I’m a member of a Backyard Poultry Meet-up Group, and a link to this fine article on The Emotional Side of Raising Poultry, by K.J. Theodore, was posted on one of their message boards recently. (Reading the article first will help you make more sense of what follows.)
To which a member responded with this comment:
“Good article. We recently lost our first hen to sudden death on my daughter’s second birthday. We were sad, mourned the loss and gave her a proper burial. Life goes on. Our chickens have a very good life. We have accepted that they are in fact farm animals, albeit living in the city, and do and can die with no explanation. Wonderful life lesson for my daughter.”
Hmmmm – Farm animals ‘do and can die with no explanation’?
I can see how she might jump to that conclusion. After all, they are ‘just’ farm animals – Right?
Is it considered normal that farm animals ‘just die’, for – apparently – no reason?
Having been a professional zookeeper, I could understand a knee-jerk dismissal of mere ‘domestic’ farm animals as being somehow less predictable, and less ‘worthy’ than – Well, than any other animals.
But life has a way of teaching us where we are wrong. Especially if we’re willing to listen.
My chickens have taught me just how wrong I was. More on that in a minute.
Now, as for sudden death, or worthiness, I don’t think the ‘farm animal’ distinction makes much sense. There is always an explanation for an animal’s death; we just may not be able to figure out what it is. I’ve cared for delicate wild species in captivity which also sometimes appear to ‘die for no reason’, but to me that doesn’t make it OK, or normal; it just means we need to learn a whole lot more about the right way to nurture the animals in our care. Some domestic species may have real health challenges because of what we’ve done to ‘breed-in’ the characteristics we value (which often are not the ones that would help them survive in the wild and might even be exactly the opposite) but still, there is always a reason.
I think it’s dangerous to dismiss any species or breed as ‘just a farm animal’ or ‘just vermin’. Not that anyone here is advocating this, but, taken to a logical extreme, that’s how people justify all sorts of atrocities against those ‘less desirable’ – humans and non-humans, alike.
As for how my chickens have shown me the light, for those not yet initiated, these are not the mindless, brainless machines most of us have been lead to believe. The fact that the factory-farm industry does nothing to dispel that image attests only to their desire to continue ‘business as usual’ with fewer protests from animal advocacy groups. Because factory farming is one of the cruelest and most inhumane practices on the planet. But that is a different story.
I didn’t think chickens were a big deal, either. After all, as a former zookeeper, I took care of ‘real’ animals – rare, endangered, important and exotic creatures like black rhinos, Asian elephants, aardvarks, crocodiles, porcupines, bison, giraffe, parrots, eagles, lemurs, marmosets, monitors, skinks, cranes . . . You get the picture.
I was all about wildlife, particularly endangered species. ‘Worthy’ animals. Not domestic livestock. Not ‘farm animals’.
Yup, I was a species snob.
Worse, I was snobbish in tiers; The more rare, the better. The more exotic, the more I liked it.
I love pets, and applied the same rationale. So, pets (especially ‘exotic’ pets), outranked livestock.
I love birds. Especially wild ones, and particularly rare parrots (which I bred and raised.) So any altricial species (blind helpless hatchlings that need mouth-to-mouth feeding by the parent, or spoon feeding by me) were eminently worthy of my attention. By extension, softbills, finches and domesticated fine song canaries, were ‘in’.
Chickens? Heck, they’re precocial (born with open eyes and running around and pecking at food). Where was the challenge in that? They didn’t ‘need’ me to raise them. Heck, they seemed to raise themselves. They weren’t migratory like ducks or cranes, needing to learn long-distance journeys from their parents. Without that, then, how close a bond could there possibly be? They certainly never NEEDED anyone. Wild fowl species in a zoo setting may be worth my time, but domestic chickens? And, besides, they’d had their brains bred out of them and had no personality.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
A little background, here. I thought it would be a hoot to be able to bring a couple fresh eggs in for breakfast once in a while. Part of urban sustainability, getting ‘off the grid’, not supporting factory farms or Big Ag – All noble ideals.
Chickens were to be just a means to further my mission.
