I got chickens last spring, my first foray in many years into pets that live outside. We’ve had a series of critters my kids have chosen, none of which we have now: frogs, fish, geckos, hermit crabs, and guinea pigs (whom I sent to “live in the country” when it became my job and not my daughter’s to take care of them). I vaguely remember having hens when I was a kid. I was in charge of mowing our massive lawn, and one of my younger sisters raised our brood from chicks. She doesn’t remember it at all fondly. They’d chase her around the coop and peck her legs when she went in to feed them. In her haste to escape, she’d often drop the eggs and come back to house with nothing. One day our dog Freddie killed them when someone left the coop door open. We found our whole flock later that evening, scattered about in our back field with their necks broken. That was the end of that. My sister was delighted and switched to cleaning bathrooms.
The kids thought it was funny I was choosing our next pets. Hours were spent discussing breeds, considering the coop and where it should live in the yard, and whether our dog Zora would create a terrible massacre before we could train her to co-exist with her new pals. As is his way, my husband John entertained my scheme, listened to some of the details, and reminded me that he had all the hobbies he’d like to have.
“I’m glad you’re excited,” John said. “It’s fun to watch. This sounds like less mountain biking for me, sooooo…better not count me in.” His standard response.
I’m not that great a carpenter (read: I have no spatial awareness and am dangerous with power tools), so I found a guy in a neighboring town who builds coops. In a sunny corner in the yard I put together the one I’d chosen. From the feed store I got three Barred Plymouth Rock chicks and set them up in a bin with a growlight in the garage. So began my chicken mothering.
We were all smitten (even John; he always comes around). Several times a day, we checked on them, picked them up, and sang to them while Zora stood quivering and sniffing, drooling through the old screen window we’d put over the top of their box. The kids were obsessed with reruns of Gilligan’s Island. We named our girls Marianne, Ginger and Mrs. Howell.
When they were ready, I let them run around the back yard each day. They learned to come when I whistled, eat out of my daughter’s hand, and dig for worms in the garden. Early on, they imprinted me as their mama. I loved how they followed me, running in that hilarious, wingless way chickens do, all feet and swaying necks. With a husband who’s grown weary of my endless projects (he says I have project A.D.H.D.), and one teen boy in the house who thinks I’m the village idiot half the time and spends the other half asking me why girls are so lame, it felt good to have creatures so thrilled about my existence. These chickens wanted to be in my pocket. It was sweet. Still, despite my chicken love, I was impatient. These girls were meant to be working pets. Free range poopers and layers who would make miracles happen in my garden. I couldn’t wait for them to be old enough to lay eggs.
We have two back entrances to our house, both of which have a sliding glass door. The birds spent enough time chasing after me to see that I’d disappear past these doors and be gone. Summer teenagers by this time, my disappearance was distressing to them. Also they were spoiled, receiving kitchen scraps anytime someone came outside. They began to lurk just outside the sliders, running back and forth, shitting up a storm and pecking at the glass. Calling to me.
At first I was tickled. Then the kids and their friends would step in chicken poop and track it in. Or we’d forget to spray off the patio and later find truffles of chicken shit baked onto the stones. This was putting a serious damper on the free range thing. John was cheesed; to his credit he didn’t say anything and just went biking. I did my best to take my medicine, remind myself I’d chosen this hobby, and be good about cleaning up after them.
Then autumn and the rains came. One of our girls, Mrs. Howell, was decidedly the group’s alpha and much bigger than the other two. She was the boss, and being the boss meant you squatted on the patio out of the rain, pecking at the glass, laying big chicken shits and terrorizing the kids for kitchen scraps. It was too rainy to do much mountain biking. “You have to do something,” John said. The girls needed to be contained. They needed more space. I sweet-talked my family into helping me build (read: I held the tools) a covered chicken run, very chic and inviting, along the side yard. We’d allow them out if we were in the yard working so we could monitor them. No more running the shit gauntlet on the patio. Problem solved.
