Bring on the chickens


There is nothing funnier than a hen running. She clucks so seriously, leaning so far forward, wings spread out, moving that wide load on quick, skinny legs. I know chickens are getting trendy these days, but the main reason I keep yard chickens is for the laughs.

My daughter was a colicky baby, and for a long year my only respite was to feed and water the hens. They pecked my shoelaces and untied my shoes as I watched them scratch, squawk, and dart after invisible insects. Their ever-changing perpetual motion was hypnotic, like watching a fire, their maternal sounds were reassuring and calming. Some days,40 minutes passed by unnoticed. Sometimes I just laughed out loud.

Always I returned to the kitchen refreshed, smiling, and ready for another round.

As my children grew, I found that chickens are a relatively simple child's pet, and a good lesson in gentle cuddling, basic responsibility, and even death. Every spring, our local feed store gets day-old chicks. Parents and small children wander around bin after bin of glowing heat lamps and peeping, multicolored chicks. The baby chicks eat, drink, and collapse under the lights in a heap of fuzz. They look dead, until one wakes up, steps on another, and the fuzz-ball erupts in every direction, peeping.

I have friends who used to purchase “chickies" every spring for their young children. When the chicks grew large enough to jump out of their box, the children delivered them to me. Summers were marked by bicycles strewn across the front lawn, and groups of children visiting generations of their chickens in the back.

My neighbor Ruby's "Nosy," a black giant, picked the craziest places to try and hatch babies -- in direct blazing sun, next to the skunk's woodpile. We learned to recognize her long, pointy, golden-brown eggs. When she got broody, we would barricade her in a nest box with duct tape and cardboard, until she became fixated there. She clucked to her eggs, a special soft sound, staggering out briefly for food and water only occasionally for 21 days, until at last small beaks poked from her warm feathers. Later, we watched her brood sip dew drops from the grass.

Rainbow was the smallest hen we ever had, with black and white stripes and feathers on her legs. I remember my 3-year-old daughter clutching a new kitten in her arms and shooing Rainbow and her chicks toward the henhouse. Suddenly, the tiny hen vaulted at the cat -- claws up. She knocked my daughter right over, and the kitten ran for its life.

Still, Rainbow was the only hen that didn't peck when children reached underneath her to feel the heat of her incubating eggs (though she growled menacingly). Ultimately, she hatched two chicks right in my son Max's classroom.

Last year, however, there was a chick shortage. Although I took my children to the feed store several times, we never saw more than two bins of chicks, and those were already sold. This year, hatcheries across the country still can't keep up with orders.

I take this as a good sign. For years I've espoused the simplicity of yard chickens, and the many benefits. They provide eggs, meat and powerful fertilizer with very little food or space. Third World countries promote raising chickens to combat poverty, and people there keep them on rooftops and high-rise balconies. I use them as a compost system. All my food and yard waste goes into the hen house. Every spring, I clean it out and compost the thoroughly pecked refuse into fertilizer. The world can use the humor of chickens, too.

One day, Max brought a new friend home from school. The two first-graders spent much of the afternoon leaping from the willow tree onto the hen house and then to the ground. When the other boy's mom came to pick him up, Max and his friend were giggling hysterically in the tree.

I proudly led the boy's mom and his two toddler brothers to the chicken yard, only to discover, to my horror, that my hens had caught a mouse. Like the dinosaurs they descended from, the hens chased each other around the yard, tearing the mouse from beak to beak, and ripping it to shreds in the process. Amid peals of little-boy laughter, I turned to the mother, whom I had never met before. She gave a tired smile, collapsed onto a nearby lawn chair, and said, "I haven't sat down all day."

Joanne Wilke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at