But – as for any particular fascination with the chickens, themselves? Well, compared to parrots and owls, toucans and hornbills, what was there to be obsessed over? They were just chickens, right?
Well, somewhere between my review copy of Patricia Foreman’s book City Chicks, and a visit to The Chicken Lady at Fernbank Science Museum in Atlanta, the intrigue began.
When I began researching breeds, I was overwhelmed. I’d never even heard of most of these creatures, no less thought of anything like Heritage or Endangered Breeds. Gorgeous, goofy-looking, dapper, tiny, huge, furry, half-naked, long ‘haired’ – You name it, there is a chicken that looks that way, and in an astonishing array of colors. More, each breed has a very distinctive personality. Some are flighty and nervous and others are – well, downright cuddly.
I couldn’t get enough.
I found myself staying up night after night, researching, looking at photos, joining chicken groups, finding out how to build enclosures.
I went with a friend to visit a friend who was raising Serama chickens (the smallest chicken breed) and found I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the baby chicks snuggle and burrow into the feathers of their Mom, who was lying flat out on a warm bare patch in the sun of his backyard during a day in late winter. She fluffed, she rolled, she wallowed, she sheltered her babies. She spoke to them, and to us, in soft and intricate little purrs and chuckles. She made eye contact with me.
I was unsettled by the intelligence I saw there.
The babies pecked, scratched, then hurried to Mom, snuggled and peeked out, relishing the contact, the closeness.
I was mesmerized for more than half an hour.
The charm of actual, live chickens began to creep over me.
Finally the breeder scooped her up and brought her and her little family safely inside. She purred as he stroked her.
My friend bought four chicks, two pairs. But I wasn’t ‘ready’ to get chickens yet.
Then I saw an ad on Craigslist for a pair of pet quality silkies, and next thing I knew I was bringing home two grown chickens in a cardboard box.
I admit I did that all wrong. All impulse. I then had to figure out how to house them, feed them, etc. I did it all backwards.
But I still have Emma and Emu, my blue hen and partridge roo with the worst crow on the planet.
I discovered that I loved putting them in the fenced yard to free range. In the afternoon I’d call them to their transfer pen, which they would go into on their own, and I’d reward them with treats for a while before bringing them into their night cage (an old rabbit cage) inside my home.
You see, I keep the roo, Emu, inside in the mornings and evenings so he won’t bother the neighbors with his new-found ability to crow. But I truly look forward to the days I can allow them to forage outside (I need to be there to watch for hawks and other predators). Many a morning I’ll take my coffee out onto the patio and just watch them. Sometimes for hours.
It’s called ‘Chicken TV’, I found out.
And oh, what great ‘TV’ it is. They are beautiful, entertaining, engaging, companionable, quaint, surprising, hypnotic and oh-so-relaxing to watch.
But that’s not the biggest unexpected thing.
Somewhere along the line I discovered Heritage breeds, and it turns out I like HUGE chickens (no bantams for this girl!), chickens with beards and muffs and furry feet, and lovable imps. I was learning about lovable, cuddly, gentle and highly-personable, friendly breeds and some that laid blue, green or chocolate-colored eggs.
I felt like a kid in a candy store.
Next thing I knew, I found myself ordering fertile hatching eggs online. And an incubator, and a hygrometer, and a digital thermometer, and putting together a brooder. My eggs arrived a few days later, were allowed to ‘settle’ from the jostling of shipment for a day, then installed into their new incubator. Then I had to get serious about figuring out how to build a coop on a shoestring budget.
I won’t even go into the drama involved in learning to incubate chicken eggs. It’s not as straight-forward as it seems. Suffice it to say, 21 days later I heard peeping coming from the eggs and within hours I had wet chicks scrambling around and more eggs pipping.
I also won’t go into the drama around trying to get a coop built with barely any money, and get it up quick, for my 20+ fast growing chicks of various rare, heritage and project breeds. I like to be able to go inside and sit with my chickens, so it had to be 6′ tall. I almost didn’t manage to get it done before the chicks outgrew their indoor cages.
But – I got it done. And I was eager to order more eggs!
Well, the deeper I got into this, the more addicted I became. Next thing I knew I was wanting to breed heritage strains. Which calls for breeder pens.
