicken farmers share ups, downs of a backyard flock

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PITTSBORO — Scarlet, Maude, Lady Gaga, June Carter Cash, Lilac and Nemo are the names Dolly Sickles gave to the baby chicks she picked up in March from Pittsboro Feed.

Her husband, Matt, just calls them chickens — and makes comments about what dishes in which they’d taste best.

The two-day old chicks were handed over inside a box that looked like it designed was for take-out fried chicken — oddly fitting. Dolly and her son, Peyton, a part-time photographer at the News + Record, set the chicks up in the family garage complete with a grow light as they set forth building their chicken coop in their backyard just west of Pittsboro’s town limits.

It’s the family’s first time raising chickens, though Matt grew up with chickens on his grandfather’s farm in Concord, having plucked his fair share.

For Dolly, though, it’s all about the eggs.

“Eating the chickens would be anathema for me,” she said.

Like many people in the county and the country, when COVID-19 began its serious spread around the country in March, residents began planting victory gardens, raising chickens or even raising honey bees, many for the first time. For Sickles, the idea came as it did for so many: the coronavirus exposed weakness in the food supply chain, causing shortages of many of the staples that make up the American diet. Eggs are a protein the Sickles family relies upon and enjoys, so when the shortages began, they decided to create their own backyard chicken coop. And though there were challenges throughout, the move is one the family agrees was a good one.

As part of the process, the Sickles purchased a prefabricated coop and went to work creating an enclosure. That coop collapsed during a series of hard rains in May, but fortunately no chickens were harmed. So instead, the family went online and found plans to construct their own, with Matt, who works as a computer consultant, engineering the plans to work for their personal style and ease of use.

All three chipped in to build the coop, with Dolly running the chop saw. The bright red coop has separate nesting areas for when the chickens lay their eggs, numerous doors for accessing the coop and an outdoor enclosure. The entire coop is in yet another enclosure surrounded by black metal garden fencing that matches the fence that borders their garden of four years. Dolly said she will be adding stained glass in the windows in the coop which currently use chicken wire to protect the chickens in bad weather and because, she admits, she has “some priss.”

So far, they’ve gotten close to two dozen eggs. Three of their chickens are Americauna, which means they only lay when high temperatures are below 90 degrees. And since the North Carolina summer is only now starting to lament, those chickens have been slow to lay. Another struggle is the fact that little Nemo, who was named because she has stunted wings, has not been able to lay — though by Monday, both Nemo and the Americauna chickens began to lay, raising hopes of bounties yet to come.

Still, the family is truly enjoying the egg harvest they’ve had thus far. The yolks from their eggs are a far brighter yellow than what you would find in the store, they say, with a flavor that is much richer.

But it’s more than just the eggs.

Dolly likes to have her morning coffee with her chickens. And sometimes she brings out her laptop and writes with them. At a time of social distancing and isolation, the chickens are good company.

That is, until Matt makes a chicken primavera.


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