MY LIFE WITH CHICKENS

The first time I realized that some people are fond of chicken décor, in the form of embellishments for curtains and wallpaper, I was astounded. As a farmer’s daughter, I’d never thought of chickens as interior decoration, only as livestock and food.

On the farm I experienced the entire life cycle of chickens. It began in the spring, when my mother ordered one hundred of them. They arrived on the train in town as adorable peeping yellow chicks, spending their first couple of nights in our care under heat lamps in the kitchen. Then they were moved to the coop, quickly growing and shedding their fluffy yellowness to become scrawny white adolescents who pecked each other. The head chicken pecked the second chicken in line, the second pecked the third, all the way down the line. The pathetic chicken at the bottom of the pecking order was nearly bald. Eventually they grew out of this bullying behavior into fully-feathered adults.

Our run-of-the-mill white farm chickens weren’t intelligent or attractive, certainly not pets, but they were carefully tended, because their ultimate destination was our dinner table. A freezer full of home-grown chickens is part of my noble heritage as a farmer’s daughter, and incredibly good chicken dinners are one of my cherished memories. Nearly every Sunday my mother would cut up a chicken or two, slowly brown them and leave them to finish roasting in a slow oven while were at church. These chickens were plump and meaty. They tasted good because they were organic, long before anybody thought of calling it that. They’d wandered around the farmyard eating worms and bugs, in addition to their feed, and never met an antibiotic. The chicken I buy now is either bland, rubbery and un-chickeny, or it has an off taste. Nothing matches the chicken of my childhood.

One chicken dinner I particularly remember was the day we ate the rooster that for weeks had chased and pecked us kids, especially my little brother, every time we went outside. That rooster caused no end of misery, until the day he appeared on our plates, fried, with mashed potatoes and gravy. “Is it him?” we asked. “Yup,” said Dad. We ate with gusto and relief.

The end of summer was the end of our chickens. My mother and her sisters held a butchering day party over by the barn. One at a time the chickens were caught and had their heads whacked off on a chopping block. My mom did it herself, swiftly and mercifully. She was good at it. Their decapitated bodies then spent about thirty seconds zooming around like, well, chickens with their heads cut off, zigzagging all over the yard until they flopped over and were dispatched to the gutting and plucking table. I hate to admit it, but this performance was delightful entertainment for my siblings and me. I’m surprised none of us were plagued by headless chicken nightmares, or turned into ax murderers, but we survived unscathed. It was just part of life on the farm.

Perhaps you understand why thoughts of chickens have never given me warm fuzzy feelings, except to make my stomach rumble. But that was before I was reintroduced to chickens, not on the farm, but right here in the city. We have an ordinance that allows homeowners to keep up to five hens in their backyards. A couple of years ago, three hens moved in next door. They began as a 4-H project, and they’ve turned into good egg producers.

One afternoon I went out the front door to get the mail, and there stood the three hens, clucking apologetically. “We need help,” they seemed to be saying. “We got out, but we don’t know how to get back in.” They must have been discussing their predicament for some time, because they seemed to regard my appearance as their rescue. They looked at me expectantly, giving me their full trust.

“Okay girls, let’s go,” I said. I went next door, the chickens following, to let the neighbors know their hens were loose, but nobody answered the door. So I led the chickens to their side gate, opened it, and in they marched without a backward glance or a thank-you cluck, their mission accomplished. Chickens may be smarter than I thought.

I’ll never want my own chickens, nor will I decorate with them, but I don’t mind the chickens next door. Every morning I hear them cackling and clucking to each other, and I smile. It’s a pleasant, comforting sound. It helps me remember who I am, and it takes me home.

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