Creative Nonfiction, Creative Writing

On Raising Chickens

One spring, a friend purchased a $2 carton of fertilized eggs at the farmers’ market and stuck them under a borrowed incubator. Twenty-one days later, the resulting clutch threatened to overwhelm her modest backyard coop, and so she farmed the chicks out to adoptive parents. I presented two of those pullets, Hazel and Lydia, to my husband for our second anniversary.

At the time, it felt terribly romantic. On one of our early dates, William had used the butcher paper covering a cafe table to draw me an elaborate plan for the kitchen garden he hoped to one day build. In addition to vegetables and fruit trees, it included an ingenious chicken hutch. Since then, we’d relocated to San Antonio, Texas, and it seemed like we’d be missing out on part of the experience if we didn’t keep some kind of livestock in the yard. Chickens would be charming pets. They would bring us fresh eggs.

When I brought Hazel and Lydia home, they were six weeks old, still small and fluffy. Their feathers were grey with butterscotch and brown patches on their wings and black pharaoh-like lines around their eyes. They hopped around, cooing and chirping like songbirds. We set them up in the kitchen, fashioning a cage out of a waxed-cardboard cabbage box, a pie tin of chicken feed, a galvanized water fount, and an oven rack—a temporary solution while a generous friend built them a coop.

Raising the chickens in the kitchen was a mistake: They pooped every 15 minutes. There was no keeping on top of it and, while the droppings stayed in the box, the smell wafted through the house, a brand of uric acid so toxic the ammonia particulates stuck to our noses for hours, so that all the world seemed to smell of chicken shit. Still, it was great fun monitoring their development. As chicks, Hazel and Lydia behaved much like kittens; they spent every minute literally on top of one another. But one morning I awoke to find Hazel alone and on top of the water fount—during the night, she had developed a roosting instinct and somehow established pecking order. The Chicken Bible had foretold of such things: Even in a society of two there had to be a hierarchy, a way of keeping the flock organized and safe, and with that responsibility came first dibs on feed, water, and the only—and therefore best—roost. Had there been a battle? Had Hazel raised her hackles and pecked obediance into Lydia’s tiny head? We’d never know, but from then on Hazel was queen.

The coop-builder had put me in charge of finding blueprints. I couldn’t find anything resembling William’s drawing—a ChittyChitty BangBang-sort of contraption crossing a cricket cage and a flying machine—but the internet was chocablock with detailed designs for portable hutches. I chose an A-frame ark featuring chicken wire on the ground floor, to keep out weasels, and a walk-up second floor with a long roost and a roomy nesting box at either end. The nesting boxes had outside doors with tiny little locks, so the neighborhood raccoons couldn’t steal the eggs before we got there. Theoretically, the ark could be moved about the yard to fertilize the grass; however, fearing the torrential rains of South Texas, our friend built it out of clapboard siding, so it weighed about 700 pounds. God help the chickens if the river ever did decide to rise.

Amazingly, Hazel and Lydia knew just what to do with the coop. They slept in the nest boxes, came out to scratch and roll in the dust of the yard during the day, and put themselves back in the coop at dusk (and, contrary to popular belief, during the aforementioned storms. As top chicken, it was Hazel’s job to get the flock back into the coop, and I often watched her hopping from bush to bush with a kind of “leave no chicken behind” fortitude that likely saved the shy and easily discombobulated Lydia from a watery death). Around the time they moved into their new home, the chickens’ voices changed, and they started clucking and cackling. Teenagers! Overnight, it seemed, they lost their baby feathers. Hazel sprouted thin white and black feathers that curled off her neck like a feather boa, and both chickens developed elegant, black tail feathers—long and ruffled, like French can-can dancers. Also, their wattles, combs, and ear lobes turned red, which, according to the Chicken Bible, meant they were going to start laying eggs.

And then something bit the chickens and they died.

