Saturday, April 30, 2011

Urban Farming

Chickens, we were told recently, make wonderful neighbors. There was a move afoot (or perhaps on the wing) to allow city residents to raise chickens in their houses and yards. The idea sounded pretty cool to some who had never lost their chewing gum while cleaning manure from under a chicken roost. But to those used to thinking of chickens, hatched and raised to fryer stage in long, low, tin structures with windows running the length of the building and incandescent bulbs glowing bleakly at night, the idea seemed a bit bizarre. Perhaps, proponents countered, they had never awakened to the rooster’s call or enjoyed the quiet murmur of hens settling on the roost at night clucking softly and shifting their weight to achieve a good balance. And so, the debate raged on for a few weeks. It may yet be unsettled.


Chickens were common in the neighborhood where I grew up on the fringe of town. It occurs to me just now that they were less common in the “nicer” parts of town, which may say something about the part of town I lived in. I suppose it could mean that when chickens move in, the nicer people move to another part of town. Some people are like that.

Dad attempted to keep our chickens penned and their wings cropped so they wouldn’t be a nuisance to the neighbors, or end up on their dinner table. Not everyone was as considerate, so it was not unusual to have chickens roaming the neighborhood unchaperoned.

Our chickens had a proper “hen house” in one end of the low shed that stretched two-thirds of the distance across the back of our yard. At the back of their section of the shed a roost had been built of slats elevated two and a half or three feet off the ground. The shed had only a dirt floor. The roost provided a dry, safe place for the hens to sleep at night; the slats allowed most of their nocturnal droppings to make their way to the ground under the roost. Over time, though, the roost itself became encrusted with the droppings and needed to be scraped. Worse yet, the area under the roost was periodically harvested for its rich nutrients. Lucky the boy who got the job of cleaning under the chicken roost.

Several little box-like cubbies, built around the edges of the hen house provided nests which the hens could use at their pleasure for laying their eggs. They were free of course, as hens everywhere are, except those poor modern creatures forced to live their entire lives in egg factories, to lay their eggs in other unpredictable places. We soon came to know how many eggs to expect each day and if the formal nests did not yield something close to that quota we were required to conduct an ad hoc Easter egg hunt. Certain hens became very protective of their nest and the eggs they sheltered under them there. I presume they knew somehow, or perhaps merely hoped, that they were hatchable eggs, and their mother instinct made an enemy of any boy who came to rob them of their posterity.

Since our flocks were started from hatchery chicks we had no interest in keeping roosters around longer than it took to fatten them for the pot or skillet. Hens were dual purpose birds, providing eggs until they either ceased to be productive or were needed to feed a hungry crowd. Hens that had long been “layers” were likely to end up as stewed chicken, the younger birds, and most of the roosters, as fryers.

But, back to the issue of their neighborliness. Do chickens make good urban neighbors? Like many other practices from the past, the raising of chickens, in town, makes for wonderful reminiscences. But neighbors? No. I’m content to buy my eggs at the dairy counter and get my chickens from the freezer.

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