Flocking to Freedom
As fall begins and the daylight wanes, my chickens start molting and stop laying eggs. I haven’t eaten an egg in weeks, but nature is seasonal. Earlier in the year, the peaches ripened and we ate, cooked, and canned as many as we could. Later it was frozen beans and pickled cucumbers, but what all this produce has in common is a season that begins and ends. So it is with eggs. The chickens lay a few in the winter, peak in the summer and stop in the fall.
Two years ago, I brought these four birds home as two-week old chicks. When I told people I was getting chickens, we always had some variation of this conversation.
“Are you getting them as pets or for eggs?”
“Oh, they are livestock,” I would reply. They’ll provide eggs and then I’ll eat them when they get older.”
The other person, especially if she had known me a long time, would smile indulgently and suggest I was more likely to open a Chicken Retirement Home.
Sure enough, the laying hens became pets and I learned from farmers this isn’t uncommon. A three-year-old hen of a breed known for eggs yields tough meat and a certain amount of sadness at slaughter. You’ve cared for her a long time and gotten to know her, maybe she even has a name. It’s hard to let her go. If you want meat, it makes more sense to buy a batch of “meat bird” chicks. They’ve been bred to mature in six weeks and, if not slaughtered, die of heart attacks soon after. It’s easier to maintain an emotional distance and you get the added advantage of meat that’s good for more than stew.
The transition from livestock to pets began when I gave my chicks names. It happened naturally, as I watched them grow and I learned to tell them apart by the feather patterns on their heads. They became Redhead, Specklehead, Blonde Chicken and, because her head was somewhere between red and blonde, Middle Chicken.
When they grew into their feathers and out of the brooder, I built them a coop, affectionately referred to as “Chicken Shantytown”. Chicken Shantytown consists of a long cage made of hardware cloth with homemade doors at both ends. I’ve boxed in four feet with plywood and straw to protect them from the weather and provide some privacy for laying eggs.
Technically, this 30 square foot coop offers enough space for four hens, but every morning they squawk at the door, dragging their beaks along the wire, like prisoners with tin cups.
“Let us out of Chicken Jail!” I imagine they are saying. “We’re innocent!”
They are. And so I do.
All day long, my little bird friends roam around the backyard, doing what chickens were born to do. They run around and flap their wings. They eat all the kitchen scraps in what used to be the compost pile. They hold meetings under the deck. They make me laugh and remind me how to greet every day as an opportunity for something good.
And don’t forget about the eggs.
During the summer, they gave me so many eggs, I started tipping service providers with them.
“Here’s the check for the invoice and these fresh eggs are for you,” I’d say, starting yet another conversation about the novelty of keeping chickens in the city.
“What made you decide to get chickens?”
“I can’t explain it,” I always say. “It seemed like the right thing.”
In this middle season of my life, I want the simplicity and quiet to hear God speak. I want to live like the chickens, expressing the best of my nature. I’d had enough of the rat race and its mirage of success. I wouldn’t trade my homestead and the chickens for any of its offerings.
Every day, they remind me to be grateful for that freedom.
Bonnie Simon writes about locally owned businesses, the power of community and the American Dream in Colorado Springs, CO. Her business, Hungry Chicken Homestead, helps locally owned businesses tell their stories and connect with consumers. Read more about Bonnie and the chickens at www.HungryChickenHomestead.com.