Cocks on Rocks

Get your mind out of the gutter, will ya?

Where I come from, a cock is a creature that crows and you can openly – without judgement or raised eyebrows – name things after them. You can have cock-a-leekie pie or go to the Cock & Balls Pub. No… wait a minute… I mean the Cock & Bull Pub. (Sorry – couldn’t help myself there for a minute.) Call it whatever clever name you want; Chicks on Bricks, Hens on Islands, Cocks on Rocks… this, my friends, is a post about raising island chickens.

chicken caye_WWLOR

I’m fussy about my food. I was a vegetarian for many years and even tried being a vegan (not a very good one, admittedly, because CHEESE). I care about where my food comes from and how it is produced. I’m not particularly worried about things like GMOs and antibiotics but I do lose sleep over cruelty, and so I do my best to source animal products from ethical producers, at least as much as is possible. I started eating meat again in the UK when it became easy to find free-range chicken and grass-fed beef but worried greatly that it might not be as readily available when we moved to our beautiful rock, Ambergris Caye. Fortunately, over the years, I have found great suppliers on the Belize mainland and have my free-range chicken and other goodies flown over monthly. I was, however, having a hard time getting free-range eggs on the Caye and hadn’t found a regular supplier on the mainland either.

I kept hearing about a lady on Front Street in town who received “local eggs” (read: not produced en masse at the Mennonite-owned factory farms) to sell once a week. But every time I went to her stand, they were gone. I asked around to find out why they disappeared so quickly and was told that there is an old tradition here whereby an egg has to be waved around the head of a baby to protect it from the “evil eye” and various other ailments. Apparently, in order to be effective, the egg has to be a local one. Once it is used in the ritual, it must be broken. We have a lot of babies born here. A. Lot. And thus, few local eggs are left for those of us who just want to eat them.

And so I turned to the internet. I read many articles about how easy it is to have backyard chickens. They sounded so sweet and low maintenance that I got to dreaming about having some of my very own…

I pictured my chickens popping out a fresh egg every morning for me to enjoy and figured I’d only need two of them. I’d be eco conscious, humane, and my eggs would be free. Free! They’d look adorable wandering around the garden and all of my friends would be envious. I’d have a beautiful little cottage-like hen house with curtains and flowers that they would love. I’d just have to throw out some scraps and corn every day and it would be so easy…

chicken dream house

chicken dream house

Sound too good to be true? It is. Those articles LIE. Ready for the truth about keeping cocks on rocks? Here it is:

Let’s start with building the hen house. On a rock, everything has to be imported and thus, building materials aren’t cheap. And when I did the real research about the size pen that is actually considered adequate to keep a hen free-range, I began to realize that the cute little hen house I’d dreamed about was now going to be a rather unwieldy pen that takes up considerable space in my yard. Not ready to be discouraged, I decided I’d just pay someone to build it. It can’t be that costly to build a small wooden structure with some wire around it, can it? Yes, yes it can – especially when you neurotically worry about things like the poor chickens being attacked by mosquitoes and have to install screened vents, and then you decide you need to have easily accessible nesting boxes to collect all the eggs they’ll surely lay.

Next, I had to figure out how to get all that corn I planned to throw at them daily. But in my search, I was schooled by some farmer friends on the mainland and discovered that the chickens can’t, in fact, subsist on corn and that I would have to purchase specially prepared feed which must be shipped from the feed supplier to the rock, doubling the price. I was starting to weaken under all this hassle and expense, so I just pictured the farm fresh eggs, repeating, This is going to be worth it. This is going to be worth it…

chicken egg benefits_WWLOR

Helpful friends with chicken experience told me not to get local hens because they are “brooders” not “layers”. They recommended I get “layers” from the hatchery. I didn’t have a clue what that meant, so I went ahead and had a couple of local hens from a village captured, tied, put in a box, put on a plane, and brought to me. Two days later, they started crowing. Shit.

Those two went to feed a family while I anxiously awaited delivery of my real hens. Fortunately the next ones were, indeed, female. I ended up with three and named them Lilith, Jezebel, and Delilah. Eventually a fourth, Athena, also joined the flock.

As a now semi-experienced island chicken woman, I can share with you a few things I’ve learned…

1. Chickens are not quiet.

They love the sound of their own voices and make loud announcements whenever there is any egg laying activity going on (or just whenever they feel like it). They will actively seek out the most acoustically beneficial location (in this case, under my concrete house on stilts) to ensure that everyone within miles knows that someone might be laying an egg, is feeling hormonal, is stealing food, or that there is a cat in the ‘hood. They wake up at sunrise and start shouting for food and to be let out of their pen. If you don’t get up to do as they demand, your neighbours will hate you forever. I don’t even have a fucking rooster!