It happened late in the day. It had rained, so I had all the doors and windows open and there was this delicious, cool air blowing through the house. William was still at work, but a couple of friends had stopped by for a beer, and we were all sitting around talking, relaxed—except for Ella the dog, who would not settle. Ella was a rescue, a white catahoula with black and tan spots, a long muzzle, and thin, elegant legs. At the time she was three and still pretty broken, the kind of a dog who kept a low profile and avoided eye contact. Not shifty, just shy. But on the night in question, she wouldn’t stop harassing me. Over and over, she jabbed my elbow and stamped her feet to be let out, and then she flipped right around and barked at the screen door until I opened it. Finally, I followed her outside to investigate, expecting a squirrel, a lost toy, or a bladder infection. Instead, she led me to Hazel and Lydia, lying under their roost in an unnatural disarray, wings out, legs crumpled. I opened up the top of the coop and tried to rouse them, but their feathery bodies were too still and I knew they were dead. “Oh no, Ella,” I said quietly, and then I gave her hug—for she was clearly distraught—shut up the coop, and went inside to get a shovel. I had the idea that William should not see the chickens; his father had died recently, and I didn’t want him to have to bury another friend. But he had come home in the intervening moments and said he preferred to participate in the chicken burial.

When we went back out into the yard together, Ella had dug a huge hole in the lawn, her very first hole, right next to the coop. I took it as a sign of mourning: Here was a sentient beast, working out her existential crisis by digging a hole for the chickens. William took it as an admission of guilt, but he didn’t say anything. Not as he lifted Hazel and Lydia out of the coop and observed, with doctorly stoicism, that each had just three bite holes, and no sign of shaking or gnawing. Not as we swaddled their bodies in blue tissue paper—had they always been this light?—and tucked them into shoe boxes. Not as we buried them under a mountain laurel in the empty lot next door. But very early the next morning, he assembled Ella and me out in the yard, expounding theories like Hercule Poirot.

It was just after sunrise and already warm outside, but not unpleasantly so. I rubbed my face and looked about me. The air hung sweet and damp over the yard, as it does in Texas, keeping the mosquitoes down in the grass and the mold spores madly reproducing. A thin breeze wheezed through the oaks and a mockingbird started up. All of our neighbors would be out soon, or at least the people of sense, watering lawns, walking dogs, or simply sitting on their front porches, a cup of coffee or the newspaper in hand, and breathing the last of the day’s fresh air. By noon, the sun and the heat index would be up, wilting the life out everything. I felt a mosquito and shifted my feet. Ella raised a pale brown eyebrow, one of her few tricks. William had a stick in his hand and was pointing out clues. “Look,” he said, tapping the floor of the coop, “that’s dog hair.”

“So what,” I said. “Ella sheds. There’s dog hair everywhere.”

“Not like this. She was in the coop.”

“Not necessarily—look.” I swept up a pile of loose fur from Ella’s back, held it out in my open palm and let the breeze pick it up.

“So, you’re saying all this fur blew off of Ella? I don’t think so.”

“I don’t think Ella would kill the chickens.”

“Of course she would, she’s a dog,” he said.

“Come on, you’ve seen her with the cats,” I said. “She tries to lick them.”

“And then they run, and she chases them.”

“Yeah, but not to bite them to death. It’s a game.”

“Maybe she was playing a game with the chickens and things got out of hand.”

“No. It was night, they were already in the coop. It couldn’t have been Ella. It was a weasel or something.”

“Ella was in the coop,” he said.

“No, she wasn’t,” I said.

“She was.”

“Look at the hatch—she can’t fit.”

“She can totally fit.”

“Prove it.”

“Okay, I will.” William opened the hatch and called to Ella. She sauntered over, looked inside, licked his hand, and sat down on her tail.

“Wow,” I said, “overwhelming evidence.”

“Watch this, Pagani,” he said, and then he lifted Ella up, and put her inside the coop, on the top floor, where we’d found the chickens. Without pause, she ducked her head and walked down the ramp and out the hatch—nonchalantly, like she’d done it before.

The Tragedy of Hazel and Lydia is not an uncommon tale, I’m told, but we were crushed. We had often marveled at Ella’s ability to track and tree a squirrel, but somehow we were horrified that she terrorized the family chickens. I stuck to the theory that the whole thing was simply a game of chase gone awry and cast her in a Lassie-like role, barking at the chickens to get up and continue playing, coming to me for help—and then digging the cathartic hole. William was simultaneously more in touch with Ella’s animal nature and less forgiving. An older rancher we knew nearly convinced him to dig up Hazel and Lydia and tie their rotten bodies around the dog’s neck. “Tell you what, that old coon will never touch another hen,” the fellow asserted. But we knew Ella to be a stubborn dog and, having nearly starved to death as a pup, an inveterate consumer of putrid meats. Instead, William kicked her off our bed, and she slept on a pile of dirty laundry while he tried to get over it.

