|Backyard Birds Take Flight
The sense and sensibility of raising chickens
By Karen Day
Photos by Paulette Phlipot
Canine lovers abound in the Wood River Valley, while cat and horse advocates attest theirs is the second most popular pet. However, when the Hailey City Council passed an ordinance last year allowing five live chickens per household, many locals officially added a fourth contestant, succumbing to the feathered love affair blossoming in cities across America. Poultry, however, are the only backyard pets of the four facing the probability of ending up on the dinner table.
Let me begin by admitting I’m not a "fowl" person. For most of my adult life, I've avoided serious contemplation of all things chicken, except the high risks of fried and the pox. There is good reason for my ambivalence. As a child, I spent summers on a farm, 16 dirt miles from Lavonia, Indiana, population 321. Here lived my Aunt Grace and Uncle Cedric. Their spanking-white clapboard house and well-used tornado shelter sat in the middle of 200 acres of sweet corn and resembled an idyllic Old MacDonald movie set every day but Saturday, when the barnyard became a sequel to SAW.
The day before Sunday was always bloody—at least for any chicken doomed as the weekly feast after our obligatory visit to Lavonia's oven-baked Presbyterian Church. I was a nervous child already, and when my aunt picked up the axe and headed toward the coop, I would invariably sob for a poultry reprieve—to no avail. This barnyard-to-plate ritual probably explains why I've suffered several fashionable but failed attempts as a vegan.
I still prefer to eat my eggs in cake. And so it was, until I stepped into the new world of chicken-mania.
"Which came first: the chicken or the egg?" This riddle sounds like a philosophical debate between Dr. Seuss and the Kentucky colonel on a bender. Google, however, offers more than 100,000 historical references to the question. Mounting proof attests that chickens are commanding national attention and enjoying a renaissance of urban dwelling. Backyard Poultry magazine claims a circulation of 100,000 and growing. Forty thousand members log on to Backyardchickens.com forums and 15,000 admit to watching Terry Golson's Boston-based "Hencam." (This writer too, strictly as research, was oddly absorbed in the Sisyphean trials of one showy crested Polish whose bouffant hairdo is as bold as her namesake, Tina Turner.) USA Today, Washington Post, The New York Times and even that literary bastion The New Yorker have all carried stories on the current hen-keeping craze.
Our own valley stumbled into the national spotlight when Community School students raised 16 fuzzy chicks in a highly orchestrated, experiential banquet of the food chain gone wrong. The eighth-grade project faced criticism and possible legal consequences as a Virginia-based animal protection organization accused them of animal cruelty.
No, really, it's true. And too bad the poultry advocates didn't call me first. As a humanitarian journalist, I could attest those chickens ate better and suffered less than most people I meet traveling the Third World.
What explains this resurgent interest in bringing home chickens and the bacon? The economy? Sustainability? Peer-poultry pressure?
Fairfield residents Cheryl and Richard Feucht, amidst 50 pecking hens, explain. "We like knowing where our food comes from and what it has eaten—before we eat it."
The Feuchts moved from a large city in Ohio to the Camas Prairie a year ago. The wide-open vistas of southwestern Idaho offered them more room for growing food and animals than they could imagine back in their Midwest county of 500,000 people. Camas County brags 1,000 residents and the town of Fairfield, 400. Cheryl and Richard’s tidy ranchette nestles close to the foothills, looking on treeless horizons that bleed into an eternity of purple-and-blue shadows. With rabbits, Blue Slate turkeys, chickens and a large garden, the Fuechts are living the proverbial city-slicker's dream of moving back to the land. But who knew dreaming was such hard work?
Their chicken flock began with a trip to D&B and the purchase of 90 identical yellow chicks ($3.50 each). A picture chart assured that they were taking home two different breeds and mostly pullets (females under 1-year-old). Much like fortune telling, sexing chicks is a complicated, mystical process that demands a good deal of faith and patience from paying customers. The Feuchts, after a year of fresh drumsticks, some local bartering for red meat and a 10 percent natural death rate, now maintain a winter flock of about 50, including 14 enthusiastic roosters. Only darkness or death can stop these males from strutting their stuff. With puffed chests and crimson combs, these loud braggarts ensure the eggs are fertilized. Their sole purpose is to annoy and refurbish the flock. The closest neighbors, along with five buffalo wandering their yard, live two merciful acres away. "Dawn can be wicked," Richard said, shaking his head.
We walk among shiny Black Australorps and rare Buckeyes, all brown and fat. "Roasters and layers," as Richard calls them, these hens peck endlessly at invisible gems around our feet, their soft cooing and clucking a kind of soothing agri-white noise in the prairie’s silence. The wind is uncommonly quiet. Richard notes that if the flock survives this first winter, they will earn the title of "preservationist" breeders.