And, by the way, you do not need a rooster to get eggs. I am asked about this regularly and there are still many people who don’t believe that my hens can lay eggs because I don’t have a rooster impregnating them. God knows what sort of stories go around this island about this crazy chicken lady. Fortunately, I’m no longer the only one so a few of us now proudly share the Crazy Chicken Lady throne.

2. Chickens are not cheap.

I think we’ve worked out that after 3 years of keeping chickens, given our investments, our eggs are down to about $15 USD per egg. Keep in mind that we have to have bedding for the pen, as well as the feed shipped from the mainland, and then of course, there was that emergency trip to the vet on a Sunday.

chicken in the house_WWLOR

3. Chickens are not completely simple to keep – not if you live on a rock.

Jezebel has had “special needs” since we have had her and I’ve spent many hours nursing her through her episodes. I’ve had to have special liquid supplements brought from abroad to ensure she remains healthy. I had no idea that they need to be wormed – another expense from the mainland. Their pen and coop require regular cleaning and their water bowls must be scrubbed every couple of days to get the poop and algae out of them, which builds up quickly in a hot and humid tropical climate. When they need new feed and water bowls, guess where I have to have them shipped from, again, at great cost.

4. Chickens do not lay eggs every day, especially when you do not listen to your friends who have actual expertise.

I had no idea what broodiness was before I had my very own “broody box”. If chickens have not been purpose-bred to lay and are natural survivors like my own local hens, they want babies. Lots of them. So every 3 or 4 weeks, when they believe they’ve laid enough eggs, they want to sit on them and hatch them. Even if those eggs have been stolen and eaten by humans and are clearly unfertilized. Nature makes them do this and when they do, they will sit for between 3-6 weeks. One of my hens nearly starved herself to death through this process and so I had to get a “broody box”, which is essentially chicken jail. I put them in there for a few days to break the broody cycle and get them laying again. I do love my local hens though, two of which are Belizean Peel Neck hens, which are, apparently a thing.

5. Chickens do not eat all scraps.

I was under the impression they would increase my eco karma bank by allowing me to recycle everything as their food. But my chickens are fussy and will only eat very specific things. They like meat, especially chicken. (I know, it’s gross, but they are actually the descendants of dinosaurs and will rip apart small animals like mice and lizards ferociously as well as kill and eat scorpions, tarantulas, and anything else they can catch.) They also relish in watermelon, tomatoes, and cheese. Oh – and I’ve recently discovered they like dog vomit (another call to the vet because the dog was on medication, which I assumed that the hens had consumed and of course, that they were all going to die. They didn’t). If you’re a real nut job, which I have been known to be, you will even attempt to raise mealworms (read: maggots) to provide them with tasty treats and then become a farmer of a different kind.

chicken worms_WWLOR

6. Chickens are highly intelligent and can be very naughty (read: annoying).

They will sneak into your house when you are not looking and poop. You will turn around to find your dog cornered by one or to find a hen happily pecking at the TV screen. They will also find a way over the fence into the yard of the neighbour you have the worst relationship with and force you to go over and beg to catch your chicken. In truth, he and three workers caught the chicken and it took them 45 minutes of fabulous amusement for me. I should have thought of it before.

7. Chickens poo everywhere.

They poo continuously and their poo is bigger than the eggs they lay. No more barefoot living in your island sand garden.

8. Chickens have a ton of personality and you soon become very attached to them.

Even if your partner claims to hate them and not want them, eventually they will be won over. They are hilarious and entertaining and I wouldn’t be without them. They’ve added a completely new dimension to my life on my gorgeous Caye and a day doesn’t go by that someone in town doesn’t ask after them. I even have people visiting just to meet them. They have their own island fan club. Who would have thought?

 –   –   –

So, if you ever consider getting chickens because it would be so lovely to have fresh eggs every day (admittedly, the eggs are so delicious with creamy, healthy, dark yolks) and you think it will be a simple enterprise, remember this article.

Living on a rock can certainly make you crave fresh, wholesome, and ethically produced food but when you live an island lifestyle, nothing is ever that simple – not even an egg. Though you will receive a ton of well-meaning chicken-centric gifts from all your friends visiting from abroad, who find your new way of life ever so amusing.

(Seriously guys – you can stop now. Really. I’m good.)

chicken lady_WWLOR

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Colette Kase

About Colette Kase

Colette and her partner lived and worked in London. They would sit on the train platform, sweating under layers of clothing, praying for sunshine, and gazing wistfully at billboards of the Maldives. One day, like any sane, somewhat unhinged couple, they collectively thought, Why not give away all of our shit, give up our successful careers, and go live somewhere that looks like those Maldives billboards with no money or plans for the future? With all of their friends standing by in disbelief (no doubt anticipating their hasty return), they did just that.

