It was one of the weekends when my wife announces, out of the blue, that she is miserable, and except for our son, our marriage, essentially, is a disaster. I was building a chicken coop. We had both agreed we needed a new one ever since giving some friends our last flock (five old hens kept penned up in a rickety little cage who had long before lived out their usefulness as layers) because I hadn’t been able to bring myself to finishing them off on my own. When I become consumed by this sort of backyard project — working dawn to dusk on a notion, however vague, of elevating our suburban lives — my wife inevitably grows gloomy. She holds down a job too. And what with chores and a three-year old to attend to while her husband’s Skilsaw and hammer echo throughout the yard, my wife can come to view such weekends as further evidence that our joint existence is much the equal to pounding sand down a rat hole.
Things got a little ugly. Words were spoken, and my wife stormed off with the kid, pulling out of the driveway in her 20-odd-year old VW beetle — which is badly in need of a paint job and another sore point between us. I went out to the coop. By now the framing was done, the siding on, and the feeding and nesting boxes in place, and I was halfway through laying the asphalt shingles on the roof. It was definitely shaping up into one fine hen house. Yet with the door and roosts still to build, plus 50 feet of fence around the scratching pen, I was probably looking at another two weekends, minimum, before completing the job. Would I still be married? Would I get a call that night from Oregon from my mother-in-law saying her daughter and grandson were there safe with her in Portland? Did I even want chickens, if this was the price one had to pay for a few fresh eggs gleaned from the depth of quotidian inspiration?
I went on building. My wife and son returned at sunset. And the following afternoon we drove out to Bonsall, where we purchased a dozen week-old pullets of various breeds from a feed store in a newly constructed mini-mall. In the garage I set up the brooder pen — a circle of half-inch hardware cloth enclosing a deep litter of pine shavings, with feeder, waterer, and a 40-watt light bulb for heat — all of it covered with a window screen from the house for protection against our own and the neighborhood cats.
Our son was beside himself. He said he remembered our previous chickens, although I doubt he really did, other than on some remote, primordial level. He had nothing to compare to this, a bunch a fuzzy, peeping baby birds here at his very own a home. And when I helped him scatter the first bit of grow mash onto the litter and the chicks immediately began scratching and to actually feed, our son called the action in loud, semi-coherent interjections, turning back and forth between my wife and me, his eyes gleaming like the first sunrise.
“So?” I said to my wife, for lack of anything better to say.
“So what?” she replied. And then she softened a bit. “I hadn’t realized how much I missed having chickens around.”
Are chickens the proper enterprise for the modern family? Let’s get real about this right now. Chickens teach us about husbandry, domesticity, and death. The sole caveat to raising your own fresh eggs, both a visual and sensual delight in the present milieu of mass production, is the eventual need to do away with over-age layers. Once I had a notion to use their neck feathers for tying fishing flies; another time I tried to make amends for this sorrowful act by attempting a French recipe which, in translation, means something like “breast of old hen.” But there really isn’t much you can do with tough, outdated stock beyond burying them in the depths of a compost heap.
Sometimes it has been so difficult for me that I would only kill my chickens while in the grips of an icy hangover. Even then it’s a nasty job. Foregoing the traditional axe or cleaver, I prefer, as a kind of bestial recompense, to perform the deed with my bare hands: wringing their necks. Holding the legs in one hand with the neck in your other so that it protrudes through your middle two fingers, the head cupped in your palm, you push down and twist your hands so that the head bends back, stopping when you feel the backbone break. What follows is best left to imagination or firsthand experience, an emotionally electric interval that ends, quite succinctly, when you actually feel the life of the chicken departing.
But why say too much about that? Chickens, presumably, share little of our own perception of one’s ultimate fate. And I procured my first batch of chicks on no other premise than the eventual harvest of a few fresh eggs at the kitchen table.
I had to bend the rules. By law, one can keep up to two dozen chickens within the San Diego city limits, as long as they are no closer than 50 feet to any occupied dwelling. That’s either you or your neighbors. I was living in La Jolla, down near the Shores, in a tiny granny flat behind a house on a corner lot, and I built a coop on the perimeter of my little garden space, about 30 feet as the gull flies from my landlord’s living room. But there was a street on the other side, and my landlord still had sons around who were perpetually working on cars and boats or anything that could be disassembled and rebuilt. So chickens were more or less par for the course — the only restriction being the exclusion of any roosters.
One turned up anyway. When you purchase chicks, you can buy them sexed: that is, somebody somewhere has determined whether they are male or female. Don’t ask me how they know. Mistakes, however, are inevitable. There came a series of dawns when I heard a strange, disjointed crowing issuing from the confines of my homey, outlaw coop.
My landlord and I began exchanging knowing looks. A scientist by profession and a tolerant father above all else, Dr. B., as he was known, preferred not to subject anyone to his private, personal will. But a rooster in La Jolla was just not going to do. I drank some scotch one night, and in the morning I went out and dangled that young cock by its legs, breaking its neck with an abrupt, frightful turn of my hands.
