As most backyard chicken hobbyists do, we began our adventure with little more than a vague dream, a soft outline of a goal… We imagined that having our own hens and fresh eggs daily would be charming, picturesque, that it would bring us closer to nature and to simple living. We might have done a little research online beforehand, but not too much. Just enough to sort of get the idea. After all, we really want to do this thing, and if we knew too much, we might just decide it wasn’t really worth it…
So, one naive stroll through your neighborhood farm supply box store around Easter time and you’re hooked before you realize it. You hear the tiny, incessant peeps long before you spot the red heat lamp bulbs or even see the irresistible, fuzzy, day-old little chicks crowding the temporary cages. My God, you had no idea they were this cute! Crazy, over-the-top cute with love-me eyes and tiny, drunken walks. Klutzy little chicken feet hobbling over each other, standing, now falling, cheeping all the while. It’s just too much for you to bear. You must take some home. You must have one all to yourself to smooch endlessly. How hard can it be? You’ve had pets. You know. Yes, it’s a responsibility, but that doesn’t worry you. You’ve done this before! You had to walk the family dog all through junior high school! But see, you don’t even have to walk a chick! Seriously, how hard can this be? Man. Just give me that little cardboard take-out box and I’ll choose me six of the cutest little chicks ever seen. Really. No big deal.
Ok. So the cutest little chicks in the whole wide world have been living in a plastic storage bin in your son’s closet for two weeks now, and the whole house smells like, well, chicken shit. It’s a sour sort of funk, a weird new poop smell, mixed with the tang of urea. Hm. Oh well, you knew they pooped. Just change the wood shavings, or if you went poor-house on ’em, change the soggy shredded newspaper. That’s a little better. But not much. Man, who knew they’d smell up the whole house? And look how much bigger they are all of a sudden! Wow. They sure are growing, aren’t they? Oh-oh. Seriously. What now?
In the back of your mind you thought you could put em in the cellar for a while longer, cuz it’s still kinda cold and snowy out. Easter in the north is still on the edge of winter, and even though they’re growing, they’re still not up to the 20 degree nights outside. Ok. So you’ve killed another two weeks, but they’re still growing. They’re eating and drinking like crazy, the upkeep never stops! Plus they keep escaping their temporary home and exploring all corners of the basement! What now? The funky smell is everywhere and so are the poops, and you’re not sure you’re good with another month like this. Ok. Think. Heat lamp. Got some place in the garage that’s secure? That’s fenced in? If you don’t, you’ll spend next Saturday afternoon with a chop saw and some scraps of wood cobbling together a mildly sketchy pen of sorts for your teenagers to move into. On a mild, early spring day you’ll get brave enough to commit them to this new apartment. You’ll hang a red heat lamp bulb above them – the kind that costs $10 a pop – like you saw at the farmer supply place. Check the windows and doors otherwise the raccoons’ll get em the very first night they’re out. (Then it will take another full calendar year to get to this stage again. Been there. I know.) The morning after their first night in the new digs, you run out to check on them. They’re all still there!! Now you know what this kind of relief feels like. It’s your first rite of passage. This is how you’ll feel hundreds of times, over and over again for the duration of your career as a chicken farmer. You’re over the first hump, so congratulations! Here we go….
