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  • Writer's pictureMiriam Diaz-Gilbert

My Life with Hens and What They Have Taught Me

Updated: Apr 9

Faith and Gracie foraging and rustling among the autumn leaves.

In March 2023, my husband Jon and I bought our first pair of hens from a local farm. Each hen cost thirty dollars. It was a beautiful sunny early spring day. Before I could have backyard hens, my town required me to enroll in a twenty-five dollar virtual course, take the test to become certified, and pay a one-time permit fee of ten dollars.

I became familiar with the various types of hens and chickens, and the distinction between a hen and a chicken. A chicken is bred to produce more chickens and a hen lays eggs. I wanted two free-range, egg-laying hens. I can't have chemicals of any kind in foods, including eggs with antibiotics. (You can read more about my chemicals-free diet and how I healed my eosinophilic esophagitis here).

Jon and I picked two sex-link hens (hybrid hens), the only kind of hens left to buy at the farm. I named one Faith and the other Hope, and could soon tell them apart. Hope is a bit shy. Her crest is smaller and her neck a bit longer. Faith is a bit bigger, has a bigger crest and is more curious. But both are sweet and gentle. They were eighteen months old and had already been laying eggs.

Hope & Faith know where their food & snacks are stored. I can’t hide anything from them..

On the way home with Faith and Hope in a cardboard box, we stopped at the Tractor Supply Store to purchase electrolytes in powder form to sprinkle in their water, a water jar, a feeder, a big bag of protein food pellets, a big bag of mealworms, and a bale of straw.

They had a new home in our backyard—a brand new henhouse. The beautiful henhouse and coop was my Christmas gift from my children and children-in-law. Jon added the run.

Faith and Hope's new home on the day we brought them home in March 2023.

Sadly, we lost Hope in early August. When she became weak and was not laying eggs. I took her to the vet. After a few visits and prescribed medications, she improved a little and then became weak again. One day she collapsed. I rushed her to the vet. Hope suffered from egg-yolk peritonitis, not uncommon in egg-laying hens. She was euthanized. We were heartbroken but found solace knowing that she is buried next to our canines Muffy, Fluffy, Murray, and Chance in the woods of our backyard.

After Hope died, we went back to the farm and bought a five-month old Rhode Island Red. I named her Gracie. After Gracie spent five days of quarantine in a cage we found on a neighbor's curbside trash, she and Faith became new companions and shared the henhouse.

Elegant Gracie

Growing up, I spent the summers of my childhood and young adult years on the farms of my relatives in Puerto Rico. I helped to feed a lot of hens and chickens. I grew up in Connecticut with wonderful rescued dogs. My children grew up with more rescued and adopted canines. I never imagined I would become a hen lady. But wonderful things happen when you retire.

Faith, Hope, and Gracie have given me so much joy, and have taught me so much. I love to tend to them. I love spending time with them. They are essentially toddlers that require around-the-clock care.

Caring for hens means:

Getting up at sunrise to open the coop. Sunrise is determined by the seasons and the time change, and will range from 6 am to 7 am in the spring and summer, and from 7 am to 8 am in the fall and winter.

Feeding and keeping them hydrated. We feed them mealworms when we open up the coop at sunrise. At 9 am, I feed them a good breakfast of their protein pellets and shredded squash and carrots. At lunch time, they get flock block and grain scratch. For a snack, they get mealworms and oat flakes. For dinner, they get the same meal they get at breakfast. In the summertime, they also enjoy pecking at cold and frozen watermelon and cantaloupe pieces. They enjoy scooping up watermelon and cantaloupe seeds with their beaks. They also enjoy blueberries. I mix electrolytes powder in their fresh water every day. In the cold weather, I heat their breakfast and dinner. They love warm food in the winter.

Enjoying cabbage and admiring themselves in the mirror

Keeping them entertained, especially in their henhouse during the winter. Faith and Gracie each have a mirror in the run. They love seeing their reflection and pecking at the mirror. We also hang cabbage in their run to peck and eat.

Letting them forage and letting them dust themselves in sand/dirt while you keep your eyes out for hawks that might be circling above. Hens love to dig for worms, bugs, and insects, and to eat grass. They love to dust themselves in the dirt. In hot weather, the dust baths keep them cool as they peck, scoop with their beaks, and snuggle in the ditch they create. Dust bathing is how they clean their feathers, groom themselves, and remove parasites from their skin and feathers. They also love to rustle in leaves as they forage.

Faith enjoying her dust bath in the corner of the vegetable garden.