The neighbor’s cats got into the brooder.
I was up early, having risen before dawn for an hour or so of rare weekend solitude, drinking coffee while poring over the Sunday sports page. Glancing out the dining room window, I spotted first Vincent and then Shadow, both males from next door, with flapping chicks hanging from their respective orange and black mouths.
I raced outside, chasing Vincent all the way into his own back yard, where he disappeared over a fence. I was cursing out loud. Back in the garage, I found the window screen dislodged, the brooder empty of all but one, terror-struck chick.
I went inside and woke up my wife, a dicey move on any weekend morning. But she shared my dismay, throwing her robe on to come inspect the damage. Immediately, we located a couple of the other chicks, cowering in the deepest recesses of our ill arranged garage.
It could have been worse. Employing both our son and Dainty Bess, the three-legged member of our own four cats, we eventually rustled up all but one of the chicks, excluding the two I had seen carried off in the early dawn light. And the following afternoon after work, I came upon the tenth bird, a slightly undersized Araucana, audibly begging for return to the less-than-cozy confines of our diminished, traumatized brood.
Should you ever kill a mature female chicken and then eviscerate it, you will most certainly be astounded, even if it is an old hen, by the succession of enlarging eggs found within its innards. A chicken egg exists about four weeks before it is laid, which means that if you are collecting say, a fresh egg every second or third day from any one particular bird, there are up to a dozen plus eggs being processed at any one moment in time.
It is a highly unnatural occurrence. The domestic chicken is a result of tens of centuries of breeding beginning with, probably, the native Indonesian guinea fowl. How any bird could be bred, however selectively and over however great a length of time, to lay its eggs almost daily is utterly beyond me. Yet that is exactly what chickens can do and have done since the onset of recorded time.
Like cows, dogs, and cats, chickens are so far removed from any species in the wild that we can hardly imagine them as anything other than domestic animals. After building a much-needed run for my first flock in La Jolla, the entire bunch escaped one day under the fence abutting the garden. A friend of one of my landlord’s sons happened to visit that day from up North; during dinner that evening he mentioned seeing some strange birds milling outside the yard on the sidewalk, birds he had never encountered in the great urban reaches of L.A.
Today, chickens are an anomaly. Not that long ago, it wasn’t unusual for even a suburban family to keep a small flock of layers; but the current distaste for anything more fecund than sprouts makes chickens seem an abrogation of citizenry. Pitbulls, ok. Dobermans, fine. Who would even argue against a cuddly pet anaconda, replete with periodic feedings of mice, hamsters, or furry little bunnies?
Chickens, of course, are considered dirty. Dirty, that is, if you’ve no notion of the value of poultry manure. The excrement of domestic fowl will go a long way in nourishing a garden, edible or ornamental. I actually know people who pay good money for the stuff — as would I had I no immediate access to this rich, scented byproduct of a handful of lowly chickens.
A month after the brooder holocaust, we moved the chickens, young budding hens all, into the coop proper. It had turned out better than expected — better, really, than any hen house need be. My wife was resigned, once again, to such labored extravagance. And though the chickens themselves couldn’t have cared less, I had poured more than a little sweat into the finishing touches, if for no other reason than that should all else fail, the coop could always serve as a playhouse for our son, his private refuge amidst troubled waters.
That evening, I spotted my buddy Vincent, the neighbor’s orange tomcat, hanging his head over the edge of the roof, peering through the wire mesh at the top of the coop door. You could see the taste of blood in his eyes. I gave him my best tongue lashing, which prompted no greater response than a casual departure over the back fence. Inside the coop, I again searched for potential access points, inserting boards here, mesh there, and a second course of bricks along all ground-level edges.
But I missed a spot. I missed it and both Vincent and his cohort Shadow didn’t, the way cats don’t miss a trick given anything resembling a chance. Four tiny inches between roof rafters and fascia, and not just two but three chickens were dragged off out of the coop, out of the scratching pen, and devoured to the point of all but the obvious evidence perishing near our garden compost piles.
Four damn inches. Picture, if you will, the scene. The cats squeeze through. The chickens freak. Chaos ensues. And then each unlucky hen would have been hauled up to the top of the coop, yanked with some force out of the miserably small opening, and then carried the length of the yard to meet its untimely fate. And this is only a gloss.
I get sick just thinking about it. To engage in chicken raising or the husbanding of any animals, be they pets or producers, is to accept responsibility for nothing less than life. It is always a happy, loving time come a family’s uniting around animals. Death, on the other hand, is the ultimate conscript of failure.
When my wife first moved in with me, in that typical onrush of sweet, reckless love, she viewed my chickens as further promise of eccentric sanity against the countless pitfalls of modern life. We agreed on most everything then. But time works in horrendous ways on even the most well-founded relationship. And there came a day when my wife could actually resent a handful of fresh, backyard-gathered eggs, using it as ammunition to take offense at my quiet, self-centered ways.
