I purchased my first batch of chicks on January 20, 2000, from Murray McMurray Hatchery, a wonderful purveyor of heritage poultry breeds based in Iowa. This for me was a promising way to launch the new millennium. The chicks arrived via U.S. Postal Service in a little cheeping box on February 21. I still thrill to get the phone call from a postal worker saying my chicks are ready for pick up.
We were living in Mesa, Arizona, a city founded by Mormons whose culture of practicality and self-sufficiency is reflected in city ordinances allowing homeowners to raise poultry and small livestock. We had a few neighbors who kept pigs, goats, and sheep. Backyard chickens are becoming more common across urban America. For example, since 2012 the Silicon Tour de Coop has sponsored a free, self-guided bike tour of chicken coops (and beehives and hoop houses) for a day in September around the Bay Area of San Francisco. The Food Policy Council of San Antonio sponsored its first chicken coop tour this spring. I am all for trends that inspire people to keep poultry and raise the food they eat. I’ve just always been grateful to have settled among Mormons who were more than a century ahead of this curve.
The purpose of this new endeavor was to have a handy source of eggs, but I quickly realized that hens, beyond producing daily orbs of protein, give their caretakers so much more in the realms of entertainment and unadulterated joy. Nothing calms me so thoroughly as looking out my kitchen window and watching hens grazing in the yard. And no object is so perfectly formed and so comforting to hold as an egg.
Chickens also teach their owners about the folly of attaching too much affection to what are essentially feathered dinosaurs, although I haven’t entirely learned that lesson. Chickens provide blunt instruction in dealing with mortality. We, by which I mean my husband, David, have euthanized chickens with fatal disease or birth defects, but more often we have lost chickens to predators—foxes, coyotes, hawks, or rogue dogs.
With the exception of a period in 2008, when we left Arizona and moved to our 80-acre farm in Minnesota, I have never been without a flock of chickens. Since moving to our place in the country, we have raised other poultry besides egg-layers. We often raise meat chickens (their lesson: never give names to creatures you are going to butcher). For two years, we raised heritage-breed turkeys. Yes, with the intent of eating them. They were a fabulously entertaining addition to our yard of free-range fowl. Great ambassadors, they would rush up our driveway gobbling and flapping their wings when we returned home or when friends dropped in to visit (some were a little panicked by the turkeys’ raucous greeting). Turkeys like music and mine would gather by a window if music was on the radio or I was practicing my accordion. One day they seemed particularly animated when they heard “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Turkeys are very hard not to get attached to and hence hard to dispatch.
One summer we had four runner ducks, which we acquired from Murray McMurray after seeing some the previous summer in the Poultry Barn at the Minnesota State Fair. We got them not just for their large, delicious eggs but because they are sleek, beautiful, and hilarious. On hindsight, it was a selfish indulgence on our part, because runner ducks are not acclimated to the sub-zero temperatures of northern Minnesota and they did not survive the winter. I have always felt guilty about the unintentional death sentence we inflicted on them and I sometimes imagine living somewhere like Oklahoma where having runner ducks would again be possible.
I make no apologies for the fact that I give names to my egg-laying hens. I named my first birds in Mesa for women in my sphere I admired. Almost twenty years on, I’ve forgotten what some of those names were, but I well remember Bertha and Lucille, who I named after the Aunt and Mother of my mentor in Texas Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr. When we moved to Minnesota, my friend and neighbor Chuck Neil gave me a gift certificate for five chicks to start up my new flock. I named these girls after famous women chefs and cookbook writers—Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy, Alice Waters, and Lisa Yockelson. Julia, as I will elaborate, went on to brief stardom on Minnesota Public Radio.
As an experiment, I decided not to name the hens in my current flock, acquired as chicks in 2015. I have found having nameless hens takes some of the fun and intimacy out of the experience. So I will likely start naming the chicks I purchased this summer to replenish my flock. One already has a name—bestowed by a six-year-old who was visiting our farm with his parents and siblings. Kids, as a rule, love chickens. We were in the poultry room looking at the chicks, one of which is not afraid to be picked up. So my little friend was holding her, and I said, “Let’s give her a name. What do you suggest?” “Brave,” he replied, without blinking an eye. So now I have the first named hen in my newest flock.
I don’t have the interest or patience to train my chickens (I have an amazing friend who does), but I do attempt to get my hens to habituate to me, so they come when I call and so they don’t mind being picked up. This training, such as it is, helps me manage my girls, for instance when I want to herd them into the coop when we are leaving the farm for the evening and won’t be back until after dark when predators are on the prowl. They come running when I call “Girlies, girlies, girlies!” in a loud falsetto voice while proffering a plastic scoop of hen scratch to reward their obedience. So I can say most of my hens tolerate me, but in every one of my flocks, there are one or two who simply stand out, who have an uncanny ability to relate to Homo sapiens, who possess an effervescent je ne sais quoi of hen-ness. Three of my feathered dinosaurs have been particularly dear to my heart. Lucille, Dixie, and Julia.
Lucille was a Rhode Island Red in my first flock. This American breed, developed in the late 19th century, is much beloved among poultry owners. The hens are a rich, silky mahogany color and are prolific egg layers. Individuals often have great personalities. Chickens, for good reason, tend to be skittish and on guard for any sign of predatory behavior. Lucille was confident, curious, and confiding. She would jump in my lap when I was sitting outdoors and nestle down contentedly. If David or I were stooping to pull a weed or pick up something on the ground, she would often jump on board and sidle up to a shoulder as we stood up. She occasionally flew up and perched on David’s head. In Mesa, with its almost year-round balmy temperatures, we kept our back door open. It was not unusual for a hen to wander into the house occasionally. This habit bothered us not at all. David grew up in a cotton-farming family in the Mississippi Delta and had lived in rural Liberia when he was in the Peace Corps and I had traveled a lot in rural Mexico—all cultures where chickens are part of community and home life.