I waited for them to lay eggs, listening every day for tell-tale signs inside the coop. In the beginning, the sound of a young hen laying eggs is pretty dramatic. She wants everyone to know about it. Our girls were making all the noises, but with no product. Mrs. Howell was particularly vocal, her pre-pubescent call something between that egg-laying noise, a leaf blower and a honking goose. I couldn’t understand what the hold up was.
Our neighbors down the street have chickens. All summer and most of the fall I’d heard their rooster each morning, which I personally found charming, though I wondered how many other neighbors had complained. Because we live within town limits, we’re only allowed to have hens. One day it was quiet. I caught Maggie in her front yard digging up her grass to put in blueberry bushes.
“What happened to your rooster?”
“Um. That wasn’t a rooster.”
I was confused. I couldn’t figure out why she was lying. It really had been a rooster. Every day. At dawn. And sometimes in the night.
“She was an old hen who didn’t lay anymore and thought she was a rooster. She’s in the freezer.”
Clearly, Mrs. Howell was on the same trajectory, only she’d never gone through years of egg-laying. I’d gotten a dud, a hen who thought she was a rooster. Except she was starting to look like a rooster, too. She was beautiful and she knew it. My friends with chickens told me I was just being dramatic.
“You hardly ever get a rooster from the feed store,” they said. “They’re so good at sexing chicks now. Don’t be so impatient.”
I waited. I’m very bad at waiting.
By late fall, Mrs. Howell was spending all her time calling out to the world. Bullying Marianne and Ginger. Cock-a-doodle-dooing at all hours. Not just at dawn, though there was plenty of that. One night just before Halloween, she was up all night crying out to the moon on the half hour about her gorgeous self.
John rolled over, wide awake, and said to me. “THAT is a man. You have to get rid of it.
“What if we keep her and use her to have chicks?”
“Jesus. No more pets. You started this, now you have to deal with it before the neighbors get pissed.”
“But Maggie had a rooster all summer and no one complained.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Make some soup.”
He was right. I had to do something, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her. Him. She was too impressive a specimen. Plus, I’d raised her up from that fragile youth, and she’d survived Zora, who by this time had gotten into trouble enough times over the chickens that she was over it. They could be out in the yard with her and she’d just lie down and watch them scratch for bugs.
My friend Jan had fifty chickens in the country, so I arranged with her to exchange Mrs. Howell for one of her laying hens. John and I loaded Mrs. Howell up in the old guinea pig cage (the last time I’d used it had been to send those rodents off into the wilderness). It wasn’t quite tall enough and she had to squat, feathers sticking up through the bars. She was very indignant and managed to shit several times in the half hour drive and smear it around the cage.
At Jan’s, we released her into one of the runs alone. It was muddy. It was raining. It was roofless. Mrs. Howell stood there, shifting her bird feet to keep them out of the mud, blinking at us indignantly. “He’s such a city slicker,” Jan said. “Doesn’t want to get dirty. You didn’t keep that thing inside, did you?”
“Well. Not really.” I thought about the gravel and sand we’d put in our run to make it easier to clean, to keep the mud down, to exfoliate their feet. I kept all that to myself.
We brought our new hen, Rainier, home and she fit right in. She’d just molted. Her bottom was bald and red, her feathers matted and muddy. She’d never been outside a fenced run before, so we had a good time watching her taste freedom in the grass. She’s not quite as smart as the others, but she’s sweeter in temperament. Marianne and Ginger have taught her how to break into the veggie garden and get the good stuff. She taught them how to lay eggs, which they all did within four days of Rainier’s arrival and have continued to do like champs ever since, though somehow, Rainier’s eggs are twice the size even though she’s no bigger than the girls.
Blessedly, Rainier doesn’t much care about being on the patio. There aren’t any good worms there. But while Marianne and Ginger have decided I’m only good for snacks, Rainier follows me wherever I go in the yard, sometimes running to keep up. She’ll stand close enough so that her feathers rub along my leg, which I accept to be the chicken version of a cuddle. Her tiny head canted to one side, she blinks up at me and emits a throaty chicken purr. I know it’s crazy, but that bird wants to tell me something. Something heartfelt and deep.
The kind of thing a kid can only tell its mother.