So it’s mid summer. The chicks are long-legged and gangly looking, their plumage is spotty; fuzzy down pokes out from the emerging patterns of adult feathers. The combs on their heads are mere bumpy ridges, waddles are yet far-off, and it’s still not clear who’s who. But after another month – usually around the end of July or beginning of August – it becomes more apparent who will be laying and who will be strutting about and making trouble. The young roosters become apparent by three defining features. No, not their spurs – that comes later. Not even their crowing – for that too comes later. What first appears are three different sets of feathers: the hackles, the saddles and the tail. The hackles and saddles look much the same; drapey, elegant long, thin feathers that serve as an embellishment to the neck and lower back areas. And the tail feathers themselves are grand, arching things that rise above the height of the bird and cascade out behind him. No hen has such a tail. No hen has such long, thin decorative feathers about her neck or hind quarters. Hens may be surprisingly beautiful, but they are not as flashy as the men. Nor as obnoxious. Gradually it will become obvious to the armchair chicken farmer that something must be done about the excess of testosterone in the coop. But what? Hmm. You hadn’t quite thought this far ahead. You just sorta thought they’d all stay on as one happy family. But you’ve stalled so long now that the boys are challenging each other and things are no longer so peaceful on the farm. In fact, the poor girls are now being mounted by these randy teenagers to the point where some may be missing the feathers on their backs. Oh dear, something is not right. No, it is not. The ratio, half males to half females, it just doesn’t work in the world of chickens. Not at all. But you didn’t really think it through, did you? You hadn’t worried about having too many roosters. Heck, chickens are chickens, right? Not really. So. What’s next? I’ll tell you…
Chicken soup. Like the kind that’s simmering right now on my stove. Man this house smells good. Smells like a home. Puts my son in a fantastic mood, makes me feel like a real good mom. Plus it gets rid of all that extra testosterone on the farm. They say the ratio of hens to a rooster should be like 25 to 1. Seems about right. (It’s a living lesson for my son about the power of chemistry over good judgment. Read into that what you will, ahem.) It’s funny, but I really never gave any thought to the difference between hens and roosters before I became a chicken farmer. In fact, I’m pretty sure I used the terms interchangeably for a while. Wasn’t quite sure that hens were girls – the ones that laid the eggs – and roosters were the fancy ones. The ones you only ever saw one of on farm. Never gave much thought to that until I was in the thick of it. And a pullet? What the heck is that?
Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a young hen. A gal who’s just started to lay. In the very beginning of your chickening career you start to lose hope that your own hens will ever lay. Months seems to stretch on with no proof that you really do have hens. It seems that hens that actually lay eggs might really be something out of a dream – some sort of crazy magic that happens somewhere else, not in your own backyard. But just as soon as they’ve crossed the line of puberty, if the young hens aren’t overly stressed and are given some nearly private sort of space in which to work things out, you will indeed have eggs before long. And oh, that first egg is truly a miracle. It is a landmark day in your life, it is a personal triumph! Hens really do lay eggs! It’s taken months – but they’re actually doing it now! How crazy is that? I mean, eggs come from factories, right? This is what you believe on a cellular level, so it will seem almost supernatural to your modern self for a time. And I know that there are even some of you who will be even a little put off by actually eating these au-natural eggs… Yes, it might just gross you out a little bit in the beginning. Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it many times. I too felt a little weird in the beginning. But the longer you live with your fresh eggs, the longer they become a staple of your homestead – plus the more guests you have who marvel over the intense flavor of your eggs – the more you will become not only a believer, but a liver-of-the-lifestyle.
You may choose to bring the extra eggs into work, give them out freely and be a hero, or you may decide that the cost of feed and upkeep deserves some payback, and so you may sell them just a tad less than those at the farmer’s markets. You’ll definitely have enough to make your son fresh, home-made, healthy French Toast for breakfast every morning, and enough to pack a hard boiled egg into his lunch each day. So these hens are a happy story with a happy ending, but what of the other story – that of the rooster? Why that is a very different story, to be sure.
Roosters don’t stay long. Almost as soon as we can tell em from the rest, we make a call to Mr. Shaw, the Amish farmer who prepares em for us. Elihu is excused from the first half of his school day (mainly cuz I need him to physically round them all up and get em in the toter) and we dedicate one chilly morning in September to butchering our modest flock of roos. First off, you’ll notice the term I choose is “butcher”. You may use other words – kill, do in, dispatch – but the term ‘butcher’ says what it means, plus it seems to infer some civility, skill and tradition in the trade too. So that’s why I use it. And butcherin’s messy. It’s a process best left to someone who’s got the setup. If you’re kinda on the fence about it – I recommend you still go ahead and have your roosters butchered, but just don’t watch. My kid and I choose to watch – I might not have if it weren’t for his strong desire to know the whole cycle – to take real responsibility for his food, and to be a part of their death too. I supported my then 7 year old son so much there was no way I was not going to share the experience with him. And it was shocking. Truly. I was stunned by the amount of blood, the bright, bright red of it. That iron-y smell of the blood. The kicking and kicking of the dead birds’ legs, long after they’d been bled out. Witnessing the actually killing part does require one be in a certain emotional place. You must just steel yourself. Distance yourself. I like to try to maintain some gratitude, some reverence for the sacrifice that’s being made of one living being for my own sustenance. But with all your adrenaline flowing and all that blood-letting going on, keeping one’s heart somewhat reverential and calm is a small challenge – and the combination of it all makes for a surreal event.
