There is nothing more relaxing than sitting outside on a late spring morning listening to chickens clucking contentedly as they scuff and forage. Occasionally, the rooster finds something particularly good and calls over the hens to share it. It's the kind of scene that everyone imagines of country life.
The rooster lifts his head, suddenly alert and protective. Is it a fox, a raccoon, maybe a loose dog? No, it's just someone thumping the bass on their car stereo while waiting at the McDonald's drive-thru across the street.
We've had our Midtown chickens for three years now, and it has been a learning experience. What started as a quest for fresh eggs has turned into sometimes begging our neighbors to please, please take a dozen eggs. Maybe two dozen?
We bought what we thought were tiny egg factories. But they're as much pets as any other animal that has found its way into our home. They have individual personalities, favorite foods, favorite spots for dust baths, and favorite nests in their coop.
We know, for instance, that as soon as we open the door to their run, our little red hen Pie is going to stick her head out as far as she can to grab any blade of grass she can reach. We know that Trifle, our rooster, will always let the hens eat first unless there's cornbread — he prefers not to share that. Cheesecake has scraped out her dust-bath spot in the corner of the run closest to our house, and she doesn't like it if anyone else tries to get in her spot. Speckles chose her favorite nest spot to try becoming a mother for the first time; we're not sure how many eggs she's sitting on — she can peck really hard.
We've watched one hen grab a choice bit of vegetation or bread and take off running, quickly pursued by another hen who may not know what's been grabbed but knows she wants it. We've watched them discover that they like fresh corn on the cob and that tomatoes may be a little bit hard to get into but are worth every bit of effort.
They're funny and friendly, and they can easily get a place in your heart. And they can break your heart too.
We're on our second group of chickens. We lost the first ones when a possum or a raccoon worked its way into our run. We never heard a thing, but when we went out to feed them the next morning, we found a sight that none of us ever wants to see again. The only survivor was our questionably named rooster Karen, and he was badly injured.
For the next three weeks, he lived in the deep clawfoot tub in our bathroom where we medicated his wounds twice a day and worked to get him to eat and drink. He never made a sound the whole time.
He got better. Feathers grew in where they had been ripped out, he took a definite interest whenever someone came into the bathroom (you haven't lived until you've been stared down by a rooster while you're on the toilet), and he started eating again without us having to coax him. We put him back outside with our younger generation, and for a long time he seemed to be doing well. He even started crowing again.
But those injuries had taken their toll. As the weather grew cooler, he had more and more trouble getting around. He dragged a wing as if it hurt too much to pull it close. He slept in the run, because he couldn't make the three-inch jump into the coop. He wasn't happy or healthy anymore.
And so we made a decision that most pet owners have to make at some point, but unlike most pet owners, there was no one who could end his pain except us. Yes, we killed him. It was the hardest thing that my husband Paul and I have ever done in our lives. We both cried. We thought about turning him into wonderful coq au vin as a celebration of his life, but we just couldn't. We gave him to people who we knew would do it right and enjoy it. (Karen was roasted and finished in a stockpot.)
We've been through highs and lows with our flock, but we love having them. It's not always easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever really is.
Angela and Paul Knipple write the blog "From the Southern Table" at paulandangela.net. They're also working on The World in a Skillet, a book about first-generation immigrants and food in the South. For more information on raising chickens, go to mypetchicken.com and idealpoultry.com.