Protecting them from the weather in the summer heat and in winter cold. Last summer, I covered the run with a white towel to shade the run from the sun. Maintain their water jars with ice and electrolytes. To prepare for the winter, winterize their henhouse and run. We wrapped the henhouse and the run with clear plastic drop cloths I purchased for $2.98 at Home Depot. To protect them from winter snow and rain storms, we repurposed an old canopy tent and repurposed heavy white plastic sheeting we had in our shed. In warm weather, keep the run, coop, and nest boxes cool with straw; in cold weather, replace the straw with hay.

Faith and Gracie's winter home

Having good, caring, and reliable hen-sitters when you are away, even for a day. We are fortunate to have a pre-teen and his teen siblings care for our hens when we are away. Jon and I trained them and had them spend time with the hens. We pay the hen-sitters well and they get to keep the eggs, which they enjoy. We are also fortunate that their mother is a nurse. She was able to give Hope her medication.

Providing veterinary care when they stop laying eggs and are not themselves. We never anticipated any of our hens getting sick, but when Hope was not herself, I called a veterinarian. Hope was lethargic, her eyes were closed, she was losing weight, and she was laying shell-less eggs. These are signs of low calcium and dehydration. I fed her crushed egg shells, a good source of calcium from their own eggs and made sure she drank water and electrolytes. We were fortunate to find veterinarians that care for small and large animals.

Hope was prescribed liquid Calcium Gluconate dropped in her beak with dispensing syringes to increase her calcium level to help her produce eggs. She was prescribed Panacur to treat parasites, along with Meloxicam, a NSAID for inflammation, and Amoxicillin. I administered them with a dispensing syringe and with my hand. I hand-fed her and hydrated her as I held her on my lap and opened her beak. As a precaution, Faith was also treated for parasites and given Amoxicillin. Her labs came back negative. Any eggs that they laid had to be discarded because of the antibiotic.

Hope waiting for the vet

We were heartbroken when Hope collapsed three weeks later and was euthanized. When she realized that Hope was no longer her companion, Faith stopped laying eggs for a while. She was grieving. Two weeks later after Faith tested negative for parasites, we got Gracie. Faith and Gracie became instant friends and happy hens.

Our hens teach us so much and make us laugh. They have unique personalities. They are sassy, quiet, bossy, feisty, gentle, happy, patient, and curious. They are calming. They have likes and dislikes. Even though hens can tolerate very cold weather to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, Faith and Gracie don't like to forage when it's cold and windy. Faith, now almost two and a half, and Gracie, ten months old, are suspicious of snow. But I was happy to see Gracie fly out to explore snow for the first time.

They love snacks. They love sunshine. They love their routine. They are sweet. They are silly. They love to run to our feral cats' shiny aluminum food bowls and peck at them loudly as they eat any leftovers while seeing their reflection in the bowls. And they love us and we love them. They rule! My writing, running, baking, and painting revolve around their feeding and foraging and exploring schedule.

They are helpful and cooperative. Their eggs are great. Their daily poop will make great compost for our vegetable garden. And come sunset every night, they march themselves up the ramp to their coop for sleep and more pooping (hens poop in their sleep) overnight until sunrise. During the winter, their poop helps to warm the bedding (hay) in the coop where they sleep with the coop door closed, and throughout the henhouse during the day to keep their feet warm. Their feathers also keep them warm. To prevent frostbite on their crest, I apply coconut oil on them.

A basket of eggs and Faith enjoying the view from the nest box while I clean the coop.

If you are retired or don't work outside the home, you might want to consider having a couple of backyard hens. Check out your city/town's ordinance. My town does not allow roosters. See if you need to be certified or need a permit.

Be prepared to spend money to feed and care for them. Hens and chickens cost more than having dogs and cats. Keep reading and learning about hens and chickens.

Be prepared to clean out the nest, coop, and run, and to replenish and replace hay and straw daily. It's great physical exercise. I devote 3 - 5 hours a day to them. Jon helps me out as needed, and opens up the coop at sunrise.

Me with Gracie and Faith, and Jon with Hope. We miss her.

I can't imagine my life without them. They give me so much joy. And our feral cats Mother and Oreo love them too. They hang out together. When Gracie and Faith dust themselves, Mother and Oreo do the same.

Gracie, Faith, and Mother. We rescued her and her litter of three almost seven years ago.

We all agree — Life is better with hens.

Faith and Gracie outside the kitchen sliding door letting me know it's a beautiful day and that they want their afternoon snack.


I am also the author of Come What May, I Want to Run: A Memoir of the Saving Grace of Ultrarunning in Overwhelming Times. Read excerpts, praise, and reviews, and order the book here from from the publisher, Amazon, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble.


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