by Cathy Huyghe
Back in April my children and I hitched ourselves up on the wooden fence surrounding a
local farmer’s chicken run.
“Let’s watch the farmer catch some chickens for us,” I said to the kids as the farmer opened
the gate to the coop. He was going to catch two laying hens for us to raise at home for
“Let’s watch the farmer make a fool of himself,” he said back as he walked with a large box
toward a small flock of birds in one corner of the yard. Catching chickens is tricky business—
they can run surprisingly fast when they want to and you’ve got to get under them
and grab them by their legs—but he snagged the first bird, a Rhode Island Red with light
brown feathers, without much trouble at all.We decided to call her Colette.
“Can I vote for the black and white one?” I called when the farmer asked which one I
wanted for our second bird. That chicken’s black and white stripes were unusual among the
flock of otherwise mostly brown birds and I had already thought of what we’d name her.
Jailbird soon joined Colette in the large box we then put in our car.
They’ll eat just about anything, the farmer said, including meat. (“Though I wouldn’t give
them chicken meat because that would just be… weird,” he added.)What we gave Jailbird
and Colette all summer long amounted to what we’d have otherwise put in our compost
pile: vegetable and fruit scraps, leftover bread and potatoes and the shells of their own eggs,
which they attacked with surprising voracity.
Give them water every single day, the farmer also said. Chickens will stop laying if they
don’t have fresh water every day.
After this brief, sage advice we were on our way.
The coop was ready at home, complete with food and water. We had researched coops for home use and found a British company called Omlet. Their DIY coop, complete with a secure “house” for nesting and a predator-safe chicken run, is called an Egloo. (I am not making up these names.)We had also researched local sources for chicken feed, or cracked corn, and we found several farm-animal-friendly shops very close to home that we’d otherwise never have had occasion to discover.
Within just a few hours of bringing Jailbird and Colette to their new home, we already had our first very, very fresh egg. Colette and Jailbird were mature, laying hens; with two 3-year old children at home, we were looking for immediate gratification and that is exactly what the hens delivered.
We were also looking for our young children to understand the cycle of a chicken’s life—feed the chickens, give them water, care for them and in return they’ll give you eggs, the shells of which go back into the food for the chickens. And so the cycle went, every day for about eight months.
Leo, the younger and more food-interested of the two children, became an expert egg-cracker for our every-morning omelet ritual. Ethan, the older and more risk-averse of the two, learned not to nearly have a heart attack when one of the chickens ducked out of the coop while we had the gate open and flapped its wings. After a few failed attempts
Leo and Ethan both learned to hold the fresh eggs and walk, carefully, back to the house. And they both got the fact that if we feed the chickens, the chickens will feed us.
It was a success all around. Not that there weren’t a few hiccups along the way.
I didn’t know the first thing about raising chickens so I did what most overly contemplative people do and headed straight for the library. Still Life with Chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea, by Catherine Goldhammer, has become a favorite not just because Goldhammer shares her own step-by-step process of bringing chickens into her
home, and not just because it happens to be based right here in easternMassachusetts. It’s now a favorite because it’s simply a well-written story, poignant and true and helpful.
I learned from Goldhammer to inquire at my town hall about getting a permit for raising chickens at home. My town, it turns out, does require a permit but it was a simple process: photocopy a map of the property, indicate on the map where the chickens will be housed (it needs to be a certain distance from any body of water) and complete a request form. It was not complicated, and took just a few weeks to process.
Jailbird and Colette seemed to settle in quite nicely and for several weeks we harvested between 10 and 12 eggs each week.The eggs themselves were beautiful in a so-fresh-they-still-have-feces-on-them kind of way. We gave plenty away (after we washed them), and we experimented making cakes with Jailbird and Colette eggs versus storebought
eggs. The cakes with Jailbird and Colette eggs always raised higher.
Then, mid-August, the flow of eggs stopped. Just…stopped. For two weeks, it was as though Jailbird and Colette went on strike. They gave us no eggs whatsoever even though our feeding and water ritual with them hadn’t changed at all.
Stumped, I emailed the farmer, who asked a series of diagnostic questions. No, nothing has changed in their environment, I told him. Yes, they’ve had water every day. Yes, they seem to be eating regularly.
“Then they must be in shock,” he said.
