In our backyard are all the accoutrements of suburban life: an aboveground pool, a swing set, a toy-filled sandbox, a vegetable garden, patio furniture, and a henhouse. In front of the henhouse and attached hen yard are two Adirondack chairs. At our house, chickens are a spectator sport.
For several years, my wife, Ann, and the kids have been trying to talk me into getting some laying hens. When friends offered us five hens and a coop, I knew I’d been beaten. Don’t get me wrong: I like the idea of having fresh eggs that are richer and more healthful than store-bought. I just didn’t want the extra chores. As it turns out, the hens are pretty self-sufficient.
Maybe that’s not the right word. They are, after all, dumber than a pile of rocks. It would seem, as with so many animals that humans have domesticated, that in order to make chickens docile, we have bred out their smarts.
For example, whenever I visit the henhouse with some yummy treat — like stale bread or apple cores — at least one hen gets trapped for several panicked minutes under the henhouse, even though the door is open.
They are entertaining. It has also been good for the kids to observe chicken behavior. They, more than Ann or I, can tell them apart by their habits and quirks. Chickens do have personalities; the one Emma calls Rainbow, for example, is more personable. She gets between Ann’s legs and snatches up grubs and worms as Ann works in the garden. Emma carries Rainbow around, tucked under her arm. Rainbow is our only hen that likes to be picked up.
At first, we let the hens have the run of the yard, but they’re hard on gardens. Chickens find grubs and other insects by scratching the ground, which tends to destroy all plants where they feed. The grass is long gone in their enclosure, which they don’t mind because it makes it easier to take dust baths.
There’s another reason they stay in their enclosure. One afternoon, while I was inside playing with Emma, I heard one of the chickens make the most god-awful sound. Not the frantic clucking that precedes egg laying; no, this was abject terror.
Emma and I ran to the back door to see a fox standing in the yard with Rainbow in his mouth. I charged at the fox, waving my arms and screaming. For some reason, rather than flee with the chicken, the fox dropped Rainbow and ran into the woods.
Of course, the other four hens were hiding in the woods. The fox chased them all. I chased the fox. The chickens scattered in shrieking panic. Several months later, Emma still gets frightened whenever she hears a fox bark.
It took hours for all the chickens to wander back to the yard. The last to return was Rainbow. She’d lost some feathers and for a few days couldn’t open one eye, but soon was back to her old self. Now we only let the chickens loose if we’re outside. Occasionally the fox sits in the woods near the yard at night, barking eerily, his eyes reflecting bright orange in the dark — testing the waters for another assault, or maybe just dreaming of chicken for dinner.
One of the other hens took to “flying” over the fence. Most days I would return her to the enclosure several times; it seems she figured out how to get out, but not back in. Eventually, the fox got her. All that was left was a small pile of feathers. Henry argued that the lack of blood or a carcass meant that she had escaped and was living in the woods. Watching the fox slink around the coop the next morning helped convince him otherwise.
The real value of the hens is not their entertainment value, but rather Henry’s and Emma’s relationship with them. It is invaluable for them to see the connection between their food and its source. Our garden produces our vegetables; our hens lay our eggs.
Most Americans have no concrete relationship with their food; it’s just another commodity. But food is so much more: it’s looking at a cloudless sky, willing it to rain on the desiccated garden; it’s getting dirt under your fingernails pulling potatoes out of the ground; it’s opening the henhouse and finding blue and pink eggs nestled in a straw nest; it’s learning the hard way that everyone is someone’s lunch.
For Henry and Emma, food is alive. Every afternoon they run to check for eggs when they get home from school. Henry keeps count of the eggs and their colors and sizes. They get excited when I cook with our eggs, as if the food has been imbued with some magical property. For this, I don’t mind feeding the hens or cleaning their house.
Some mornings, when I let them out into their enclosure, the hens and I have a nice conversation: In response to my queries, they warmly cluck and chortle. I fill their food and water containers, which the hens comment on. Even if they aren’t the brightest animals, my day is richer with the hens. Our family is richer for living with them.