Can you tell I love my chickens?
I make the time to hand-feed my chickens every day, and cuddle those who enjoy it. I genuinely like gathering greens from my yard to feed them throughout the day, raking fallen leaves and pine straw to refresh the floor of their enclosure (bugs and all!) and sneaking out several times a day to offer treats, refill their wading pan (a remedy for summer heat) and just let them take my breath away with their magnificence.
I love their conversations, the little hmmms, caws, clucks, whines, cheeeeps, growls and purrs, not to mention shrieks, cries, indignant squawks and the somewhat repetitive ‘here’s an egg’/alert song that the boys will do, too, so it must not be just a ‘girl’ thing.
They love to communicate vocally and we can intuitively understand a lot of what they’re saying.
The only part I don’t really understand – yet – is the crow. It seems involuntary, unstoppable once started (meaning, I’ve never been able to stop a crow mid-stream by startling or picking up the crower) and without rhyme or reason. Most crows are so obnoxious they can hurt your teeth, but not all rooster crows are as hard to deal with. Some are deeper, less frequent, smoother or softer. Surprisingly, some breeds are actually selected for long crowing ability, which means the crow isn’t ‘fixed’ – so I suspect a more ‘urban friendly’ version of the traditional rooster is possible, with careful selective breeding and possible sacrifice of high fertility.
Some roosters really are mean. Some are frankly just not suited for backyard flocks. A few can beat up their hens and some can even be dangerous to people.
But not all. Many are, in fact, true gentlemen. They seem, in general, to be more curious, more social, more alert and intelligent, than hens. Most will protect their flocks, sometimes sacrificing their own lives in the process. A great rooster, should he find a particularly lovely morsel, will call and make exaggerated eating motions with his head to alert ‘the girls’ to the treasure, then calmly step aside to allow them to eat, while he keeps watch for predators.
Did I mention I love roosters?
My Dark Brahma boys have the uncannily astute, calculating eye of a velociraptor and the demeanor of a curious and slightly rambunctious puppy.
Scoop one up and he goes limp, looking around and sometimes so-gently picking specks of dust off my arm. If I offer him a tub of crumble feed, he will eat while tucked into the crook of my arm, furry legs hanging down loosely. I think I enjoy it as much as he does.
Some chickens do like to be cuddled. I can pet most of mine with impunity, including my roos. Some fly up onto my arms or shoulder for attention. Some love to have me fondle their beaks or gently rub their cheeks and wattles until their eyes close and they melt in my arms. Some are touchingly dependent and needy. If I am busy, they are crowding around my feet and looking up at me expectantly, or following me around.
And the most unexpected, most endearing thing I discovered about chickens?
The bottoms of their big, scaly, reptilian-looking feet are . . . warm . . . and oh-so-soft.
So, are chickens ‘just farm animals’?
I’ve endured the loss of untold numbers of animals over the years, creatures of all kinds, the most exotic of the exotics at the zoo as well as personal pets – beloved dogs, sweet, tame, talking parakeets, gentle and outgoing dwarf hamsters – and chickens. Each loss hurts. The worst hurts come from losing those I was most closely bonded with, regardless of species. Dogs of course, perhaps worst of all because the bond is so transparently mutual and deep, personal and intimate.
Even so, I cried like a baby and was stunningly depressed for days after stray dogs broke in to my new coop and killed half my chickens, just for fun.
It nearly ‘un-did’ me.
That incident really took me by surprise. I am an animal professional and have had to hold flamingos with broken legs while the zoo vet administered euthanasia. I try to be tough about it, although admittedly, the older I get, the harder it is. Yet, even I was unprepared for the grief, mourning and disbelief I experienced at the loss of my chickens.
Just farm animals?
We might have to live with death, but, despite the pain, I never want to get to the point where losing any animal is just routine. I have a few particularly affectionate and charismatic chickens that I dearly love, and to me, simply the ability – the PRIVILEGE – they grant me to be able to love like that, is worth any anguish of loss.
Interested in learning more about pet chickens? Join BackyardChickens.com or find a local backyard poultry meet-up group.