That would make three of us, I thought. How could chickens go into shock?
“We had a very bad storm a few weeks ago,” he explained, “with lightning
and thunder and hail. They probably got freaked out, and their
bodies have shut down for a while.”
Their bodies shut down?Was he saying that chickens don’t need to lay an egg every single day?
“I’m happy if two-thirds of my chickens are laying on any given day,” he said, in response to my incredulity. “Chickens need a break too sometimes.”
Which made sense, once I thought about it. Funny how natural the flow of nature is (and how monotone our assumptions are, without any hands-on experience of the “nature” in question).
“Give them some time,” he encouraged. “They’ll come out of it.”
And they did, eventually, though their rate of egg-laying never recovered to their previous capacity.
August gave way to fall, and fall gave way to the lower temperatures of November. It was time to make a decision: rig up some sort of heating system to keep the chickens’ water from freezing so that we could keep them through the winter, or slaughter the chickens for their meat, or simply give them back to the farmer.
Again I consulted the farmer. And again his logic reigned, especially in relation to chickens lasting through the winter.
“When it gets cold outside, we could tuck into our down-filled sleeping bags,” he said. “Chickens are already equipped for that.”
Which meant the chickens would do just fine all throughout theMassachusetts winter. It was just a question of whether we wanted to invest the time in their upkeep.
I asked him if he’d take Jailbird and Colette back on his farm. “I’d love to,” he said. “But I can’t. I tried that one year even though other farmers told me not to, and all the material I read told me not to. I did it anyway, and I learned my lesson.” The chickens were returned to him with some sort of cold that infected his flock, and he wound up killing off upwards of 100 birds.
So that option was out, but we had decided that our time with Jailbird and Colette had run its course. It wasn’t that the investment over the winter would have been all that great; it was more that we wanted to complete what we’d started eight months ago. To the farmer that meant slaughtering, or culling, the chickens, which is something he does for his own chickens in the late fall and early winter each year.
State regulations don’t allow farmers to slaughter chickens on behalf of the public but the law is just vague enough that many local farmers do it, under the radar, for a small number of their neighbors.
We agreed I’d bring Jailbird and Colette back on a designated Friday morning in November. I was prepared to watch the process but the slaughter area hadn’t yet been staged, so I left the chickens with the farmer and they stayed in their box until later that afternoon when the farmer and his crew were ready to begin. He told me to come back that
evening; they’d process Jailbird and Colette in the afternoon and keep them refrigerated until I returned.
In the meantime I considered how I’d prepare Jailbird and Colette in my kitchen at home. I’d gotten over the qualms of eating these chickens we’d raised for most of the past year—you feed the chickens, and sooner (with the eggs) or later (with their carcasses) they’ll feed you.The farmer told me I’d be getting back the entire bird, head and feet and all, so I planned to consult my uncle who’d worked his entire life as a butcher; he’d talk me through each step of preparing the bodies to cook.
But when I returned to the farm to pick up Jailbird and Colette, I was told by the farmer’s staff that the chickens were simply too small. There was not enough meat on their bones to make the culling—much less the cooking—process worthwhile.
In other words, they were too skinny.
Does that mean I hadn’t fed them enough? I asked. Had they not had enough room to exercise? Did they not build up enough muscle?
The answers were maybe, maybe and maybe.
Or maybe Jailbird and Colette were better off being raised to lay eggs than they were being raised for meat. There are different kinds of chickens, the people at the farm told me, and the different kinds are better for different purposes. Mine were not meant to be used for meat.
But I left the farm empty-handed, and feeling disheartened nonetheless. I thought of ways to improve on what seemed to be my mistakes, inadvertent though they may have been. Next year I’ll open up the run and give the chickens more room to roam. Next year I’ll ask for two chickens that lay eggs, and two other chickens that would be better raised for meat. Next year we’ll make the investment and plan to keep water flowing for the egg-layers all winter long.
As I drove the short distance home I said my thanks to Jailbird and Colette. It hadn’t ended the way I thought it would, but I learned my lessons and for that I am grateful.
Cathy Huyghe raises her chickens, and her two young sons, in Manchester- by-the-Sea. Her writing on wine in the Boston area can be found at 365daysofwine.com and RedWhiteBoston.com.