Before the summer of last year, on most mornings, I’d wander out on my deck, my cattle dog following my footsteps, and look out onto my backyard. It’s about a quarter-acre, grassy, and serene with picturesque views of the Catskill Mountains on the horizon.
During spring, a few orange-breasted songbirds would bob and weave through the grass, chirping with the hushed cadence of classical music. In fall, you’d hear the quiet rustle of chipmunks and squirrels as they shimmied through the crunchy fallen leaves. It was a daily reminder that nature is beautiful for one, and much quieter than living in New York City for another.
Then I bought chickens.
Well, to be precise, I bought chicks. Six of them. From a farm in eastern Washington. They were day-old babies when I picked them up from the post office on a sticky day last July. I can easily recall the impatient and annoyed tone of the United States Postal Service worker when they called me for the pickup.
“You’d think a box of chicks would brighten up someone’s day,” I said to my girlfriend at the time. Now, I realize that that government employee probably owned full-grown chickens themselves. She knew something I didn’t.
Baby chickens are adorable. It is easy to see why many Americans “stress-bought” chicks at an unprecedented volume in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The first month of owning baby chickens is bliss. They are cute and entertaining, full of possibilities. I remember thinking of the friendly full-grown chickens and fresh eggs in my future, which were supposed to a beautiful shade of pale blue. (C’mon, I didn’t order chicks from across the country to get plain old white eggs.)
I set up a brooder in the corner of my studio, a Rubbermaid bin full of fresh pine shavings with an adjustable heat plate tucked away in the corner. I even threw in some toys designed for pet parakeets for good measure to show them I knew how to have a good time. But soon, the chickens grew too big for their plastic storage bin. They also never played with the toys I bought them. Rude.
The chicks, now checkered with scraggly feathers and awkward dinosaur-like features, started jumping out at odd times throughout the day. I’d come out to my studio to find the chicks casually walking across the concrete floors, a trail of droppings in their wake. However, they were still too little to be outside in the new coop I bought for them. So, I eventually took some chicken mesh and fastened a lid of sorts on top. It looked like a demented science experiment, but it seemed to do the trick until my newly-annoying little creatures were ready for the outside world.
When I moved from Brooklyn to a small town in the Hudson River Valley, backyard chickens weren’t always in the plan. An herb garden and a Webster grill? Yes, and yes. An inflatable children’s pool for my dog? Of course. All it took was a couple of trips to the farmers market, where I balked at the price of local eggs, to decide that chickens were a great idea and also a smart financial investment. To date, I’d guess I’ve spent close to $900 on the Great Chicken Experiment. That’s the chicks themselves, their cedarwood coop, and more the bags of feed and pine shavings than I can count.
Of the six chicks I purchased, only one turned out to be a hen. This is why I don’t play the lottery. Recently, I decided to downsize my flock, and I now have one hen and two roosters. The other day I let the three chickens out of the coop to roam free in my backyard. We do this every day and have a decent routine: I’ll let them roam for the day, and then call them back in the coop with feed. But one rooster wasn’t in the mood to be bribed. He lunged at me with the force of a thousand chickens, pecking at my legs. I spent 20 minutes chasing him around the yard, first with my bare hands, then aided by a snow shovel and a rake. I eventually shrugged and figured I’d let him have his way. He disappeared for the rest of the day and didn’t show back up until the next afternoon. I didn’t get so much as an apologetic cluck from him, but I get it. We all need some space.
My backyard is no longer the peaceful sanctuary it once was. My sweet and usually behaved dog will stop at nothing to get to the chickens. Our games of fetch have been replaced by his new favorite game: running around the coop in circles until his paws are caked in mud. Incessant crowing has killed the quiet mornings of songbirds and chipmunks. The corner where the chickens live is now the least favorite part of my yard.
Despite all of this, I recently got my first egg. For the first year, my chickens gave me nothing but grief. The egg was even prettier than I imagined, the lightest shade of blue-green, like the frothy backwash of the sea. Before I knew it, I had placed an order for two more month-old chickens. These will both be hens, I am assured.
Is my will that weak? A few beautiful eggs, and all is forgiven? I’m starting to second-guess how much I hate my backyard chickens. I guess it’s more accurate to say I hate my backyard roosters. The hens are alright, though. I guess.