On the love of chickens…..
Some people are dog people, while others are cat people. There are also chicken people.
Years ago our neighbors acquired chicks and launched an urban flock. I watched with fascination, and wrote an article for the newspaper about people who keep chickens. A year or two later I got my own chicks and became a chicken person myself.
Keeping chickens opens your eyes to many things. In our society we are accustomed to people making jokes about their stupidity, or jesting about killing, eating and even tossing them, but there is nothing intrinsically ridiculous or mirthful or idiotic about a chicken. Those who believe that chickens are risible and absurd creatures have either never lived with them or have encountered them only in a context of raising them to kill, rather than caring for them as pets.
Chickens have great dignity as they stalk their yard, feathers gleaming in the sun, pointed combs quivering. They are inquisitive creatures, social and very aware of their surroundings. Because of their origins as shadow-dwelling jungle fowl, they see light frequencies that we cannot recognize. The iridescent feathers of my black hen were probably a gleaming and glorious ultraviolet that I was unable to perceive. Hens recognize human friends and canine enemies. My old flock used to greet me with cheers when I appeared on the back deck, dashing back and forth excitedly on the other side of their fence, calling to me. Two of that flock used to fly up onto my shoulder and perch there with obvious pride that they had attained a higher level than their heavier and less-agile fellows. Whenever I gardened, I would let them out of their enclosure to help me dig (they would seize the worms that I uncovered). When I was done, they would follow me willingly back to their enclosure and let me shut them up again.
They basked in the sun. They did “chicken-yoga” by stretching one leg backward and extending the wing on that same side in parallel to the leg. They scratched at the ground to make cool, dusty wallows. When the 17-year swarm of cicadas emerged; the entire flock combined ate less than a cup of grain for several weeks, preferring to swallow the insects whole, head-first. They loved the mulberries that fell onto their enclosure from the tree above. They had moods, like people do; they delighted in fair weather, were alarmed by snow and became grouchy during heavy rain. They stood on tiptoe to peer at dry leaves that had become embedded in the walls of their enclosure. They chased each other good-humoredly around and around the coop (once during this play, one of the hens reversed direction and jumped around the corner at the one that was chasing her, with the chicken equivalent of “BOO!” causing a flurry of feathers and squawks from the started pursuer).
Each of the birds had a very distinct personality. For the first time in my life it became obvious to me that the meats we eat come from creatures that are sentient and have personalities. The only reason I didn’t become a vegetarian, as I was tempted to do, was because I was already living with too many significant food restrictions, and ruling out meat protein would be sentencing myself to a near-starvation diet. This saddened me and resulted in my eating much lower on the food chain: more fish, virtually no red meat. (It’s likely that fish also are sentient and have personalities…but I have to draw a line somewhere, alas.)
But keeping chickens in the city was illegal. A friend and I “outed” ourselves to the city, saying: “Look at us, we are good citizens, and we keep chickens. Please legalize our pets so we don’t have to break the law.” The city listened, and passed an ordinance allowing small flocks of city fowl. The ordinance, however, was so strict that I could not continue keeping hens and had to dissolve my flock.
After a gap of some years, the city recently tweaked the chicken ordinance again. I am delighted beyond description to be able to keep a flock again. For years I have missed the cheerful sound of clucking hens in the back yard. I am happy to report that at this minute I have five heritage breed chicks living in a big box beneath a heat lamp in the basement, and we have built a weathertight coop in the yard inside a new predator-proof enclosure. If this unseasonably hot weather continues, the chicks will be outside in their new home very soon.