By Jourdan Arenson
When my daughter was a high school senior, she asked if she could keep chickens in the backyard. My first thought was, “Great. Another thing to take care of.” But I have always been stingy about letting her keep animals, so I agreed. Besides, I figured we could use the eggs.
My daughter built a coop and brought home four buff Orpingtons. In the following months, she collected lots of eggs. When she moved away to college, responsibility for the chickens fell to me. I collected lots of eggs for the next three years. But recently, my son also moved away to college, and suddenly, my wife and I became empty nesters with a full chicken coop. And we’re not getting any more eggs.
Spring ended, but nobody has started laying. While a typical chicken lays for only four seasons, it can live for up to 10 years. Facing seven years of chicken elder-care, I decided to explore my options for freeing myself of them.
I first checked with the city’s Animal Services department. The folks there said they had never gotten a call to pick up hens that won’t lay. Sometimes they get calls to rescue an escaped chicken that’s roaming a neighbor’s yard or crossing the road, presumably to get to the other side. But they don’t collect old hens.
I then asked my neighbor Whitey. He sends his old hens to a friend’s farm, where they live out their days among the younger chickens. Eventually, the old hens die or a fox gets them. A gentle soul, Whitey has a talk with his hens to prepare them for changes to come. He explains that they are going to join a new flock — a flock with a rooster: “You’ve never met a rooster before.”
I’m not one to talk to my hens, and “retiring” my chickens seemed like the coward’s way out. I figured the local and sustainable thing would be to eat them. Food columnist Ari LeVaux encouraged me to do just that without regret: “Your hens lived immeasurably better lives than the average chicken. It was a good thing. It came to an end. Now eat some coq au vin.”
My friend Walt, who shoots and eats game birds, said he’d show me how to dress one of them, but I’d have to dress the other three myself. This sounded reasonable, until I reflected that “dressing” was really more like “undressing,” requiring me to pull out guts, pluck off feathers, sever heads and feet.
What’s more, old hens are said to have tough stringy meat. Meanwhile, I can spend just a few dollars and buy a tasty tender chicken — one that is already dead and naked and lying motionless in my grocer’s cooler. If that chicken in the cooler had a name, I have no idea what it was.
Not so with the chickens in my backyard. They’re named after “secretaries of the 1950s” theme: Doris, Gladys, Myrna and Harriet. I have never been able to tell which chicken is which. That’s because chickens don’t suck up in cuddly ways to show how special they are. I suppose this should make it easier for me to get rid of them. But the truth is, I like them more because they don’t demand emotional attention.
My hens never want to be picked up and soothed. If one hops the fence and can’t make her way back to the coop, she hates to see me coming to her rescue. She runs away. I have to corner her, and when I reach down to grab her, she cuts back and escapes between my legs. But if I stand nearby and ignore her, she walks towards me with curiosity. She looks at me out of one eye, tilts her head to look out of the other eye, then steps forward to peck the grass at my feet.
This makes chickens easy to please. When I want to give them some special pampering, I just kick over a log to expose a night crawler twisting in the mud. A chicken always trots over, grabs a worm, then gobbles it down like spaghetti.
So I guess the girls are not much trouble. They do, however, impinge on my freedom. What if I want to fly to Vegas? Or sell the house and buy a sailboat? Then again, I don’t like gambling and don’t know how to sail. I do enjoy spending time at home, even though things are pretty quiet here with the teenagers gone. My wife and I aren’t laying any more eggs ourselves.
I guess I can decide later. For now, I’ll let the hunting, scratching and pecking of the “secretaries of the ’50s” keep my backyard lively.
Jourdan Arenson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Oregon.