Around 7:20 each morning in the yard behind ours, a very vocal hen lays an egg. This hen’s egg-laying aria (a reenactment here) is followed by irritable complaining about the state of things, and then, since I can’t see her, what I can only assume is some active scratching and feeding. Her sisters lay eggs much later in the morning, usually together, making their own duet. To be fair, if I had to expel an object that size every day, I’d have a thing or two to say about it, too.
I’m comforted by these new birds, and by how many folks in our neighborhood have chickens. For now, listening from my yard is as close as I’m going to get to owning birds myself. We’re renting a house. Zora is allowed here, but nothing else. The lease agreement expressly forbids chickens, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, mice, and any sort of reptile. This list is followed by two exclamation points, which seems like a clause written for a bygone willful renter!! Also in the lease is language about how I won’t do any yard maintenance, and that feels almost weirder than no chicken wrangling.
Hopefully, this limboed state of alert is temporary !!
Before we knew we were moving, we’d gotten new chicks, Ameraucana babies – Artemis and Athena, named by Riley. I’d gotten them so we could diversify the flock and have green-blue eggs. We brought them home in March, a cold one this year. Because I was having problems moderating the temperature in their cage in the garage, the goddesses lived inside.
Chickens inside your house is a disgusting business. Sure, Artemis and Athena were cute. Sure, it was entertaining and unnerving watching the dog drool with longing, hanging her head over the side of the galvanized tub, quivering. Sure, waking to the sounds of those little peeps from the breakfast nook (yes, they were near the kitchen, which is really, really disgusting), drinking coffee while listening to them practice being big birds wasn’t a bad way to start the day.
Sure. They were cute and we held them and talked baby talk to them and told them how great their lives on our farm would be. But chickens are filthy. About week three the stink kicked in. They shat in their food, in their water, on each other. They scratched and made dust and filled their water dish with fecaled shavings. Despite our efforts to keep the place clean, the dust from their quarters filtered into the house, as did the relentless scratching sound. Artemis and Athena got older and smellier and the world outside got warmer, so we moved them to the garage to finish being babies before we introduced them to the big girls.
Giving the goddesses away was one of the first things we did when we decided to move. They were high maintenance, they didn’t lay eggs and wouldn’t for several months. I wasn’t so attached I was sentimental yet, so they went to live a few streets over with some friends of ours who’d just started their own chicken operation and had room for a few more.
The big girls – Ginger, Marianne, and Rainer (Mrs. Howell was a man. We swapped her for Rainier)—were a different story. My first bird children, I’d raised them up from babies, trained them to come when I whistled the opening bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, benefitted from years of delicious eggs.
Also, I couldn’t get out of my head a scene like something from the Beverly Hillbillies, our truck piled high and the chickens in a wire cage on top of a jalopied heap, their feathers trailing in the wind behind us.
Also, there was that business of the no pets !! in our lease agreement.
It was harder than it would seem to find homes for them, what with their “advanced” age. No one wanted new-to-them chickens who were probably going to stop laying within the year, even if they were gorgeous and tame and cleverly named. In the end, Riley’s soccer coach Brett, who owns land and has twenty or so chickens already, agreed to take them.
We drove the girls out to Brett’s property a few weeks before we left. He was ready for us, a separate cage set up near the main coop.
“I’ll toss them in tonight with the rest of the girls,” he said. “Works every time. They’ll wake up tomorrow and the others will be like, ‘Hey. How’s it going?’ and that will be that.”
Inside a huge chicken run, his birds – five or six breeds altogether—were gathered around cantaloupe and watermelon halves, clucking and gorging themselves. Brett had built the coop, his own design, also large and set up so his kids could easily gather eggs and clean it. The place was like Club Med for chickens.
His four-year-old daughter Shey led me over to the chicken graveyard under a stand of cedars. “This is our pet cemetery,” she said. “Rosy the cat is here, too.” Several rocks brightly painted were scattered on top of the needles there. “Also Blacky, Whitey, and Socks.”
“Cats?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Hamsters.”
She gave me a tour through each stone and what was buried under it, and then skipped off to play with Riley on the tire swing.
We have a pet graveyard at our house where we’d buried a gecko, some goldfish, a dead wren we found on the deck, and a frog Riley found in the mailbox that she petted too much. They’re buried there for closure’s sake, because it mattered to our kids, and because we couldn’t eat any of them.
But chickens are different, I think. Their presence in our lives had been about more than love and nurturing. Having them was symbiotic – I did a good job and they did too. Our house wasn’t a chicken pleasure cruise. When the girls stopped laying, our plan was to harvest them and make soup stock, a reminder for our whole family about not wasting resources and knowing how to do things for ourselves.
Still, I was charmed by Brett’s kids, four girls, who were fully involved in caring for their animals. He never gathered eggs, the two younger ones did that. His elder two did all the feeding and cleaning the coop. The birds also came out to “play.” They sometimes wore doll clothes and went to the front of the property on leashes. Another look inside the coop revealed a chicken-sized rocking chair, filthy with chicken poop, and a window with gingham curtains.
When I asked Brett about it, he shrugged and said, “It’s more a petting zoo than a farm.” He rubbed at his beard and looked over at the girls swinging. “There’s a lot of…uh…estrogen out here. ”
For Brett’s family, I guess that graveyard makes sense. My bird girls will have a nice retirement at his estrogen ranch before they join the others under the cedars. No soup pot for them.
Birdless for now, I guess it makes sense to scratch off the chicken wrangling headline on this blog. I’ll have to live vicariously through my neighbors’ birds and the yards they tend themselves.
Hopefully, it’s only for a little while. !!