This spring, hatcheries all across the United States have run out of inventory, and baby chicks are rarer than hens’ teeth. When I heard this news on a rainy afternoon two days ago it brought tears to my eyes. I wasn’t missing the sun, or the company of my fellow humans, or life as it used to be. I was missing my hens.
For years, they were the hub of my backyard ecology. Thanks to them, nothing ever went to waste. “Give it to the hens!” we said about everything from burned toast to apple cores, carrot tops, and curdled milk. And, magnanimously, persistently, the hens turned our refuse into eggs.
But they didn’t just give us eggs. Their nitrogen-rich droppings transformed the spoiled hay that I used for their bedding into the most exquisite of composts, which they turned and chopped and aerated all winter long as they scratched looking for seeds. In the spring, all I had to do was dump the stuff on the garden and (pretty much) watch the veggies grow.
Those hens were my friends. They were Buff Orpingtons–big, cream-colored birds with a placid disposition. They didn’t lay as abundantly as some of the more flighty breeds, but on the other hand they didn’t let Vermont winters get to them. They would rush to greet me when I entered their yard, peering up at me first with one eye and then the other, in that inimitable chicken way. And in the evening, when I went to collect the eggs and close the coop against the fox, the fisher, and the weasel, they would purr sleepily on their roosts. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the handle of the egg basket in my fingers, and hear the cluckings and feather fluffings as the girls settled for the night.
What impelled me, a city child, to keep hens and grow vegetables? I used to think that it had started with the 1974 oil embargo, when the price of everything, from gas to groceries, shot up overnight and it dawned on me that my loved ones and I were at the mercy of world events. I, who had never so much as watered a houseplant, bought a packet of tomato seeds and pushed them one by one into the packed dirt at the side of the house, right under the eaves where, at the first rainstorm, the few seedlings that had sprouted promptly drowned.
I went back to buying tomatoes in the supermarket, oblivious to the fact that the seeds of self-sufficiency had been planted in my head long before, by my mother’s stories.
“During the war [the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39],” she used to tell me, “before your father and I met, he and his family lived in Barcelona and almost died of starvation, because they couldn’t get food in the city. But we, [meaning she and her parents and siblings, who lived in one of those now-rare diversified farms] we always had food. Even though we were near the front, and there were bombardments and many dangers from retreating soldiers, the chickens kept laying and the rabbits kept having litters. We even had a pig that we slaughtered in the fall. And the garden gave us cabbages and kale in the winter, and melons, eggplants, and tomatoes in the summer. And the trees made olives and almonds, and after a rain we children would go out to hunt for snails….”
This is the lesson I retained: depend on the supermarket for your groceries, and if something really bad happens you’ll go hungry. Grow your own food, and you’ll be o.k. During most of my adult life, therefore, whenever zoning regulations allowed it, I kept chickens.
So I understand where today’s would-be chicken keepers are coming from, but I hope they know what they’re getting into: hens need a coop to shelter in, and a securely-fenced yard in which to sun themselves, and they won’t produce if they’re fed on grass and kitchen waste alone. (Despite my self-sufficiency aspirations, I used to have to supplement my hens’ diet with commercial feed.) What hens don’t need in order to lay eggs is a rooster. In fact, given the male chicken’s libido, if he has fewer than at least fifteen wives to share the burden, he will stress them out with his amorous assaults.
If kept safe and satisfied, a hen will lay eggs for as long as five years, but she will eventually go through menopause. Do these new chick buyers have an exit plan for their aged birds? And when they first bring home those cheeping balls of fluff, do they realize that, absent a mother hen, day-old chicks need a heat lamp to keep them alive and lively? That you have to teach them to drink by dipping their beaks in water? And that they will dive in and promptly drown if that water is more than an inch deep?
If you are one of the lucky souls able to get chickens to cheer you and feed you in this depressing time, I applaud your impulse toward self-sufficiency. I wish you happy birds, overflowing egg baskets, and the illusion of security afforded by the knowledge that, if worst comes to worst, you can always make an omelette. May you and your flock rejoice in each other for years to come. And if you want any advice on poultry, I’ll be glad to oblige.