I passed up an opportunity last week to order a book on how to raise chickens in my back yard. The book was dictated by a now-deceased woman who was good at it. It’s probably an interesting if not a completely practical guide on self-sufficiency and may be another attempt to convince people that growing their own food is the answer to feeding the world. It isn’t. It could be an interesting hobby, perhaps, maybe even a supplement to some.
It did spawn memories from my childhood, however.
We lived in the country. We raised chickens. Most rural families raised chickens back then—the 50s and early 60s. You couldn’t drive up a dirt driveway without setting a flock of chickens to squawking.
Our chickens were free-range. They had total access to the yard, pastures and woods around our house. They mostly stayed in the yard. We sometimes bought chicks from the feed store and raised them in a large shed—until they reached fryer size, at which point they were dispatched, processed and placed in the public freezer in a nearby town until we needed them.
The yard chickens, however, provided eggs and an occasional Sunday dinner. They foraged for a lot of their food—insects, worms, seeds, whatever they could peck out of the grass. And we supplemented that diet with table scraps. They seemed particularly partial to leftover cornbread. We fed a little cracked corn, too.
I recall waiting with anticipation as a broody hen sat on a clutch of eggs. And I learned early on not to mess with her biddies. She would peck you. And I don’t know where maternal instinct is more obvious than a mother hen spreading her wings over her chicks to keep them warm and safe from predators.
Raising chickens, especially yard chickens, had a downside, too. They don’t train well and would just as soon deposit a gooey gob of fecal matter on the front porch as in the barnyard. So playing in the yard, especially barefoot, presented odorous challenges.
Chickens also make noise. The scratching and clucking could be somewhat calming, but the raucous cacophony they made when disturbed was most unpleasant. And roosters do not appreciate the concept of “sleeping in.”
I enjoyed gathering eggs—a daily Easter egg hunt—and would sometimes rush out to the barn after a hen cackled, announcing to one and all that she had produced an egg and was pretty danged proud of the accomplishment.
Dispatching a chicken for dinner was less fun. First we had to catch it. Chickens aren’t all that fast but they zig and zag with zeal. When we finally hemmed it up, someone had to kill it. Sometimes that was me. I never learned to wring one’s neck but I could hold it with one hand and chop its head off with an axe in the other. Then it had to flop around for a minute or so.
Meanwhile, my mother boiled some water to douse the chicken to make it easier to pluck. We singed the naked carcass to eliminate “pin feathers.” Then we cut it up. I think I could still do that. It’s no worse than cleaning fish. But I prefer to bring it home from the grocery ready to cook.
Backyard chickens might be attractive to folks who want to know exactly where their food comes from. But I’m not eager to raise chickens. They are too messy. They make too much noise and I suspect I can buy chickens and eggs cheaper than I could raise them.
I think the homeowners association has a rule against chicken husbandry in our neighborhood. I certainly hope so, because I don’t want my neighbors raising chickens either. Imagine the odor. And I occasionally enjoy a little extra sleep on a Saturday.