Birds of a feather

Birds of a feather

Even though it may be undermining to notions of rural economy, I have simply been having fun raising hens

SAXTONS RIVER — Although raising layer hens was not in my family tradition, nor even remotely related to my life experience, when I, at age 50, along with members of my family still living at home, moved to rural Vermont, it was a role I slipped into almost by chance and adopted with both trepidation and eagerness.

I later heard through the grapevine that mature women were known to have a penchant for raising hens - a somewhat demeaning characterization - but that only slightly diminished my growing enthusiasm. Twenty-four years, later I am still engaged in that mode of folly/habit/subsistence production.

So indelibly do we become what we do that from time to time I have even been consulted by friends (usually women of my age) about venturing into raising poultry.

When that happens, depending on the demands of time, I am apt to launch into an anecdotal history that covers such areas as encounters with predators, free-range versus confined flocks, the bane of broodiness and intra-flock relations.

I make it known that poultry yards stink even though they are also excellent sources of barnyard manure, and I tell dismal tales of weasel encampments that led to a series of hen decapitations and rodent infestations which brought the cost of egg production to high inflationary levels - even, once, according to my calculations, to $7/dozen.

Practitioner of healthy living that I had become, it seemed there was no alternative to raising hens on organic feed, purchased at premium prices at the local supply store, as my operation was too small to allow wholesale purchasing.

Food scraps and acquired discards from suppliers have helped bring down the cost, but raising layers is still more a diversionary than practical choice.

Luckily, I have emerged victorious from each predatory invasion, by use of methods it would be injudicious to publicize.

That I have persisted despite all these disclaimers is, in the eyes of those with whom I share my experiences, a tribute to the advantages of raising one's own eggs.

More honestly, even though it may be undermining to notions of rural economy, I have simply been having fun, learning to relate to a new breed of animals besides household pets while indulging in the myth that my eggs are superior to any one could purchase.

The practice also gives me food for thought about the characteristics of living creatures. Even without indulging in anthropomorphic imaginings, I have learned that all mobile creatures will explore the perimeters of their territory and, if artificially confined, as are my hens, they will find an escape if there is one, leading to some merry chases.

* * *

I have also learned to respect the repertory of communications emanating from even such dimwitted specimens as barnyard hens, daily contact exposing me to utterances ranging from soft, almost purring, clucks, to clarion announcements of egg-laying intentions, to cries of alarm (mostly more hysterical than accurate assessments), to a variety of idle chatter.

Hens are, after all, birds, and we should listen when they speak.

In return, I have always chatted with them, at least on the level of courteous small talk - exchanges that I imagine serve as bonding.

And although I have given up an earlier tendency to name a few favorites, I have noted the vast variations of temperament, longevity, and productivity among even members of the same species.

Even more enlightening has been my discovery that diversity breeds tolerance. I gave up mail-ordering chicks of a homogeneous variety (in bundles of a size unmanageable to a small household enterprise, albeit the cheapest source of supply) and began acquiring hens or chicks of a more motley sort.

If your neighbors - or, more exactly, housemates - are all different, differences become the norm. A mixed flock breeds tolerance, whereas when I once tried to supplement my homogeneous remnants with an acquired but different flock, the newcomers were blocked from entry to the henhouse by a belligerent front.

* * *

My entry into keeping poultry had been prompted early in my move to Vermont by the offer of a readymade chicken coop. Reassembled, it was a stunning gift, made of wood and intelligently designed with nesting boxes, perches, and a hatch door leading to a roofed and fenced-in annex. I believe my first flock was also a virtual gift.

But when my latest disciple purchased a cute Tudor-style plastic miniature from Amazon for her first venture with “darling chicks,” I knew there'd be trouble ahead.

Her chicks - a mere handful - soon disassociated themselves from those synthetic boxes and displayed a preference for roosting on odd shelves in her shed, ignoring the esthetic advantages of their assigned real estate.

When they began laying, they also chose occasional odd places, requiring some frustrating searches for her breakfast supply.

Unlike my hens, hers - living in town where stray dogs were a rarity and where acceptable fencing would be a costly addition - were free-range, an admirable mode I surrendered early on, when several mischievous dogs perpetrated massacres for the sheer fun of it.

Sure enough, after several months of more work and lower yield than anticipated, my friend determined that this would be her last foray into raising layers.

* * *

Meanwhile, I continue to be at home with my smelly, crumbling, and noisy venture. I have found ways to defeat predators and bring down the costs of production, and I find an odd sort of pleasure in bolting closed the door to the coop at night after saying “good night” and sniffing the night air - an outing I might not have made were it not for the chickens.

I have dealt with the moral dilemmas of what to do with post-reproductive hens by keeping some and shipping others to a nearby farm to fend for themselves until some larger animal, fending for itself, overcomes them. A useless rooster who will not die remains a clumsy, warty oversized loudmouth, but is kept because of his uncharacteristic gentleness as a sort of ex officio breeder.

For a while, we had encouraged brooding of what were most often fertilized eggs, until my occasional lock-up lapses contributed to high mortality rates among both juveniles and doting mothers - a moral indictment and emotionally painful loss.

I never lapse these days, but I have relegated the delights of watching peeping chicks peering out from the maternal feathers to happy memories.

I should add that an apparently unproductive hen banished to the nearby farm along with two others of her breed, now gone, has demonstrated that an entirely foraging hen can produce eggs in her old age, at least in the warmer months, eggs that rival tropical sunsets for their golden orange hue and rich, wild taste. Furthermore, she is consistent in where she deposits them on a nearly daily basis.

Who would have thought!

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates