Little Cluckers

Urban chickens were never meant to be pets, but just try telling that to Little Red

Photo by Heidi Kyser

Photo by Heidi Kyser

“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.

It must be summer, because this particular memory, circa age 5, has me in shorts, running barefoot around the small Roswell, New Mexico, farm where I grew up. Sally Reid—the circus tent of a woman I call “Granny” but who is actually a tolerant next-door neighbor who keeps me entertained with her everyday rustic tasks—reaches down into a scatter of chickens and seizes one. She lumbers out of the hen house toward a battered chair behind a tree stump in the middle of the dusty farm yard, fielding about one of every three of my questions: Why did you pick that one? Is it a girl or a boy? How old is she? Why do you hold them by the feet? What are you …


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.

In the gardening aisle of Barnes & Noble on Maryland Parkway, I reach the tipping point between informed and overloaded. With a sharp knee-crack, I stand up from the stool where I’ve lost an hour reading about urban chicken farming and consider the possibilities I’ve collected. I go with Backyard Chickens, by Rashelle Johnson. It seems to have all the basics, from breed selection to coop construction, and the friendly, blue-and-yellow cover is reassuring. In my car, before leaving the parking lot, I take the book out of the bag. On the blank inscription page, I write:

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.”

Nearly two years later, my new boss and I step out of the café where we’ve just had lunch, greeted by a blow-dryer wind that dusts our eyes. He comments on the weather, and I look up at the bowing palm trees, anxious.

“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.

Of course, chickens can fly. Within hours, Red wanted to be back in her comfort zone, on my lap. The farthest away I could get her to stay was perched on the edge of my desk drawer. I filled it with magazine paper, and this became her nest for the duration of 100-plus temps. She’d settle in as I typed, her head nodding over the mouse next to my hand. Did you know chickens coo as they fall asleep?

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.

Peter was right: chickens are fun. I fall into a meditative trance watching them scratch and peck, soothed by the simplicity of their constant motion. The first time I saw Red drink out of our dogs’ water bowl, throwing back her head and nibbling like a wine taster, I laughed out loud. And there’s nothing like the feeling of walking outside and having a little beast come charging across the yard to greet you. Sure, they’re only interested in checking out the compost I’m carrying to the bin, but it feels like being needed.

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.


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A clear, brisk day in may lured Las Vegas triathlete Robert Baker to Red Rock Canyon, where he hiked the short Keystone Thrust trail, found a high slab of sandstone and began his yoga routine. He’d done this before—the beauty of the rust-colored rocks and the blue sky worked not only as a backdrop for mindfulness, but also, more and more frequently, as a backdrop for his photography: He likes to take photos of himself in yoga poses.