Photo: Nina LalliThree months ago, I drove to a farm, bought six young lady chickens for $72, and brought them home to Brooklyn so I could call my garden a farm. And boy have I learned about hen-having! Here are some lessons for people approximately three months behind me:
Myth: Chickens are a ton of work
After my boyfriend and I had made our selections at the farm — two each of three different chicken breeds — and they’d been packed up in a box and paid for, we lingered, listening to the questions another couple was asking in case we forgot anything. A friend recently told me he and his wife tried to talk the hospital into a third night after their healthy baby was born because they were so afraid of going home and killing him. This was kind of like that, but a lot less important.
Farmer Doreen, who wore cool jeans and boots, was the perfect person to be asking, because all her suggestions came with nonchalant assurances that we would be fine. They were:
- Give them food and clean water every day.
- They don’t like being wet.
- They will eat anything.
- Clean out their coop and run often — or not that often.
- They need enough soil to peck at all day long.
- Hold them upside down by their feet if you have to pick them up. They will calm the hell down once the blood flows to their heads.
- They want to sit on something padded, but it doesn’t really matter what.
- They will flip over their food and water bowls if it’s at all possible. Make it impossible.
- You can’t hard-boil a super fresh egg because the shell will stick to the white, making peeling impossible. Leave it out overnight before boiling.
Fact: I’m not terrified of birds
The news that I had actually gone through with this whole chicken plan was very amusing to my family and oldest friends, because I’ve spent my life quite bird-phobic. I think it began either when Herbert the duck chased and verbally abused me on Long Island, or when I walked into my parents’ New York bedroom to find a pigeon standing on top of the television staring at me. Then again, it might not have started for real until I watched two grown-ass tourists in Venice’s St. Martin’s Square pour bird feed on their daughter’s head and proceed to photograph the pigeon swarm that pecked at her. There were a few bat incidents that I think should count, too. Let’s just say when a pigeon swoops too low, I hit the sidewalk. When a seagull encroaches on a beach blanket, I throw all my food at him and relocate.
Much to my sister’s particular disappointment, my chicken life has only featured a few slapsticky moments that involved pecking (chickens) and squealing (me).
I will say this: When attempting Doreen’s chicken-upside-downing technique, one must be swift and not jumpy. Jumpy hesitation and false starts lead directly to fleeing and pecking, which doesn’t hurt, except your feelings.
Actually, though the chickens’ faces and feet are as unpleasant up close as I expected, their feathers are pretty. Our Black Stars have a glamorous green sheen on their backs, and they all seem to share a dopey, loveable approach to life, which I admire. Most importantly, they are selfless contributors to our delicious, nutritious diet — a fact which fills me with gratitude and love.
Myth: Chickens are like dogs
A lot of people have asked about whether Tei and I are going to name the chickens, with the implication that naming them would make it harder to eat them when they stop laying eggs — if that’s what we decide to do. I said yes every time, assuming neither of us would be able to resist, being chronically prone to nicknaming and general silly talk. I looked forward to getting to know them and giving them idiotic names. (My farm is called Peebottle and my dogs are named Superdog and Roo. I’ll spare you Tei’s many nicknames.)
It’s been disappointing to find that they all have Clueless Chicken Personality. They all say the same thing all the time, which is “Oowaawaa!” and sounds a little bit like Tootie from The Facts of Life saying, “Ooh, somebody’s in trou-ble!” Maybe I should name them all Tootie? At this point, I just greet them with, “hi birds,” though I do call one Rhode Island Red “White Butt.” (She often needs to be spoken to, because she’s very feisty when she’s hungry.)
Fact: Chickens are kind of like dogs
I guess I had expected to relate to them more, but they’re just not like me. My dogs are like me but without autonomy, money problems, or thumbs. Who doesn’t want to nap, feel adored and useful, hang out with friends, and eat all the time? With chickens, it’s not so clear. You want to poke at the ground billions of times per day and then make an egg in a small space? Mmkay.
I worried about whether they were happy. When Tei was out of town and I was working long days, I stopped cooking real food and the compost bin didn’t see much action. So the chickens didn’t get scraps for a couple of weeks — just organic chicken feed and garden trimmings. They got louder. “Trou-ble!” White Butt was particularly pissy; she’d meet me at the door to the run and try to escape, which made me feel awful. I started cooking again, and one afternoon tossed the chickens the end of a red onion. All hell broke loose. One hen grabbed it and another pecked it right out of her mouth and ran away, only to be met by another hen and another swipe.
Aha — so maybe I can relate. I would never snatch my best friend’s sandwich out of her face and run away, but only because of the restrictions of human society.
Now I’m back to providing the ladies with flavorful scraps and they have raucous, joyful dinner parties. Their yolks are richer and the color is a deep orange again.
Fact: Everyone’s an expertologist
You know when you’re walking your dog and some random stranger informs you that he needs water, or what his breed mix absolutely must be? I like to call people who can’t resist offering unsolicited information based on vague personal experience “expertologists.” The internet is the expertologist’s playground, and googling for advice on chicken-care can result in a panic-inducing flood of bossiness. Don’t ever feed your chickens onions, they say. Their eggs will taste like onions, and anyway, they hate them; they will die from eating them.