In celebration of my daughter Lily’s third birthday, we bought her three baby chicks, thinking they would provide valuable life lessons about responsibility, the cycle of life and what it means to be an omnivore. When I became the chickens’ sole caretaker soon thereafter, it was a stark reminder that small children don’t help much around the house. Such is the life of the urban chicken farmer, a roller coaster of hopes and realities.
Chicks are objectively, unequivocally adorable—nearly weightless puffs of yellow that fit in the palm of a child’s hand, making their young eyes dance with delight. For a moment, anyway, until they walk away, distracted by a distant television, a farting cat or a passing car. It’s left to you to put the adorable bird back in its cage, which is in your bathroom, taking up way too much real estate and driving the aforementioned cat insane. For six weeks.
Having to dance around brooding chicks is a minor inconvenience, however, next to the hundreds of dollars you’ll spend buying or building a coop. Naturally, if you’re dumb enough to get chickens, you surely dumb enough to build a coop. But as with many things in life, the only way to learn how to build a really awesome coop is to build a barely tolerable one. Within a week of raising the roof on our coop, I had identified at least a half-dozen design flaws that haunt me to this day.
And once the chicks have moved into Xanadu, it can be another six months before you see a single egg. To get that first egg, we laid out probably $1,000, between the chicks, feed, equipment, and building materials. Sure, your cost average goes down pretty quickly. But three years in, I’m guessing we’re still a wee north of $1 an egg, and that’s not including labor.
But you can’t put a price on the sense of wonder when you and your kid first lift the lid on the laying box to find a fresh egg. If you’re lucky enough to get there while its still warm, your heart will soar, because your brain totally overlooks the fact that the thing you’ve picked up and are eager to eat just popped out of a chicken’s ass. For those of you who don’t spend a lot of time pondering chicken plumbing, they, like all birds, have one hole. It’s called a cloaca (from the Latin for “sewer”), through which they handle all their business, sexytime and elseways.
Even better than finding that first egg is eating it, because the cloaca is momentarily forgotten. Seasoned with a smug sense of virtue and accomplishment, a perfectly fried, home-raised egg possesses a richness and flavor the likes of which you’ve never tasted in a store-egg egg. This is likely because it’s the first time you’ve actually paid attention to the flavor of an egg without drowning it in salt or hollandaise, but no matter.
As all the other joys of chickening slowly diminish over time, the one constant source of glee and superiority is explaining to your seemingly intelligent friends that, no, in fact, you don’t need a rooster for your chickens to lay eggs. This line of inquiry is especially amusing coming from representatives of the childbearing gender, who have to stop and ponder the realities of their own insides when you note that chickens do just fine without “men.”
There’s a tragic, ugly and unavoidable truth that lies ahead of even the best chickening experience: a hen can lay eggs for two or three years, but can live for eight to twelve years. The idea of running a retirement community for postmenopausal chickens doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? You need an exit strategy. Abandonment, while an all too popular route, is not a strategy.
A spent hen needs to be put out to pasture in a safe, bucolic environment where food is provided—or someone has to eat that bird. I’ve killed my share of chickens, but those were roasters, nameless drones fed for 8 weeks for the express purpose of being killed. As heartless as I am, I can’t bring myself to kill a bird that I’ve named and tended to for three years. A cousin who lives on top of a mountain in Vermont once expressed an interest in taking our retired birds, because chickens are a great way to protect fruit trees from certain pests. But whenever I ask this farmer friend about delivering my worn-out hens, she tells me she’s not ready. Right. Whatever.
So now, much like Larry King and Mickey Rooney before me, I find that as my birds approach the end of their prime, I am desperate to be rid of them, so I can get some fresh young chicks.
Scott Ross is living proof that backyard chicken keepers needn’t be barefoot hippies. He lives in Brooklyn with his family of humans and hens. Photo by Portmanteaus.