This is how bad it can get. Throughout our first year together — and well into the second during which we were married and, not long after that, she became pregnant — my wife and I would regularly enjoy a dinner of a sort of scrambled omelet, perked up onion, garlic, and tomatoes, plus anything else ripening in the garden. This was before I undertook my full share of the cooking, when my culinary sensibilities tended toward dishes more suitable for around a campfire. Yet these were good, honest meals: food to come home to after a hard day’s work. And my wife never saw fit to complain — until one night deep in her pregnancy.
She just couldn’t face another egg, she said, shoving her plate away while I shoveled down, typically, more than my fair share. I thought for a moment that this was just another one of those pregnancy things, a temporary glitch brought on by my wife’s pronounced, disrupted biology. Then I looked down the barrel of her big, brown eyes, and I saw with some certainty that from here on in, I was going to be eating eggs alone.
Of course we could still use them in baking, a subtle yet delectable ingredient in cakes and fresh bread, cookies and breakfast pancakes or waffles. But it wasn’t long before both eggs and chickens seemed misaligned with our marriage, something, like fishing and surfing, that answered to my own private needs and had nothing to do with our life as one.
Soon after we bought a house of our own, a little place up on Fire Mountain in Oceanside, I set a Saturday aside to go fetch the chickens. My wife would have nothing to do with it. I drove my pickup down to La Jolla, where Dr. B. helped me cut the corner posts free and load the coop, chickens, and all into the back of the bed. Driving north on I-5, hens squawking all the while, I felt like the Beverly Hillbillies or the Joads in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. But those chickens were somehow part of me, a link, however tenuous, to a memory of life as it used to be.
I backed my pickup into the driveway. My wife came outside, the image of our child outlined beneath her morning robe. And suddenly I felt tension easing all around me. Behind the truck — over 20 years old with open camper shell to match, the coop cocked diagonally to fit, dust and feathers and hens alike still swirling about, the entropy of this immense journey — behind the truck my wife stood smiling, shaking her head.
“You know what this looks like?”
“Yes I do,” I said, and I began dragging the coop off the back of the bed.
“I’d help but —”
My wife ran a hand over her stomach, I got the coop clear of the camper shell, and then righted it and then pulled again, dropping it onto the driveway with a splitting crash, the hens protesting my every effort.
“I’ll call someone.”
My wife peered in at the chickens. Then she opened one of the half-sprung doors, having to force it free, took out the overturned waterer, and carried it to the nearest faucet.
“How about some breakfast?”
“Sure,” I said, “ I said. “What are you making?”
“Whatever you want.”
I watched her clean and fill the plastic jug, screw the lid back on, and then turn it over to let the fresh water percolate out into the cylindrical trough. I watched my wife bring water to our chickens.
“Whatever you want,” I said, holding open the tilted coop door. “I wouldn’t want to spoil the moment.”
The first egg was laid right on schedule, on the very day of the summer solstice. I was little, no larger than an oblong golf ball, the way first eggs often are. Yet when I drew it out of the nesting box and set it proudly into my son’s outstretched hands, he let out a squeal, as if he were a gold miner holding an enormous nugget dislodged from the depths of the mother lode.
It didn’t come easy. Just when I thought the chickens old enough to fend for themselves and I allowed the free range over the feed crop I had planted in the scratching pen, Vincent got at them again.
I’d left the coop door open one morning before heading off to work. And that afternoon, I found it closed, the latch secured, and one of the hens missing. I’ll spare you my theatrics; let me just say that I finally began considering a method once described to me by sweet old Englishwoman for dealing with a hen-killing cat, a method which included tying up the cat, hanging the dead chicken from its neck, and then bashing it with a stick. Those were her words, not mine. “Bash it!” she said, moving her arm in short, brutal strokes.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. After showering, I answered a knock at the front door, where the neighbor woman related to me, in apologetic terms, how she’d heard squawking and then saw her cat Vincent chasing one of the hens the length of our yard. She had rushed over to take a look, which explained the closed coop door. But what had happened to the one hen, she just didn’t know, gesturing in the direction of some overgrown jade plants out near the end of our drive.
My son and I went hunting. And there, deep in the jade, was that frightened hen, quivering in the darkest shadows and thickest, most tangled limbs. I waded in and dug her out, my son directly on my heels. Then we carried the chicken straight off next door, just to let the neighbor know that old Vincent had finally met his match.
The rest went reasonably well. Sometimes I would come upon Vincent hovering around the coop, and I’d chase him off as a matter of protocol. What with our own cats, I didn’t want my son to get any bad ideas. After that first small egg was laid and other began to appear at more frequent intervals, I approached my wife one morning with the suggestion of a big, ranch-style breakfast, not only with eggs but hash browns too, as reason to be thankful for our fresh, backyard produce.
“Next you’ll be wanting to raise a pig.”
“I would,” I said, peeling the bacon off the supermarket cellophane “If I thought we could survive it.”
My wife passed on the eggs. I made her some pancakes and some for our son, who likes them just as much. Then I broke four eggs into the blackness of the hot skillet, gazing down into each bright little yolk, as miraculous in their own way as love itself.