I didn’t yet have a backyard, but I absolutely wanted backyard chickens. In my early 20s, still schlepping a bicycle up to a third-floor apartment in Chicago, seeds of my casual interest in poultry husbandry started to take hold. It began when a friend delivered me a dozen pastel-colored eggs from her small flock. Two fried eggs on ramen, a perfectly composed Instagram post, and dozens of likes later, I had my own chicken-rearing aspirations.
But I also wasn’t the agrarian type. First, I grew up in Jersey. The only plant I knew growing up had the words Dow Chemical before it. When I was a still a restaurant writer, I could spit out names of 10 neighborhood diners that made unctuous, hangover-curing eggs Benedict. But as for how those eggs got from the chicken to the plate? Uh, let me ask Siri and get back to you.
Still, I had my reasons. I would have a seemingly endless supply of eggs, none fresher, which would be next-level delicious. And we were living in the midst of a cultural backlash to antibiotics, hormones, and industrial agricultural practices. My friends could eat at all the wholesome, clean restaurants they wanted; I would do them one better. (Plus, cute chickens, let’s face it, would be a boon to my social media game.)
Earlier this year, love and chance brought me to Missoula, Montana, where my boyfriend and I landed in a house with a suitably sized backyard. Finally, my opportunity to raise chickens and savor their sunflower-yolked eggs had arrived. I lobbied hard for some cute chicks to populate the yard, bookmarking dozens of shakshuka recipes to show my boyfriend as incentive. After Googling “tiny cute chickens for sale near me right now please,” I located a ranch supply store, and this past spring, brought home six plum-sized, days-old chicks.
What was to be the beginning of my new bucolic phase quickly turned into a real motherclucker. Even with hours spent browsing an online backyard chicken forum, I failed to fully anticipate the less charming side of raising chickens. Chickens get sick. Chickens shit all over the place. When they’re not shitting, they’re tearing up your garden. And while they’re being sick and shitting all over and tearing up your garden, your beloved Labrador retriever is eyeing these birds as a moving, feathered, six-piece McNuggets meal. And after a few short weeks of being photogenic and adorable, these chickens enter their awkward, gangly phase.
Initially, I viewed these chickens as a means to delicious omelets, flaunting my urban-homestead cred, and deep inside perhaps, very publicly showboating my high moral righteousness. What I didn’t think through was that for these baby chickens, I would become their mother.
At first, I internalized each chicken complication as a setback, a failure on my part. The first night the chicks were home, too small yet to live outside, I placed them at bedtime in a straw-filled tub in my basement. Something compelled me to wake up at 2 a.m. It didn’t feel right. I headed to my basement and, to my horror, found them face-down under their heat lamp, wings splayed. I thought I had inadvertently roasted them all. I may have screamed, which was what made them pick their heads up. They quickly went back to sleep. I certainly didn’t.
A few days later, the Speckled Sussex hen began to blink wildly in one eye, and I started freaking out. I assumed the other chicks were pecking at her for being the runt. Somewhere from a previously untapped spring within me my motherly instincts surfaced, and I separated her into her own pen, fussed over her. No one’s gonna hurt you now, little lady. After a day, her blinking tick ceased. It was merely dust in her eye.
My urbanite friends were merely intrigued, not jealous. I groused about how loud the flock can be in the morning, how I’m constantly washing my hands, how my boyfriend tried to shoo the chickens out of the garden with a Super Soaker. No, the chickens don’t rub up against my leg likes cats or look forward to my arrival, unless I’m carrying a pumpkin seed snack. I tried recording a video of my prettiest hen, the White Brahma, pecking her way through the bucolic spring lawn. She shat six seconds into it. I sent the video to a few friends anyway.
On the Thursday before Easter, a scene straight from the Old Testament played out so horribly I couldn’t share it with anyone for days. It’s known in our house as the Holy Thursday Massacre, and we still speak of it only indirectly. The culprit was our sweet six-year-old labrador, Camas, the one who’d been eyeing the chickens for a while. While the chickens were in their outdoor run with the door latched, she tore the wire off and slid in. Camas hadn’t quite eaten them, just beheaded them and strewn their bodies across the yard in bloody tufts. Coming home to find the remnants of six adolescent chicks sucked, a lot.
