Backyard Hens

I gave birth to my first daughter when I was 27 years-old and, according to an invisible cosmic plan, every seven years I welcomed another daughter into the world. With my youngest about to turn seven, and without any conscious pining for new life, I came up with the idea–perfectly on cue–of expanding my brood to include not one, but six lovely new girls. They're hens, to be more precise, and I surprise myself by enjoying and doting on them far more than I expected to.

There is, of course, the issue of propitious timing, and there is also the natural evolution of whims and desires. My own evolution was helped along by people like Joan Dye Gussow, a passionate advocate for eating locally and well. In her book, This Organic Life, which I read many years ago, she describes the challenge she took on in mid-life of growing all of her own food in a large and ambitious garden.  Back then, her commitment helped firm my resolve to eat as locally and cleanly as I could. This year I read her new book, Growing Older, and renewed my commitment to self sufficiency; hence a perpetuation of the 7-year cycle and my hens.

It’s not entirely Joan’s fault. I have long wanted hens though, to be honest, I was afraid. With so many predators around, I wondered how I would I keep hens alive. More to the self-absorbed point, I wondered how I would personally face and deal with death when it happened. How would I clean up the mess?

After months of burying my nose in books and articles, and some forced experience cleaning up dead mice, I convinced myself I could do it. So this spring, I welcomed new life and there is so much about it that I love. The hens run free on pasture, they eat bugs and stir up my compost pile, and here is the kicker: they turn grass, bugs, and kitchen scraps into really superior eggs.

If you have ever daydreamed about small-scale farming, raising livestock in your own backyard, or taking personal responsibility for raising some portion of the food you eat, I cannot tell you what a joy you would find tending hens to be. They are smart; who knew? They are wonderfully athletic. They have distinct personalities, and recognize and greet those who tend them. They let me know when they’re happy and what they need, and they make a soft cluck-clucking noise with a sort of rolling, back-of-the-throat purr that is both soothing and reassuring.

For the linguist in you, there is another fun aspect to raising hens: there are so many figures of speech that come from chicken tending. They will come to mind daily and you will say, “Oh, that’s where that turn of phrase originated.” Here are a few to help you understand what I mean:

  • Coming home to roost: At the end of the day, hens run to the coop and fly up to a horizontal bar–or a tree branch if they live in the wild–to roost for the night.
  • Rooster: The male of the species sits high on a tree branch where he roosts to watch over his hens. So, he is the “roost-er.”
  • Hen pecked: When hens are irritated with each other, which doesn’t happen often if they have ample space, they peck at each other with sharp beaks.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: If, when you go out to gather eggs, you put all of them into one basket, you might lose the whole bunch by dropping or knocking it. If you put some eggs in one basket and the rest in another, there is a greater likelihood you will have eggs for breakfast.
  • Running chicken: When young hens are threatened, they don’t run toward the aggressor to defend themselves, they turn and run away.
  • Scratching out a living: Chickens scratch the soil to find bugs to fill their bellies.
  • Pecking order: Within a group of hens, there exists a hierarchy, and pecking is the means to put an up-and-comer in her place.
  • Flying the coop: A hen will occasionally take flight and leave the coop, which brings us to a related figure of speech…
  • The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Hens might roam on a pasture full of grass, weeds, bugs and all a chicken could desire. But they will still stick their heads through the fence, or go over the fence, in search of some imagined improvement in circumstances.

Here are a few more examples to give you some idea of what an agricultural people we once were, with an entire lexicon established around the shared experience of chicken tending: nest egg, hatch an idea, cock-eyed, feather your nest, hen house, mother hen, rule the roost, bad egg, walking on eggshells; and there are more. If you someday get your own hens, you will have the fun of conjuring up the rest yourself!

If thinking about hens and eggs is making you wonder about the quality of the eggs you find at the grocery store, here is my own deciphering of our modern egg labels: Understanding Egg Labels

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul