I first saw them one day after work. Five chickens – three speckled black, two honey-red – right there under my bird feeder, cleaning up the corn the sparrows and chickadees had knocked to the ground. Since no joy is as good as a shared joy, I ran into the house shouting, “Chickens! Outside!” But my husband had already seen them, and wasn’t quite as ecstatic as I about this unexpected visitation. He’d grown up on a farm, and had to clean up his Aunt Irene’s overlarge flock.
For years, I’ve wanted to raise a few chickens in my own back yard, especially when Martha Stewart’s magazine ran yet another feature on her heirloom hens and their pastel eggs. When I learned that a young member of our church was installing a small coop in the back yard of her new house, I couldn’t wait to go visit. They were so sweet, so serious, pecking and scratching and going about their business, not emotionally needy like some pets I can name.
When she said one had been killed by her neighbor’s dog, I felt awful. So did the neighbor, she said, who had come to her with tears in his eyes. Because, really, what’s not to love about chickens?
Let me hasten to say I believe those factory chicken farms, where they’re kept in cages so small they can’t even turn around once in their entire short lives, are hideous. I buy only cage-free eggs, even if they cost three times the regular ones. I’ve learned, though, that even at a farmers’ market, you need to ask questions. Some supposed “cage-free” hens are given a small bit of access to grass and sunshine that they never take advantage of. After all, “cage-free” is not the same as “free-range.”
So, as I was saying, I’ve been pestering my long-suffering husband with my desire to have just a few chickens of our own. I’m not sure how legal this is, but the unspoken rule seems to be that if they don’t bother the neighbors, they’re fine. There was a flock in our neighborhood years ago that was unseen but not unheard, because it included a rooster. Bob was not fond of this rooster, who started crowing around four in the morning. But me? Cracked me up every time. The family must have flown the coop, because Foghorn Leghorn no longer wakes us.
Instead, we are visited by this quietly clucking brood of hens. It’s funny to see the pecking order among the species around our house. When the hens are here, the birds scatter to the trees. Their size must be intimidating. My cat, Leo, weighs much more than a hen, but with all those feathers, the poultry look bigger than the crows whose cries I find much more annoying than any rooster’s. Try as I might, though, I could not get Leo to notice them. Let’s face it – Leo doesn’t seem able to comprehend that any animal besides himself actually exists.
So, back to my plan. Never having raised any kind of livestock before, I’ll admit to knowing next to nothing about raising chickens. But I’ve been at Theisen’s when the little yellow chicks are for sale, stumbling around in their heated pens, chirping away. Is that cute, or what? And I’ve seen some beautiful coops for sale there, too. I figure they need food and water, as well as a chance to walk around cleaning up bugs in the yard.
When I lived in Colorado, we had a summer plagued with grasshoppers. Rumor had it they were eating clothes off the line and screens off the windows (for a little roughage?). My friend Mary, who lived in town, borrowed two turkeys from a friend on a farm. Within days, she said, all the grasshoppers in her yard were gone. But then a neighbor told the authorities, and the turkeys had to go.
I say, if they eat insects, hens are a good thing to have in the yard, even if you have to build a big fenced area to keep them safe. I know cleaning up after them isn’t pleasant, but I’m only talking about five. I’m not talking a real farm, with cows and pigs, but a hobby farm – you know, a little place with chickens, goats, a llama or two. Not for the meat, though I’m not a vegetarian. I just don’t want to eat anything I might have given a name to. I get so excited seeing chickens, I can only imagine how joyful I’d be to find a freshly laid egg in my yard. I don’t know if they lay in grass, but finders, keepers, if they do.
This is, after all, our heritage. I’m a born and bred Iowan, and my mother’s family, at least, came from farms in Maquoketa. My mom told me that the farm we used to see falling down next to Highway 61, at the main exit into town, was her aunt and uncle’s old place. My great-aunt Minnie would have let me keep chickens.
Who knows why this kinship with other species arises? I got so excited the first time I saw the pelicans in Dubuque, on their way to their summer home on the Great Lakes, I was beside myself, laughing out loud with delight. I feel the same way when I hear the autumn geese going south, honking their loud goodbyes. Anything that takes you out of yourself like that is good and consoling. Geese and herons in the sky, chickens in the yard. Anything with feathers makes my day.