My Chickens, My Self?

By B.J. Roche

"Where'd you go, out for a walk?" my husband asked as I stepped into the kitchen just after dark recently.

"No, I was just out with the birds," I said. He shot me a look, and I had to take stock of who I was and where our relationship was heading. As we embarked upon our third year raising a small backyard flock of chickens, what began as an exercise in "Green Acres" chic has given way to a concern:

Have I become a woman who loves her chickens too much?

Over the summer I had gotten got into the habit of pouring myself a vodka and tonic, going out to the yard, and sitting in a plastic chair next to the coop while our small collection of chickens settled in for the evening.

Sometimes I'd read the paper, but mostly I'd watch. I loved to observe, as the younger flock of Wyandottes and Araucanas jockeyed for the best position on the outdoor roost. The way the older hens would always take the same spot on the right side of the coop and peck at each other as they scootched their way into a sleeping position.

Sunshine, the hulking Buff Orpington rooster, would strut back and forth, choose his spot from below, then hop up onto the roost and nestle in between the ladies, two on one side, one on the other, like Hugh Hefner club-sandwiched into a set of bodacious triplets.  Wanderer, the black and white Barred Rock hen, is always the first to doze off, crooking her neck down into her torso, her heavy eyelids lazing shut while the younger birds are still trawling the food bin.

What is best about a chicken at rest is the sound--so soothing it should be bottled: old hens drifting off to sleep emit a low-level purr, like Marge Simpson on Xanax.

When we first got our chickens a few years ago, we never expected that they would replace the television set. Or the dog. Or the therapist. If this makes me a kook, I take solace from the fact that I'm in good company. It's always a pleasure to meet  chicken person, and there are hundreds of them, all over New England, raising small backyard flocks of a dozen, maybe more, chickens.

It's not always a copasetic situation; the village of West Stockbridge was roiled awhile back over the issue of whether a woman  could keep chickens--more specifically, a rooster--in densely populated neighborhoods.

And those who don't raise chickens often live vicariously through those who do. Carpenter Tony Cordray, 50, says the webcam he put up in his chicken yard in West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard has drawn about 70,000 hits since he went online on April 1, 2001.

 "They're fun to watch," he says. "The majority of the people are in offices and like to watch while they're working. They find it relaxing."

 One particular fan club developed at the corporate offices of Dunkin' Donuts, Cordray says. "The whole office began to watch. They sent me e-mails and free coffee. It sounded like they had the thing up on a big screen in the office."
Indeed, few things are more amusing than watching a chicken eat a strand of leftover spaghetti cadged from the compost pile. I love to watch them take their dust baths in the loose dirt under the shed, scratch through the leaves in the woods, squabble over nothing.

The birds are good company when I'm gardening, following around as I loosen the dirt, nipping the Japanese beetles I cull off the roses right out of my hand.

 Of course, life with chickens is not all custards and meringues, particularly around the yard. Chickens are diggers, and they'll leave their holes where you least expect them.

 To a chicken, a fence is not a boundary; it's more of an idea, a mere suggestion that may be taken or left alone. If they're inside, they want out. If they're out, well, you get the picture.

 But the rewards outweigh the costs. Our efforts to round them up into the coop every evening inspired money- making idea: a video game with chickens. (Memo to Sega: Call me!)

 And when my neighbor needed three tail feathers from the tail of a live rooster for a feng-shui ceremony to get rid of her migraines, you know who she called.

Tony Cordray says he's seen an uptick in links from Arab websites--he doesn't know who they are, because he can't read their names. But when he decorated the site for Christmas, he kept it non-denominational, out of respect for his birds' fans in the Middle East.

 Okay, maybe I am overly obsessed with my birds. But if chickens can help connect us to Internet users in the Arab world, why not here at home? This winter we'll be sitting in Blue State Massachusetts, thumbing through the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalogue in Red-State Iowa, trying to decide: more Araucanas and Wyandottes or Mottled Houdans? Buff Brahmas or Black Langshans? Politics and borders may separate us, but chickens can bring us together.

Even if they don't, to steal a line from Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," we all need the eggs.

Copyright, B.J. Roche, 2006.