When we first went, three years ago, Elihu would whisper his thanks to each bird before handing them over to be dunked upside down into a cone and having its neck slit. He felt closure in his offering of thanks and gratitude. I was amazed to watch Elihu go through his own process with such certitude, with a real sense of gravity projecting throughout his whole demeanor. To see how deeply he felt it, how critical it was for his experience of raising and making his own food. On the way home however, finally he began to cry. I wondered if there wasn’t going to be some fallout afterward, in fact I rather expected it…. I told him that I understood that it was a hard thing to watch, that the whole thing was sad and difficult. But he protested that that was not what was bothering him so. He wasn’t so much sad as he was mad – at Ben Shaw, the Amish farmer. Apparently Ben had told Elihu not to say prayers of thanks to the animals because God had given us the animals to do with what we would. That they belonged to us, and that they had no souls of their own. Ben told Elihu instead to make prayers of thanks to God alone, for these were his gifts to us. Elihu was livid, through tears he protested to me that Ben was wrong! “How can he look into his dog’s or his horse’s eyes and think that they have no souls! It makes me want to turn the car around and go tell him that he’s wrong!” Oh my poor, dear son. This is what troubled him. I could only tell him how much I agreed, and share his great disappointment with Mr. Shaw’s beliefs.
Since then, we haven’t looked back. We let Mr. Shaw believe what he will, and we continue to know that even the beasts we butcher and eat each have their own unique imprint of life, animated by soul, just as we are. They are just another speck of God that’s taken another form. And we thank them, we do em in as quickly as possible. And man, do we LOVE the soup that we get from em. We started out this year by roasting and souping up our handsome black/green rooster, named ‘Sylvan’; we ate “Sylvan soup” all week and loved it no less the last time than the first. I tell ya, these home raised chickens make the tastiest broth I have ever had. I like to over-salt things – but I find I just don’t need as much when I make soup from these boys. Yup. Our Rooster Soup is a highlight of fall. Nothing like the smell of crisp, autumn leaves outside and simmering soup inside.
But there’s still one more surprise this year on our little chicken farm. The pullets – the young gals whose brothers are now resting in plastic bags in the downstairs chest freezer – they have just started laying. And on account of us having a rather rag-tag, higgeldy-piggledy sorta flock – inbred now these four years – we have ourselves some interesting looking gals, and now, we’re learning, some interesting looking eggs. We learned about pale green eggs from our petite little lady Shirley Nelson, who is an Aracauna. We learned that mixed-breeds are a toss up. Some lay enormous pale pink eggs, some medium light brown ones. Some lay close to white. But today we learned of an altogether new experience here in the Hillhouse Coop – we found two small, roundish (this tells us they’re from first-timer pullets) dark purplish eggs! When we set them in water they turned a deep brown, but when they air dry, the reddish, purplish cast returns. ! Just when we thought we knew it all. Ha! Far, far from it.
So nice to know that we can still be surprised by our hens in happy little ways, like today’s discovery of purple eggs. Between the pullet’s new contributions to our hen house and the fresh pot of rooster soup on the stove, we have the makings of a very content little homestead. If you would have told me four years ago that this would be my life in the near future, I don’t think I would have believed you. Sometimes I still can’t believe that this really is my life – and that I really do love it. Yup, this whole beautiful, serendipitous, heartbreaking, soul-restoring, chicken-raising, child-rearing ride here in Greenfield has been the most unexpected – and welcome – surprise ever.