“I always like new experiences and adventures,” says Virgil resident Jacqueline Stearns.
Which might explain why the busy mother of five kids between the ages of 10 and 18 has a chicken coop in her back yard.
An educational assistant with the District School Board of Niagara, Stearns says, “one school I worked at had hatched eggs they’d gotten from a co-op for the classroom. I thought, ‘I’ve always wanted to try having chickens,’ so we took in seven 12-week-old meat birds.”
“My dad started to help me make a coop with the kids,” she recalls. “We were trying to use an old swing set but we ultimately wanted laying hens, so we decided we should start from scratch. As we were building it my husband said, ‘that doesn’t look like a one-season coop.’”
The family’s original flock wasn’t meant to last long. Meat chickens are genetically engineered to mature quickly and in such a way as to make them not viable for anything other than their intended purpose. Their breasts and legs grow so disproportionately large they can’t even walk after a certain point. “We slaughtered the meat birds with my dad’s help,” says Stearns. “I did the whole thing with one bird, I had the tears — about this being the other end of it. I thought it was important that the kids know when we go and buy it at the grocery store this is what we’re getting. The kids took part in the process, in bits and pieces,” she says.
“My son used one rooster for a biology project, dissecting the bird to see how things work.”
They wanted more birds, longer term, and not only because they had a lovely coop to fill. The family had discovered the joys of chicken-keeping. “I’ve quite fallen in love with it,” says Stearns. “It’s not too much work — you just have to feed and water them and give them a little bit of love.”
They borrowed an incubator from school, and hatched a friend’s chickens’ fertilized eggs. “We got a few more off Kijiji from people who didn’t want to overwinter them,” says Stearns. “Those ones were laying eggs before our little ones started, at Christmas time.”
Evidently the enthusiasm is contagious. “We have started a ripple effect. It’s been neat because I’ve talked to some parents who are thinking about taking hatchlings,” says Stearns. “I think it’s part of an ongoing trend of people in society trying to eat healthier and take care of themselves. A trend of raising your own food.”
She also believes more people are wanting to know where their food comes from, and are eating less processed food. “We still go out to McDonald’s and stuff like that, but I like the idea that I’m making our own food from scratch. I’ve always tried to do that as much as possible and teach the kids to do the same,” says Stearns, who now lives in the house her parents brought her to as a newborn. She and her family moved there from Mississauga 12 years ago. “Our property backs onto Four Mile Creek,” she says. “I like having the wilds around us, so the kids can go out and play in the conservation area.”
Last summer the family shared their passion with an entire camp. “We went to a summer camp as a family, in the role of looking after the staff, which consisted of high school and university students,” recalls Stearns. “It can be hard for kids to be away from home for 10 weeks. My husband and I acted like the mom and the dad for the staff,” she says.
“We brought an incubator and fertilized eggs to the camp. The campers would monitor the eggs — they were like little mother hens. The last week of family camp, the little kids got to hold the hatchlings. The birds almost became like therapy chickens for the kids who missed their families — they would play with them and cuddle them.”
Stearns finds time to try new things often. “We like to experiment like pioneers. We ask ourselves, ‘can we do this, how does it work out?’” They make bread often, and have taken to sprouting grains and grinding them to make sprouted bread. “Last winter I did some research and learned about sprouting wheatgrass. Now my family complains about the kitchen counter being taken over with my growing experiments.”
The family also raises monarchs, and grows their own vegetables, she adds.
In the ongoing spirit of learning and empowerment, Stearns has shared the responsibility of the chickens evenly. “The kids helped out at the beginning, and they still do,” she says. Their flock now consists of several different breeds, from the classic barnyard mixes to Silkies; Rhode Island Reds to Australorps. They tried some fancy Polish Lace birds, known for their “rockstar” hairdos, but they didn’t last long. “Their plumage makes it so they can’t see predators, so all of ours got eaten by hawks. A neighbour pointed out a Cooper’s hawk — we could see its nest in the top of the trees.”
“We don’t keep roosters, to be kind to our neighbours,” says Stearns. “Martin Mazza took a bunch of them — and some of our roosters we did eat.”
Not far away, Mazza runs a five-acre farm off Hunter Road. He has a barnload of birds, and some that don’t fit in the barn at all. His 90-odd chickens have the rule of the roost, and enjoy free-range grazing. They mingle with two Rowan and two Muscovy ducks Mazza says were dropped off on his property. “The birds are interbreeding so I can’t tell what the new ones are,” he says. “A dozen wild mallards come in to sleep on the pond and are gone in the morning — there is a huge ruckus for 10 minutes at sundown every day, and then everybody settles down and goes to sleep.”
The hobby farmer says two Canadian geese have appeared every spring for eight or nine years to nest and have goslings. “Geese make me nervous. They’re territorial and they hiss at me when I cut the grass.”
Mazza has had chickens for about 15 years. “The idea was to keep my dad active,” he says. “He checks on the chickens in the morning, collects the eggs — it keeps him busy and engaged. He goes a few times a day,” he says of his 76-year-old father Vince, a retired peach farmer.
Ironically, Mazza says, “I don’t like eggs; I don’t eat eggs. This is just a hobby. Being able to share the eggs is neat. The birds are small and don’t eat a lot, and as long as I keep the genders balanced it all works out nicely.”
He goes on to further describe his father’s focus. “My dad enjoys it — it reminds him of back home in Italy. My mom likes the social aspect,” he says. “My mother brings out the cookies to anybody who comes by for eggs. It’s costing us money but it gives them something to do.”
The owner of Italian Pizza and Subs also grows his own vegetables, using the tomatoes and eggplant on the sandwiches he sells in his local hotspot. Last year he had 45 tomato plants, and between 60 and 80 each of eggplant and pepper plants, he says.
“Last fall, I didn’t clean out the 75-foot by 25-foot vegetable garden,” says Mazza. “Instead, I made a little chicken door in the fence around it, and in a two-week period, the birds cleaned out the whole plot, eating every last plant. Then I tilled the whole thing, and gave them access again. I’m really looking forward to the garden this year, to see if my experiment worked.”