I can’t image life without chickens. Which is an odd thing for me to say because chickens and I aren’t exactly old friends. These animals came into my life for the first time just a few years ago, but ever since the first flock scratched outside my kitchen window — it felt like they’ve always been here. Maybe in a way they have? Not physically of course, but in this odd form of our collective American nostalgia.
You know what I mean, we see chickens everywhere. On toasters and T-shirts. On oven mitts and television programs. These yardbirds have not shied away from modern culture. Which is exactly why it both disturbs and amazes me that you can show a fourth-grade classroom a picture of a hen and they’ll all know exactly what it is. But if you ask how many of them actually have held one, or have a coop at home, the hands drop.
Why? These aren’t jungle cats! You expect a group of kids to know what a tiger is and never had held one — but chickens are the great backyard bird of everyman. One of the few kinds of livestock nearly anyone can keep cheaply and easily. So why don’t more back yards have small coops behind them? A flock of layers isn’t exactly a herd of shorthorns. Those birds take up barely any space at all, and I bet if you checked your county’s zoning codes you’ll find even in your suburb or city limits small laying flocks are allowed (roosters, for good reason, aren’t.) Heck, I bet if you listened closely, you might hear some when you walk the dog this afternoon.
As for me, ever since I collected that first egg from my own coop I was hooked. I was hooked because chickens give us so much, yet require so little. If you have ever considered a small flock of your own, stop putting it off. Seriously, these animals are low maintenance, fun, and easy for neighbors to watch when you go on vacation. All they need from us is a few scoops of feed, a fresh source of water, and some dry hay to nest in and they’re golden. That’s honestly the whole drill. If you can commit to standing in line at the same coffee shop every morning before work, you can commit to chickens. And it’s well worth it, son. From our happy birds we get these amazing eggs. Eggs that enhance everything from garden veggie quiches to butter-battered French toast. Your kitchen will sing. So will a little bit of your rural heart. It’s beating deep in there even if you work in Brooklyn (by the way New Yorkers, hens are allowed in your city) So get some hens!
There was a weird hole in time that I didn’t have chickens. It was when I was moving to Vermont from Idaho. I had to move 3,000 miles away and couldn’t bring my chickens with me. My Rocky mountain flock went home to friends and local homesteaders, so they were fine. I wasn’t.
When I arrived at my new destination in Vermont the house seemed dead without a flock of birds. Well, not dead. Comatose. I had learned to accept a clucking hen, a rooster’s crow, or a young pullet running across the driveway as the arteries of my homestead. They’d pump around the yard giving life and character to the rented freehold. Without them the farm felt lifeless, unplugged, and in need of some serious resuscitation. It took a few months until the new chicks arrived (along with a duck, turkey and some geese) but just having their brooder box in the bathroom was like one of those respirators used to revive a heart attack victim. They were an emotional shock and relief at the same time. As they milled about under the heat lamp near the sink I could almost hear “CLEAR!” and then feel the farm house’s heart start up again.
Besides the egg or stew pot, there’s another simple gift those birds give us. The simple homeland security of knowing you have a constant source of protein in the back yard. Proof positive that you’re working hard to be independent from outside food sources. There’s also the endearing responsibility and the benevolent feelings of caring for simple beings that repay us everyday. To scatter seed, repair a fence, or reline a nest box and then collect a basket of fresh eggs shows us that our work is appreciated. When was the last time you felt like that at the office?
So that’s my homage to the good hen. Birds that cost so little, require minimal care, and yet still manage to give so much. They’re both avatars of rural living and a constant form of entertainment. I guess I could survive without chickens. But when something is so logical and fun, why would I? Why should you?
Jenna Woginrich is the author of the forthcoming book, Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, from Storey Publishing. Visit her Web site at coldantlerfarm.blogspot.com.