Chickens Out Back: Lessons from Asiila Imani

Asiila Imani is a mother, midwife, doula, and writer who home schools and teaches language arts to children in her community. For the past five years she’s been trying her hand at backyard gardening, getting involved with community gardening as well as permaculture. Two years ago she began raising chickens out back of her house.

Beyond Halal: Why did you decide to start keeping chickens?

Asiila Imani: A member of our jamah, Brother Ebraheem, a serious DIYer, bought five chicks for fresh homegrown eggs. He knew that we too are striving to live as organically and pure as we can, so he suggested we do the same. And, since we all homeschool, what a wonderful experience it would be for our children!

We also planned to have our teenage boys start a business selling any leftover eggs and/or buying more chickens so that they could set up a ‘free range egg business.’ We figured we needed enough chickens to supply the four households in our jamah, so we started out with 20 chicks–17 Rhode Island Reds and 3 White Leghorns (although we only ended up with one Leghorn, one Bantam Araucana (she lays green eggs!) and one Ameraucanas–it’s hard to tell baby chicks apart I guess). Each house raised 4-6 chicks until they were old enough to go outside.

BH: What preparations did you have to make to get ready?

AI: The chicks were kept in heavy duty deep cardboard boxes that were outfitted with a heat lamp, wood shavings, watering can and feeder specifically made for chicks. We used a blanket to cover the top at night. The chicks must be kept warm, between 90-100 degrees 24/7 and at night (it was winter when we got them). The blanket kept the cooler  drafts away. It is no exaggeration to say that they peeped non-stop. The water, food dish, and shavings had to be changed several times a day.

My daughter-in-law had in years past built an outdoor wooden playhouse for her daughters, so Ebraheem converted it into a chicken coop. Since we have the biggest yard, they moved in once they got large enough.

BH: Do you raise them for meat, eggs, or both? If for meat, what has that been like and how have you related to animals that you raise and then eat?

AI: We bought them for their eggs, and bought egg layer breeds. Chickens for meat are different; shorter legs, fatter and not as fast.

We originally planned to keep them til they reach chicken menopause, and on until they died. But, because they can die horrible deaths–five have already died from, we think, chicken herpes; egg binding–where the egg literally gets stuck in their anus; two from causes unknown, and one murdered by the other chickens…long story–we are rethinking if we should let nature take its course.

“Halaling” them may be a more humane way of ending their lives; and an opportunity, again, to train our sons especially, on the technique of how to perform a zabihah slaughter. They’ve never seen it, much less done it. I’ve also been told that old hen is not too edible, way too tough. Others have said that they can make great broth when cooked slow after a long soak in vinegar. I also heard, but have no source, that animals who are zabihah’ed go to a “good place” when they die…

The other reason we may need to cull them soon is because we’ll need new chicks to replace them once they stop laying…and chickens are vicious. They are not like mammals who will adopt or live in peace with new chicks or chickens. They will go to war with any new chicks. If we had a rooster from the beginning and let some of the eggs hatch, it would be different. But, at the time, it was illegal to have chickens in the city limits and we did not need a rooster upsetting the neighbors. Last year, the city voted to allow chickens and goats within city limits, but still bar roosters due to the noise ordinance.

BH: What lessons do children learn when they care for chickens?

AI: The children really loved caring for the hens when they were babies. In fact, some of the girls marveled at how caring for the chicks was just like taking care of a human baby. It’s why our chickens are not afraid of people—the kids held and handled them since they were young. I think it helped the children develop a sense of being totally responsible for the care and feeding of another creature—and how intense it can be. It wasn’t long until they got frustrated with how often they had to change the water especially.

“Why do they poop in their water?” was the oft repeated question which then lead to discussions of patience, and understanding the limitations of those younger and less intelligent–and the fact that we often simply have to deal with “what is.” It was a lesson in doing one’s duty no matter how tedious.

And even though all chickens are basically the same: they scratch the dirt the same, the cluck and caw the same, they eat the same way and walk the same, they have different personalities. Each one is an individual—and I believe it’s a joy for kids to watch how these “chicken people” manifest who they are, especially when interacting with us people.

My niece bought more chickens to raise in her yard so her children continue to feed, water and gather eggs. At my home, there are three teenage young men and although they complain about cleaning the coop each week, filling up the water can and gathering the eggs, they do it without being told. They actually feel pretty bad when they forget and the chickens end up ravenous and parched. Lately, to save on food costs, we’ve let the hens out of their fenced area to graze the rest of the yard. It’s not an issue with chasing them down at night, because at sunset they really do ‘come home to roost.’

I think the biggest lessons to raising chickens or any animal is the concept of interdependence; how humans and animals depend on each other. It’s clear that if we take good care of the chickens, we get good tasting and healthy organic eggs–and perhaps later, fresh, untampered-with meat. Witnessing the animals develop from babyhood, growing into older chicks and then laying their first eggs, establishing the pecking order, molting (aging), getting sick and dying is hands-on learning of the life cycle, and an excellent metaphor for much of the human condition in today’s world. Children can compare how chickens and humans treat each other and discuss if it’s even fair to do so. Is it right to expect chickens to be nice to each other? What about when humans are as cut throat?

BH: How has raising chickens impacted your faith, and vice versa, how has your iman impacted how you raise your chickens?

AI: I had to think about this question a bit, and I’m still not sure if I can elaborate my feelings as clearly as I’d like.

Obviously, it’s Allah’s will that we humans are at the top of the animal pack, the pecking order, if you will. And it’s very apparent that the chickens and any other animal we come in contact with knows this too. Allah created them, but we decide whether they live, or not. This kind of power is a reminder of how each of us is responsible for those in our charge, and that we will be held accountable for how well (or badly) we do it.

It makes me feel even more responsible to make sure they get what they need, and to remain aware of how they are doing. I feel protective of them, something I never would’ve thought I’d feel for chickens. Now that I have them, I’m very conscious of that fact that I must treat them well. It’s the same for the feral cats who live under the house. It’s why we feed them as much as they get on my nerves!

Having said that, it’s also humbling at how complete in knowledge and adaptability Allah has made them; that everything, every creature fits in the scheme of living on this planet.

Just observing them, talking to and receiving that ‘caw’ in return is very grounding and relaxing. The fact that they ‘know’ me, and come running toward me making, I interpret, greeting sounds. In fact, I understand some of their ‘speech,’ in that sense. Having an interconnection to another one of God’s creatures, and sharing our lives makes me humbled at how interconnected everything is; and ALL depending on the grace of the Creator.

I’m not confused about whether or not this happened by accident or was strictly an evolutionary thing. I’m clear that it’s all Masha’Allah. Alhamdulillah.

You can follow Asiila’s chicken and garden adventures on the blog Successful Muslim Homeschooling, and read more about her community garden projects at Green Prophet.

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