By Samantha Healey
Sue Buchta possesses a gift that most chicken owners can only dream of.
Referred to as the “chicken whisperer” by her husband, Jim, Sue has the ability to identify the wants and needs of her tiny-feathered family.
“She can tell what’s going on with each one of her chickens,” Jim said. “She knows what they want. She knows when they are sick. She can tell you when they are going to lay an egg.”
The Buchtas, both retired, own a wide array of chickens, but this isn’t your ordinary chicken farm. Sue and her husband Jim own 25 hens, two roosters, four chicks and three alpacas on their 39 acres of land in Lick Creek.
Sue treats each and every chicken as her own kin. They each have names that touch on their physical traits or personal characteristics.
“Every chicken has a personality of their own,” Sue said. “They are just like people.”
With each personality comes a customized article of clothing to prevent loss of feathers during mating season.
“I made them hen aprons,” Sue said. “Each of my girls has their own in a different pattern.”
The Buchtas are no strangers to farm life and the care of animals. Jim grew up on a chicken farm in Libertyville, that was home to more than 250,000 chickens a year. Although Jim grew up on a large farm, corporate farming is significantly different than the local farming atmosphere.
“The larger corporate farmers may be cheaper, so to speak, but they also tend to have their own problems there,” said Terry Richardson, an office system specialist for the Animal Science Food and Nutrition Department at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. “A lot of people are resistant to that sort of thing because they feel that maybe the practices of corporate farms aren’t entirely ethical.”
In contrast to the practices of most large corporate farms, Sue does not believe in butchering her chickens. Jim and Sue would not eat their chickens just as one would not eat their dog. Sue’s chickens can produce up to 100 eggs a week. Rather than focusing on numbers, she focuses on the companionship they provide. Long after the chickens stop laying eggs, she keeps them around and provides them with a cozy coop. They are pets and, most importantly, they are family.
Furthermore, Sue’s chicken home is significantly different than larger farms. Old umbrellas stick out of sandboxes, built by Jim, to block the beating sun from the chickens. The chicken coop, also built by Jim, is two stories high. It has a built-in ladder that leads up to the chicken loft surrounded by windows to let light and air in. Sue says she likes the structure because it resembles an old one-room schoolhouse. The coop is like a tiny home complete with various chicken decorations hanging from the walls and blinds to keep the sunlight out but let the air in. Sue has also provided fans to cool the chickens off in the hot Southern Illinois days.
“Everyone laughs,” Sue said. “I call this Rocky’s Riviera, with the umbrellas and everything. They (the chickens) are pretty spoiled.”
Additionally, the chickens’ diet is comparable to a healthy human diet. Sue feeds them fresh vegetables from the garden including cucumbers, lettuce, corn and other nontraditional chicken feed.
“Sometimes they get noodles put in there,” Sue said. “I never mix the sauce so they can have the noodles.”
Sue quickly picked up Rocky the rooster, the only remaining chicken from her first attempt at chicken rearing, from his guarding point at the edge of the coop, and said, “If I hold him long enough, he will fall asleep in my arms; he’s very sweet.”
The Buchtas’ first encounter with raising chickens ended on a sour note. After their purchase of the minimum requirement of 25 chicks from a local Rural King, they were surprised to discover all of them were males.
“He (Rocky) was the only one out of that first 25 that she kept because she said he had a personality,” Jim said.
Even though giving the chickens the quality time they desire takes time away from Sue’s day, she said it is worth it because she gains happiness from taking care of her girls.
“When you really love something like this it doesn’t become work,” Sue said. “It becomes fun.”
Samantha Healey is a journalism major at the University of Missouri-Columbia who spends much of her free time with her father on their property in Buncombe.