I was introduced to urban chicken keeping in a Spanish class a few summers ago. We were practicing “having a normal conversation” and a woman in my group was trying to tell the story, in our nonnative tongue, about how she had discovered over the long weekend that one of her gallinas was actually a gallo. I don’t think anyone else understood, and their confusion only compounded when she tried to mimic a rooster’s crow.
My reaction to her story then was very similar to what I’ve been hearing lately from other people – Chickens? In the city? It was my understanding that barnyard fowl, whether Chicken Little or Robot Chicken, belonged a bit further away from the CBD, for all our sakes. But no, I overheard her saying later, it is indeed quite legal to keep chickens in the city and yes, the eggs are fantastically delicious.
Fast forward through our final exam, a very unpleasant August heat wave, and a couple of years where a bunch of totally unrelated things happened — I’ve just brought home three chicks. They’ll live in the garage until they’re older and heartier, then they’ll have the range of our backyard. The Squeeze was generous enough to build a coop for them, which we’ve named “Our Lady of the Circular Causality Dilemma.” Two of our residents are proper Sisters – Sister Jezebel Turgenev (she doesn’t give a cluck) and Sister We Don’t Yet Know Her Name. The third is a cultural refugee, just looking to escape the grind and retire in peace: The Edge. We picked them up at Livingscape Nursery, along with all of their gear: feeders, food, heat lamp. The folks at Livingscape were quite helpful and friendly.
The chicks are probably gallinas. The process of determining the sex of newly hatched chicks is, I have read, imperfect; and the folks at the nursery said that we can be around 90 percent sure that ours will grow up to be hens. If there is a gallo in our coop, he’ll be awfully gender-confused by time we know for sure, what with being treated just like one of the girls for so many weeks. We’ve already had some talks about surprise-rooster contingency plans, and while I don’t know if I could kill a chicken, I am quite sure that I could eat one, even one that’s currently peeping away downstairs. If we do have to deal with it, however, you can bet there will be a “free rooster to loving home” ad posted on Craigslist before I set out to sharpen the hatchet.
For most of my family and friends, the arrival of these chickens to my little home has cemented my reputation as an eccentric person, perhaps even a naive one. Before there was any real action, when I was just talkin’ chicken, they tried to warn me: chickens are stinky; chickens will attract rats and gophers and wildebeests. Chickens are noisy; chickens don’t cuddle. I know that chickens don’t cuddle (which, I’ll admit, is usually one of the first things I think about when considering new pets), but they do four other things which I find very exciting. One: Chickens eat food scraps. Right now, some of my food waste goes down the garbage disposal and some into the very slow-moving compost pile. In addition to their normal feed and scratch, chickens eat all manner of household compostables, thus eliminating my need for the frequent garbage disposal-ing and diverting scraps from the compost heap. Then, chickens do the second thing that I am interested in: they poop. Chicken guano is great fertilizer for the garden and I will have an inexpensive and consistent supply of it. Third, chickens eat bugs, and while they are eating bugs they also scratch around aerate the soil – two more good things for my garden. Finally, chickens lay eggs. Though I am not an egg-in-the-morning kind of a person, I am a bake-lots-of-cookies person and also a give-eggs-away-to-friends person, both of which I am eager to do with their very fresh, drug-free eggs.
On the day we got the chicks, I was very tempted to try to cuddle them. They were so tiny and so fluffy and so cute. I’m over that now, though. Mostly, I am eager for them to grow up, move the heck out of my garage, and start pooping in the yard. These Sisters and The Edge, I think of them mostly as employees, though I know that sounds strange. Of course I want them to be comfortable, well-fed, and emotionally secure, but they are still chickens and, well, folks spoke the truth when they tried to warn me: chickens are stinky.