One day I found an egg in our bed. Our bedroom was in the far corner of the house, so whoever laid the egg had walked in the back door, through the den and kitchen, and down a long hallway to lay this egg. We soon discovered it was Lucille. Finding a hen in our bed—as if that were the most normal of events—was one of the pinnacles of my life with chickens and made Lucille all the more endearing. We called her daily offerings Pillow Eggs. We indulged her habit for quite some time, and then for some vague reason decided to start closing the door to the backyard. Lucille was to the manner—and to our modest manor—born. One sad day she was killed along with several other hens by a rogue dog that jumped our back brick fence.
Dixie was a Black Austrolorps, a stunning hen with the glossy iridescent black plumage and ruby-red comb that are the hallmarks of this regal Australian breed. She did not get a name until her mishap, which was the result of my mismanagement. My Mesa flock never roosted at night in the beautiful coop David had built for them. Our large backyard was a semi-tropical expanse of fruit trees and clumping bamboo and our hens preferred this semi-wilderness to the coop. They roosted at night in our orange, lemon, and grapefruit trees and laid eggs in the shady root masses of these trees and other plants in the yard. I did not take a regular census of my dozen hens (a task that is easier when hens roost in a coop), and it was several days, perhaps a week, before I found one of my Austrolorps pinned by the leg between the slats of our compost bin in a far corner of the backyard. How she survived that length of time without water I will never know, but she was alive.
Her right leg was mangled. I felt terrible. I took her to our veterinary clinic, where as the owners of two dogs we were regular customers. One of the vets, Dr. Richard Funk, specialized in parrots and other pet birds, so he examined my Austrolorps and determined the leg could not be saved. Not a big surprise. The options were euthanize her or amputate. He assured me she would be fine on one leg. Driven by guilt and fascination with the possibility of having a one-legged chicken, I opted for amputation after consulting David about the cost and quickly getting his support. She went through surgery with flying colors and became quite the wonder-hen of the vet clinic. Dr. Funk kept a photo of her on a bulletin board in one of the exam rooms. I brought her home and named her Dixie.
As Dr. Funk predicted, mobility was not a problem—Dixie hopped around great on her pogo-stick leg—but her aberrant behavior immediately presented another dilemma. One unpleasant but evolutionarily hard-wired trait of chickens is that they do not tolerate freaks in their flock. My two-legged hens began to persecute her mercilessly, and it became immediately clear they were intent on killing her. So we segregated Dixie from her would-be assassins. We fixed up a private run for her—with a gate—in an ample space on one side of our house and for maximum security we put up fencing across the yard to contain the other hens. The DMZ was our patio space surrounding the swimming pool. Peace returned to the kingdom. When we were on the patio—which was often—we would let her out of her run to hang out with us. We spent many happy times with Dixie.
Then it all ended abruptly. David and I went on a trip—when and where I no longer recall—and one of his lab techs and her boyfriend stayed at our place to watch our dogs and chickens. David and my friends make regular fun of me because whenever we leave home I give our house and pet sitters explicit mandates about their responsibilities. I think I am being conscientious; they think I am being an obsessive worrywart. In this instance, I apparently was not worrywartish enough. I must have failed to sufficiently emphasize that Dixie had to be kept away from the other hens. It seems a gate was left opened. When we returned, Dixie was dead, a henocide. The house sitters were simultaneously remorseful and clueless. I was not vengeful but I was sad. I do not regret the decision at the time to amputate her mangled leg nor the cost to have it done. I doubt I would make the same decision now. The bigger cost, which I care not to pay again, was the emotional energy I spent on a one-legged chicken.
Julia, one of five chef-named hens gifted to me as chicks by my friend Chuck in 2009, was a Black Star, a breed that can be sexed at hatching by its color. This is a very useful trait to assure a poultry owner that she is getting hens and not an unwanted rooster. (Roosters, besides the fact they don’t lay eggs, are often ornery and frequently banned by ordinances in towns and cities.) Sexing chicks, a service that hatcheries like Murray McMurray offer, is not a perfect science, and the accidental rooster can turn up in a purchase of chicks sexed as females. David dispatched one accidental and vicious rooster. Another, named after my cousin Becky until we realized she was a rooster, went to live with friends who lived in the country. Her name became Beckett. I have a strong suspicion that Brave, in my current chick flock, is an accidental rooster, a fact that should be borne out in a few more weeks. Fortunately, the friend who takes care of my hens in the winter when we are in Mexico wants a rooster in her rural flock.
Black Star hens are good layers and quite beautiful—bronzy black with golden feathers on the breast and hackles—and Julia possessed all the joie de vivre of her namesake. She genuinely liked being picked up and carried around in the crook of my arm. One summer in the lead-up to the fall member pledge drive for Minnesota Public Radio, a young friend of ours who is an MPR sound engineer tasked with recording testimonials, asked if David and I would be willing participants. I agreed with the stipulation that my chickens had to be part of my gig. Our friend was game.
My hens in fact listened to Morning Edition quite regularly as it wafted out the kitchen window to the nearby bed of ferns where they often gathered. So it was only fitting that they should make a “pitch” for MPR. Our friend, an excellent audio editor, taped several minutes of my spiel, a chorus of cackling for background, and a segment when I was holding Julia and talking to her and she was clucking back to me. The segment, condensed to less than 30 seconds, was hilarious. It closed with my saying, “Julia, you love MPR don’t you?” “Cluck, cluck,” she replied affirmatively.