Only it wasn't the Maldives. It was Ambergris Caye, Belize. Surprising many, they are still together and living what people think is "the dream" in what people think is "paradise". Together they run a photography business called, Conch Creative: www.conchcreative.com/. Colette's partner is the talent and Colette is the metaphorical pimp. She gets things done.

Colette writes a lot of different things, often they are very sweary. She did, in fact, (despite claims to the contrary) write the first ever blog on Ambergris Caye back in 2006 when they were taking a couple of years off to get the lay of the is'land and pretending to be perpetual tourists. Once they started their business, she gave up that blog (most of which was eaten by the internet) and began blogging for the business instead. She also has a sneaky alter ego blogging elsewhere on the internets and has been writing a book for a very long time. So far, it's not a very long book. For now, she's delighted to be joining this island crazy bunch of women to share her experiences as a woman who lives on a rock. Viva procrastination.

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12 thoughts on “Cocks on Rocks

  1. Needed to be written!! I grew up on a farm in Canada, and one of our chickens froze its foot one day. No idea why, as it should have been sitting on its feet keeping them warm. We put it in a box and put it in the nice warm basement for the night, and lo and behold, by morning it was fine. It had even layed an egg for us, which we chose to believe was a thank you.
    You forgot to mention that some chickens will chase you, (but probably they are roosters).

  2. Hahaha. One of my chickens most certainly does get aggressive and has drawn blood – when she’s broody of course, because she has to defend her invisible eggs. I’m very pleased that at least I don’t have to deal with frozen chicken feet, except in the butcher shop!

  3. I don’t know if I could ever become really fond of a chicken. As a small child (toddler) on our farm in Iowa, we had a rooster, a mean rooster. He used to chase me, and one day, I fell. He came at me and tried pecking my eyes, sooooo, guess what happened to him? I ‘ve just never felt too warm and cozy about chickens. We are fortunate in Nevis, there are no traditions about eggs, so we are able to get good, fresh eggs here.

  4. My other half still won’t collect the eggs due to a long held phobia, so I totally understand. They can be remarkably charming though.

  5. Great tips! I’ve always been interested in raising chickens, probably for the same pie-in-the-sky reasons as you. Not sure if this made me run away screaming or not, but it did make me laugh. Congratulations on the success of your broody brood!

  6. If there’s anything keeping chickens will do for you is make you laugh. At least they make me laugh on a daily basis. Whether you can find cheaper laughs elsewhere is the question!

  7. Haha great post!
    Definitely not planning on raising chickens any time soon! But they do sound quite charming, even with all the hassle 😉

    • There are a lot of things about them that aren’t charming, but they make up for that by being intelligent, humorous and cute.

  8. My Dad decided we needed chickens one day(he was a gentleman farmer,and devotee of”Mother Earth “magazine).So one day, he put me into the family station wagon, and off we went to purchase(& save) some,chickens from a commercial farm.After the selection, the farmer crossed their wings,and deposited them,laying down,for the trip to our tiny coup. Halfway home some of them disentangled them selves,and soon our A/C less vehicle was a feathered windy mess!(an egg was actually laid on the dash!….I wish cell phones had been around to capture the cacafany of sounds!(My Father’s colorful language included!) …..Upon arriving home,my Father, rather indelicately off loaded the group onto the ground, over my Mother’s shrieks,and protests!.. All of them had talons so long,they could not stand….So, my Papa had to re-enter the steaming hot excrement covered family vehicle, to go to the vets….eggs rolling out, as he drove off cussing…..hours later,I saw him outside our spiffy coup,clipping chicken nails at sunset,and the stream of colorful language continued well into the night…We got many hours of pleasure from our flock, but nothing compared to that FIRST day…..God bless you if you should decide to replicate my Father’s feat..(He did become the local expert on chicken husbandry, but never ate an egg again!)….0;)p

    • What an absolutely great story! Rescuing animals is a great thing to teach your kids, even with lots of swearing…especially with lots of swearing!

  9. Great article..
    I have been very upset with the standard of food here on virgin gorda coming from London myself,
    The grey frozen enlarged chicken we get from America makes me upset so have been wondering how hard it would be to start my own personal free range happy chickens pen,
    The eggs would just be a by product for me but worry about getting attached to them before turning them into a pie,
    Thank you for your insight.

    • We thought about that too. Growing enough chicken to supply you with food would take a little bit more space than we have. We’re lucky that we have friends on the mainland who are able to and sell us great chicken. I must admit we’re very spoiled. I just took delivery of a bunch of lovely fresh aquaponic lettuce grown about a 1/4 of a mile from here and some beautiful basil – all organic and picked this morning and am about to have my monthly order of free range chicken delivered with some artisan cheese and hand churned butter. Can’t complain at all. My belief is that if you have expats there, there’s a business to be had in these things. It’s working here with a very small expat population.

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