The dog understood my cracking voice and was penitent when I found her hiding under our deck. She’d been partially trained as a hunting dog, and a few weeks living alongside some chicks wasn’t going to change her evolutionary instincts.
I didn’t entirely blame her, instead blaming myself for not securing the coop better and for not keeping the dog inside. I couldn’t go back out to the yard to clean up their headless remains, couldn’t make the phone call to tell my friends what happened, couldn’t even look at the dog. I didn’t want to tell anyone about how I’d failed at the most basic part of raising animals: keeping them alive. I surprised even myself with my level of grief, crying sporadically throughout the rest of the day like I’d lost family.
The half-dozen chicks were more work than I thought could be packed into just a few feathered ounces, but they were my pains in the ass. I chose them, housed them, taught them to use the water dispenser, fed them special chick food, wiped their fluffy little butts with paper towels. They were my charges, and I cared about them. With all six of them dead, I told myself I was done with backyard chickens.
I could have found solidarity among other members of the online backyard chicken forums, if I’d had the interest in reading them again. Having your poultry eaten by predators domestic or wild actually isn’t a rare occurrence. Months later, a fellow Missoulian named Megan would recount to me her horror story of watching helplessly as an alley raccoon disemboweled her pet duck. Cold shit. But I didn’t know any of this at the time; I was alone in my guilt and grief. Friends texted to ask how the chicks were, and I ignored them.
An article in Hobby Farms’ Chickens magazine, which I receive bimonthly, offers wise counsel. This fall’s feature story about a picturesque homestead called Cold Antler Farm in Jackson, New York, began with: “A foxy visitor slaughters half your flock in the week hours of the morning? Don’t give up.” After I’d beaten myself up and moped for days, I had a decision to make. Was I going to let this be the finale of my long-held chicken dream, or was I going to try again in hopes of a better ending?
A few days passed, and the small piece of me that had learned anything from the first batch of chicks began to hum. Raising your own food, be it for eggs or vegetables or bacon, has never been an easy task. Weather happens, predators kill, diseases wipe out your crop. It’s why we shop at grocery stores. It’s easy. Raising food—at least raising food the right way—is hard.
If I wanted the satisfaction of fresh eggs from my own chickens, I wasn’t going to Instagram my way to it. I hadn’t thought it would come to literal blood, sweat and tears, but so it goes. I reflected on the six little lives that had come to their untimely end in my backyard. Until Camas had her say, they’d been progressing. Pretty well in fact. Most sources caution that a few out of every dozen chicks won’t make it to adolescence, but all of mine had. I’d kept them warm, fed, hydrated, and probably given them about as much happiness as an undersized chicken brain can experience. I wasn’t a miserable chicken mom.
When the worst-case scenario has already happened, it frees you to embrace all the other mistakes you could potentially make. So I gave it another shot. Back to the ranch supply store, back to the basement heat lamp setup, back to the fluffy butt wiping. Six new baby chicks came home, slept face-down like weirdos, and grew up to move outside and start laying eggs.
They live in the newly fortified, homemade coop constructed of scrap plywood, shingles, old curtains and wire. Our neighbors have an old crabapple tree, and they toss the ugliest apples over the fence for my ladies to feast on. I trade the neighbors back eggs, which I swear are faintly sweet and fruity the day after an apple buffet. Sometimes the hens lay strangely shaped eggs, oblong bumpy ones with double yolks or, just once, a perfectly spherical mahogany one the size of a quarter. Their eggs are normally brown and boring, not Easter egg imitators. Inside are rich, orange yolks the color of a hazy tropical sun.
These six chicks are going to be around a while, and I’m going to have the tastiest eggs to show for it. I named these six—Ellen, Left Eye, Little, Joni, Stevie, and Tina—so confident am I that they’re going to make it. And when this year’s Thursday before Easter rolls around, you better believe I’m gifting myself a Chicken Mom of the Year coffee mug.