Chicken Show-and-Tell

It’s not every day you get to make a chicken this mad. She puffs out her black feathers, doubling her size, which is a big problem in the tiny dirt-packed chicken run–you don’t have much room to work. Careful now! Watch your soft hands as you scoop up the chicks! She is coming for you with that menacing strut, and her sharp ‘bwoks’ mean one thing:

Don’t say I didn’t warn you, human.

The month-old chicks, meanwhile, are disorganized in retreat, a flurry of peeping and fluff. You track them–one at a time–until they corner themselves by the fence. Each successful grab sets off that chick’s top-level alarm cry, so you set it in the box and close the lid quickly, trying to muffle the sound. This doesn’t really work. The chicken mama is at your heels, but you’ve got the three you came for, so you brush past her sharp beak and get out.

Clang! The chain link gate bangs on its frame, just in time, and her indignant clucks are now futile. “Sorry Mama,” you say, pulling the cheeping cardboard box into your chest, “today is show-and-tell. I’ll bring them back in a few hours.”

IMG_4477And you do, after three unwilling chicken ambassadors have educated hordes of squealing children. “Two fingers, gentle please!” you instruct, again and again. The poor chicks call for their mama, but she is several miles away, so you stroke their soft backs. “Shh…” you tell the kids, “they’re just babies.”

A few hours later, you bring the box back into the run, and the chicks know where they are before you open the lid. They scramble out, peeping their tale of survival. Is that right? Mama replies, Oh poor babies. She clucks over them like, well, like a mother hen. With her beak she breaks up crumbles of corn into dust, pointing to it with an emphatic ‘tuck, tuck, tuck, tuck.’

Comforting noises and beak-sized nibbles. The chicks are glad to be home.

And you settle into the green plastic chair on the far side of the run, needing a rest after the school visit. In the background are city noises you barely hear anymore–sirens, traffic rumbles, and a truck backing up somewhere in the wide valley. Still closer is the chatter of birds, calling from treetop to telephone wire. If you isolate one call, in one tree, you can hear the response from across the street.

You close your eyes and listen to the flying birds.

And soon there is a light scuffle, and the flightless birds are near your feet, settling in for a nap on the warm earth. Mama calls insistently at first, then reducing her volume to a gentle scold. She spreads her wings and sits, and the chicks disappear under her feathers. Her trill, low and steady, sounds like a kitten’s purr. The peeping subsides. Hush, she reassures them, I won’t let that big mean lady take you away from me again.

You smile, and sigh. Show-and-tell number two is scheduled for next Tuesday. “Sorry Mama,” you whisper, “but I have chicks too.”

* * * * *

jen bio YAH

One Fine Feathered Day

In May 2012 I pulled up behind a truck, parked just two neighborhoods from my own. The seller and I had been texting to arrange the exchange: “I’ve got your pullets.” “Great. Be there in 10.” “Just look for a white truck. Remember to bring cash.”

It was all over quickly, and I was on my way, a cardboard box on the passenger seat, grinning madly at the scratching noises and small bock-caws coming from inside it. I called my husband, “I’ve got them! Tell everyone the six of us are on our way!”

It was an exclamation point kind of morning. It was the morning we brought our chickens home.


We had been preparing for months for their arrival. We attended an information session at the library, searched the chicken internet universe for tips, and dog-eared a book called “City Chicks.”  Along the way, we built the coop.


(Note the skylight. These are some spoiled hens.)

We researched nutrition, planned for pest control, and amused the well-worn country folk at Tractor Supply every time we went north to visit my parents. What are your organic options? Do you sell food-grade diatomaceous earth?  What about treats? Is this waterer BPA-free?

Okay, we really didn’t ask the last one. They were still recovering from our discussion of non-GMO based layer feed.

Now. Why did we do all this? Well, originally we thought that keeping hens would save us money, but this hasn’t been the case. On one hand you’ve got housing, food and chicken accessories (waterer, heat lamp, etc.). On the other, you have… not nearly as many eggs as you would expect.

Here is the deal with chickens and eggs: First, they have to be old enough to lay. Second, they can’t be broody, molting or recovering from a traumatic predator attack (a story for another post). Third, it can’t be winter. Fourth, you have to be able to find the eggs…

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road?


 Answer: To hide her eggs in the abandoned lot on the other side.

Let’s just say that the financial incentives aren’t overwhelming, but the daily Easter Egg hunts are a lot of fun.


So, why chickens? My answer is more of a hunch than a full-blown philosophy, but I suspect we keep chickens (and keep cleaning out their coop) because we love the sense of connection they give us.

An egg in a styrofoam carton is just an egg, but an egg that appears after “Queenie” struts out of the coop and announces her accomplishment to the neighborhood (bock, bock, bock, baCAW!) is something more. “It’s still warm, Mom,” my daughter informs me, “and guess what, it came out of the chicken’s butt!” “Eww!” the rest of the kids collapse into giggles, and then start chanting, “chickens butt, chickens butt, chickens butt!”

Maybe it’s just a bit disgusting, but I like it that my children know–and by ‘know’ I mean through immediate experience–that eggs come from chickens’ butts. Not from egg factories, not from sanitary supermarkets, but from animals that poop, crow, and cross the road. Eggs come, and thus breakfast comes, from animals who are part of our daily lives.

This is why we will keep keeping chickens–not because it is terribly practical, at least in the way we do it–but because they remind us that food exists in a web of connections beyond buying and selling. Eggs exist because chickens exist, and our particular chickens exist because we fill their feeder and lock up the coop at night.

I’m glad we do. The eggs are amazing.


(photo by Emily Duff,