“No, you can’t have my cereal, and don’t poop in my coffee.”
This I add to the running list of ridiculous things I say now that I have chickens. In the fleeting cool of the morning, I palm Little Red’s chest and gently back her away from my breakfast. I’m at the picnic table on my patio; the rest of the flock is happily scratching in the dewy grass. But not Red. She’s my chicken. Or rather, I’m her mommy: grantor of corn-chip crumbs, pecked from the palm of my hand; gatekeeper of the Big House, where there’s air conditioning and ice water; and, most important, protector from the other chickens, who want her dead.
She lops the bird’s head off with a hatchet, and there it lies, like a glistening trinket on the stump. None of the other animals—except one or two chickens sent squawking from the path of the headless body’s death lap—misses a beat in its routine rooting and chewing and bleating. There is a trail of blood, then a pool. My jaw hangs open.
A condensed animal smell, hot and meaty, begins to rise. I’m not upset, but I decide not to hang around either. I know what’s coming.
“Ain’t you gonna help me pluck ’er?” Granny yells as I climb back through the fence between her house and ours.
Dear Peter, OK … you have my permission. Love, Heidi.
It’s December 2010, my significant other’s 46th birthday. I am formally acceding to his months of pleas for chickens, a key part of the permaculture experiment for which our large, Downtown Las Vegas backyard has become his laboratory.
In Peter’s vision of our self-sustainability, fowl provide natural pesticides (by eating bugs off plants), fertilizer (by pooping everywhere) and tilling services (by scratching and digging in the soil), in addition to feeding us eggs. They’ll give back as much as they take, he promises. “And it will be fun. You’ll see.”
“I’m worried about my chicken,” I say, immediately regretting it. Now, I’ll have to process the usual reactions about urban chicken farming while, in my head, all I can see is Little Red, alone outside the coop, looking for shelter from the coming monsoon.
If anyone knows it wasn’t meant to be this way, it’s me, the only true country girl in my circle of friends. And, honestly, if it hadn’t been for Red, my interest in the chickens would probably have remained culinary—Peter doing all the work around the garden, herding the flock from his basil patch to his corn field, and delighting me with a basket of fresh eggs on the counter each morning. “How many did we get today?” I’d ask. “Omelets for breakfast!”
The interruption to this ideal tableau began with the roosters. While chickens are legal in Las Vegas city limits (under certain conditions), roosters aren’t. And even if they had been, I couldn’t have stood their crowing for much more than the week it took Peter to figure out that he’d gotten two males instead of the all-female batch promised by the mail-order company.
Peter found a new home for the males at Quail Hollow Farm and replaced the teen exiles with two chicks, an Americuna we named “Stripe,” for her fancy black-and-white feathers, and a Rhode Island Red—“Little Red.” Their brooder was in the spare room across the hall from my office. We’d learned from the first flock that it’s important to handle chicks frequently if you want them to be tame and manageable adults. I was working at home then, freelancing, so from time to time, I’d fetch the fuzzy ping-pong balls and put them in a towel on my lap while I typed. They didn’t do much but chirp and peck and poop—like any babies, I suppose. But they were still fascinating. They always fell asleep after a couple of minutes, due, I figured, to the soft clatter of my keyboard. Left alone too long, they’d fill the hallway with high-pitched cheeps. Time for more coddling.
Six weeks on, they were old enough to go outside. The reaction of the other four—now young adult hens—was swift and unmistakable: These little outsiders had to go. Peter and I watched anxiously as Stripe and Red flapped in panic, fending off sharp pecks at every turn. I rigged a high beam across a corner of the coop that the little ones could fly up to for respite, but the next day there was blood on Stripe’s back. Peter logged into an online chicken forum for help.
Turns out, chickens are not welcoming creatures; the forum had many tales of newbies lost to the hazing of established flocks. But there were also suggestions for working it out. Peter installed wire mesh to wall off a safety area at the back of the coop. The little ones would be out of harm’s way, but old and new members of the flock would still be in each other’s sights, encouraging integration.
This worked pretty well until the first heat wave. The second week of July 2012, temperatures inched past 110. The babies had water and shade in their enclosure, but it wasn’t enough to save Stripe. When Peter told me how he’d found her, a slump of black and white in the corner of her cage, something clicked inside me. I spread newspaper on my office floor and made a circle of leftover fencing. I filled a cardboard box with shredded bank statements, a tiny bowl with cold water and plopped Little Red down inside the makeshift coop. This chicken would not die—not on my watch.
In the evening, she had to go back outside. We’d put her in the safety area, where she’d roost on the crossbeam. Come morning, feeding time, we’d open the pen, then the door to her enclosure, and she’d dart through a gauntlet of beaks to freedom in our yard.
This is how Red grew up apart from the rest of the flock, a loner. As the fall dragged toward winter, I knew I had to integrate her. Soon, she’d need the shelter of the coop from the cold. We took down her enclosure wall, reasoning she’d be safe overnight, when chickens fall into a docile state. In the morning, I’d crouch in the coop, pitching rocks at her attackers while she pecked at the grain trough. Then I’d linger outside the coop watching, willing myself to go inside, have my breakfast, let her fend for herself the way nature intended. But her fearful squawks did me in day after day. I’d let her out of the coop, figuring she was better off taking her chances with alley cats and the elements than with those mean little cluckers.
After I started my full-time job last September, I would rush home and into the backyard, calling, “Where’s my chicken?” I’d surprise her pecking at the beanstalks or taking a dirt bath under the grape arbor, and she’d trot over to me, chirping with delight and allaying my ridiculous fears.
The hard part is the exit strategy. Knowing the hens could live to be 10, but will only lay eggs until age 7, Peter and I arranged for some meat-eating friends to take and slaughter them after their laying years. Even as vegetarians, we appreciate that these animals were domesticated to be eaten, not treated as pets.
Red, of course, complicates this. How could I send an animal that follows me around the yard and into the house, clucking contentedly, to her death? I wish I had Peter’s healthy perspective. When Red lunges at his pant leg—now exercising on others the aggression to which she’s been subjected (my 13-year-old cocker spaniel is her favorite victim)—Peter wags his finger at her and says, “I’ve got one word for you, lady: fricassee!”
Not on my watch, Peter.
As the summer sun sets, I watch Red wander into the chicken house at roosting time with the rest of the flock. She settles on a separate beam while the others huddle together in their clique. Come morning, they’ll still bully her around the grain trough, but for the most part, she’s integrated. Bigger than the others, she can stand up for herself now, even if she does so from the bottom of the pecking order. She might not be the fittest of her species, but thanks to a human connection, she survived.