DURHAM — Sarah Siegel had been dealing with Lyme disease for a while. But when she found the disease’s telltale bull’s-eye rash on her then-3-year-old daughter, she decided the ticks had to go.
“It was terrifying. I just felt so helpless and hopeless. It just felt so out of control,” Siegel said. “You do so much to try protect your kids, so you don’t expect it in your backyard, that they can contract something that could affect them for the rest of their lives.”
She considered pesticides to kill the ticks, but spraying was costly and she didn’t like the idea of using poisons on the same grass where her three children played and near the garden where she grew their food.
So Siegel went in a different direction. She got chickens to eat the bugs.
One year later, the family of five rarely sees ticks on themselves or their pets anymore, despite living on two acres covered in grass, brush and trees. Siegel feels safe letting her kids run around the yard barefoot.
“I was afraid to let the kids out before,” she said. “This year it’s been a totally different thing.”
The family started with six chickens. It now has 23.
The birds are beloved in the Siegel household not only for their tick-eating abilities but also as sort-of pets.
“I just got a little obsessed with chickens,” Siegel said with a laugh. “I had no idea that chickens were as capable of feeling joy and pleasure.
“They get out there and if it’s sunny they put their wings out in this particular way and their feathers up in the sun — they love to sunbathe. And they do these ecstatic dust baths, shooting dirt up under their feathers. They’re just so happy.”
Siegel was diagnosed with Lyme disease about two years ago. She has no idea where or when she got the tick-borne illness, but she had been dealing with the symptoms — chronic pain, numbness, insomnia, fatigue, anxiety and cognitive problems — for a while.
Six months of antibiotics and other medication helped, but treatment didn’t completely alleviate her symptoms. It didn’t help that her property seemed to be infested with ticks and she was continually getting bitten anew.
“I was coming in and the kids were coming in with ticks on them. The cat, even with the flea and tick medication, was covered. Just covered,” Siegel said. “The dog was covered. Not quite like the cat, but he had them, too. It was bad.”
Then her daughter Emma developed a Lyme rash, and Siegel knew things had to change.
She had always been interested in getting free-range chickens, but her husband was uncertain. The family already had three kids, two guinea pigs, a cat and a dog, and at one point had rescued a trio of rabbits. That seemed like enough lives to care for. But when Siegel happened to learn that chickens could eat ticks, he was persuaded.
The family didn’t notice much of a difference in the tick population at first. Then, this spring, Siegel realized she was no longer picking ticks off the cat and dog. She was no longer finding them all over herself or her kids — Rylan, 12, Max, 8, and Emma, 4 — during their daily tick checks.
“This year it’s been a totally different thing,” Siegel said. “I mean, I’m still scared, but it’s much more manageable. We’ll go outside and as far as I see, we’re not being bombarded with ticks.”
That is not to say chickens are easy. The family has had to deal with a rooster bully, feather-pulling hens and chicken poop on the porch.
“That’s the thing that drives me nuts, but I hose it off and I just figure chicken poop on the porch or Lyme,” Siegel said. “I’d take the chicken poop on the porch many times over.”
The kids have become fans of the birds, too. Emma loves to look at a children’s book that features pictures of chickens that look a lot like hers. Rylan’s favorite chicken is Blueberry, a plump, golden bird that was part of the family’s initial six-bird flock. Max likes watching them peck around the yard.
“I like them, they’re funny,” Max said. “When they’re looking at something, they always tilt their heads so they see better.”
Siegel said she would not go back to life without them.
“I would so recommend this,” she said.
Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.