"We chose Buckeyes not by coincidence," he said. "Ohio is the Buckeye State."
"I don't even like eggs," said Cheryl, stepping gingerly among the Australorps. Yet she commutes to Hailey for her day job at Power Engineers and returns home each night, looking forward to chicken chores. "I enjoy having them around. It's relaxing. And they taste so much better than store-bought chickens." The conversation is beginning to sway dangerously close to sharp objects and an ugly Aunt-Grace flashback. "I prefer fish," I add abruptly. For the record, no chickens were harmed in the writing of this article.
"The smaller the comb, the better the chicken will winter," said Richard, a third-generation farmer. This will be the first winter for the Feucht flocks, and the couple openly wonders what will happen, "as the snow drifts higher and the fence gets shorter."
The Australorps’ black plumage glistens green and purple, obsidian in the sun. Originally from Australia (and named as if they were a baseball team), the breed is calm, friendly and offers dependable caches of light-brown eggs. Inspecting the nests, I feel a childish excitement finding two eggs in the straw. "Production goes up as the days get longer—and vice versa,” Cheryl said. "What we don't eat, we sell or trade." When the nearest grocery store is 25 miles away, raising chickens makes egg-cellent sense.
However, the romance of turning your patio into a barnyard should not be exaggerated. Chicks are like toddlers: God made them tiny and cute so you don't kill them for demanding so much attention.
Hatchlings must be kept warm for four weeks in incubators or homemade adaptations. A bathtub works. Line it with cardboard or wood shavings, apply a heat lamp until the temperature hits 90 degrees Fahrenheit (be vigilant, or you will find a tiny meal or a bonfire in your bathroom). Feed, water, clean and repeat, repeat, repeat while adjusting the temperature down one degree each day and thinking it would be more practical to fill your bathtub with goldfish. The joy of wing clipping awaits. Twice. Next, coop and roost construction—or better yet, buy a ready-made, shipped-to-your-door plastic Eggloo.
One must also consider economics, but not too closely.
In 1948, a dozen eggs cost 55 cents. The average family earned less than $10 a day or the equivalent of 17 dozen eggs. No wonder so many housewives saw the economic genius of adopting chickens. The term "nest egg" actually originated with this homespun method of earning extra cash. Today, a dozen mass-produced eggs cost as little as $1.29. Factored for inflation, that’s $7.
I didn’t expect math in a chicken story, but I estimate the cost of raising your own dozen eggs could buy you a tank of gas (or cost you a home if you’re inept with the heating lamp). The price of cheap food, however, isn’t cheap. The carbon footprint of that drumstick you’re eating may be huge. Don’t forget to savor the taste of the pesticide-laden feed, growth-hormone additives and chemically injected preservatives.
Nutrition alone is reason enough to eat organic and local, insists Dick Springs. He and his wife, Melinda, founded the Sustainability Center in Hailey where most of the food has traveled no more than 50 miles to get to your plate. "One fresh egg has 7 percent more beta carotene, two-thirds more vitamin A, twice the Omega 3s, three times the vitamin E, with one-third less cholesterol and one-quarter less saturated fat," said Dick. All this good news is available for about $5 a dozen (no wing-clipping required) at the Sustainability Center, Idaho’s Bounty and local grocery stores.
Hailey residents Jack and Connie McCabe are not into chickens for the money or the meat. "It's an interesting and enjoyable experiment," says Jack. Comfortably retired, living two blocks from Atkinsons’ grocery store, they readily admit convenience played no part in their decision to test the city of Hailey’s new ordinance. "Chickens need pet-sitters," Connie said, "so we don’t travel that much." Their beautifully remodeled 1920s home and immaculate landscaping offer no hint of livestock. Theirs is designer barnyard décor—as are their chickens. No ordinary roasters need apply at this address—imagine Rio’s Carnival on a Paris runway.
Bubbles is a champagne-colored Buff Orpington. I fight the unadvised urge to stroke her down coat, fluffy and luxurious as light mink. La Fonda is a silver-laced Wyandotte, inspired by a character in Napoleon Dynamite. She is a feathered variation on Victoria's Secret in black, white and red. A Rhode Island Red is called Fifi Deux, carrying the mantle for an earlier and beloved predecessor. Another black and white, a Barred Rock, closely resembles the Wyandotte, but clearly resides at the bottom of the pecking order. Her name is Rodney King, and she suffers from mild intimidation and rejection, especially from a showy caramel-colored light Brahma rightly called Nemesis. This she-devil-hen wears feathers on her feet and acts like she’s covered in diamonds.
Touring the coop, Jack points out his viewing bench. He sits here on summer evenings with a glass of good merlot, watching his chickens cluck happily around their luxury digs. The bench is now covered in snow, but I take a seat anyway.
This poultry reality show offers far more interesting fare than anything on television.
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