It took us a year and a half to get new chickens. The aforementioned chicken hatcher gave us three older hens—Harriet, Freddy, and Gonzo, the latter named for her crooked beak. William made a chicken run by putting up a rough hewn but tall wire fence across the back of the neighboring lot and installing the coop in it, right next to a huge pile of compost from our garden. Needless to say, Ella the dog was not allowed in the chicken run.

Harriet was bright red, broad of chest, and long of tail. She was broody and forlorn by nature, and spent most of her days in the nest box quietly registering her minor complaints in a steady stream of clucks. Yet every morning at sunrise she would walk out on the roost and rouse us from bed with a great, big cock-a-doodle-do, and one of us would throw on clothes and run out to open the coop and scatter scratch before the neighbors called to complain.

Freddy and Gonzo were classic white chickens, friendly as cats and frightfully busy. Every day they would scatter the contents of the compost from hell to breakfast by way of a few million backward kicks, thus exposing the tasty grubs and cockroaches bedded down there in the rotty produce. William hung a red cabbage from a low branch in the mountain laurel, and the chickens played a version of tetherball that involved pecking it hard and then craning their necks like mesmerized cobras to follow its loops and swings.

The new chickens were crazy about William. Harriet came out to talk to him from the top of the ark. Freddy and Gonzo developed a habit of flying the coop in the afternoons, so that they could greet him on the front porch when he returned home from work. If he was late, they’d wait in the bushes for him. If he was not appropriately pleased to see them, Freddy would peck his feet until he knelt down to scratch their backs—where upon they jumped on his knees. On the weekends, William and the chickens would sometimes sit together on the edge of the garden and eat a salad. I often saw Freddy and Gonzo jump two or three feet to take a piece of lettuce from William’s fingers, even though several heads of red leaf, arugula, and oak were right there, well within their reach.

Apparently, a rooster is not needed to produce unfertilized eggs; it’s light rather than pheromones that stimulates the pituitary gland and causes the ovary to produce eggs, which cluster around the follicle like grapes. In Texas, we were lousy with light year-round—but not, initially, with eggs. Theoretically speaking, each of our hens should have been laying an egg every 25 hours, but after several months we had yet to see one.

I noticed that Harriet’s shanks, beak, and other bits were nice and yellow, but Gonzo’s were a little pale and Freddy’s were completely white. A good Northern Californian, I recognized a dietary issue and consulted the Chicken Bible. As it happens, chickens produce a mineral that makes certain body parts yellow. That mineral is depleted as they produce yolks, which, amazingly, allows one to approximate the number of eggs a chicken has laid. Before coming to us, Freddy had likely laid about 95 eggs, Gonzo perhaps only 75, and Harriet far less. Best of all, I learned that the average chicken lays somewhere between 160 and 300 eggs, so we could be fairly certain there were more eggs in there—we just needed to get the color back in their ears. The fellows at our neighborhood feed store did not agree with my diagnosis, and told me I was a complete nutter to give the chickens anything more than table scraps and scratch. So I turned back to the internet, where urban chicken mamas had come up with feed formulas packed with quinoa, lentils, and sea weed. This was the food of my people, yet it failed to produce yellow lobes on the chickens. So I tried a mash of toasted, organic egg shells. And when that failed, we determined to try patience. William vowed to root around under Harriet’s rump once a week rather than daily (eggs or no, she was still monopolizing the nest box), and I consulted Julia Child for a coq au vin recipe.

And then, one day many weeks later, William telephoned me at work. It was a Monday, the end of a long weekend of overnight call for him. He had been out to visit the chickens and found Harriet unusually quiet—and sitting on a blue egg. I arrived home that evening to find it displayed on a upturned Turkish tea glass like a Fabergé, and my husband all but handing out cigars. We exclaimed over its color and shape, took it to the neighbors for a viewing, and even went back to congratulate Harriet.

And then, we cracked it open, dropping the egg into a small pan of salted butter and cooking it over easy so that the yolk—which was a deep, tangerine orange—was lush and creamy when we dipped our toast in it.

[As it appeared in Literary Orphans]