My family's adventures in keeping hens

Catching Hens
© Katherine Martinko

It was my mother who suggested that my little brothers should buy a flock of chickens. She thought it would be a good way to teach them responsibility, to earn some money, and to have fresh organic eggs on demand. Mom loaned them the start-up cash to buy chicks, feed, and materials to build a henhouse. Suddenly my brothers were several hundred dollars in debt -- a fortune when you’re ten and twelve. The six chicks were awfully cute when they arrived, but quickly became obnoxious, hopping out of their box and spreading feed all over the basement floor. As soon as they grew big enough to withstand cool nights, they moved to the henhouse, where they were so terrified of the large space that they continued sleeping together in their box.

Finally egg production began. Every time a hen laid an egg, she let out triumphant squawks that could be heard from inside the house. Demand for eggs was so high that my brothers invested in more chickens, until they had eighteen in total. The eggs were big, with brilliant orange yolks, likely from the nutritious compost scraps and foraged bugs that the chickens ate all day long.

The chickens quickly became beloved members of the family. They are surprisingly social creatures. Every time my parents’ car pulled into the driveway, or when my brothers got home from school, they were greeted by a flock of squawking chickens running at them with excitement. Whenever someone walked out of the house carrying anything resembling the compost pail, the chickens went wild with excitement.

My youngest brother David grew especially attached to his chickens. Jemima, named after Beatrix Potter’s famous puddle duck, always ran away to lay her egg behind the neighbour’s cottage. Eggness became depression when she wasn’t allowed to sit on her egg until it hatched. Henrietta loved to be cuddled. When my mom asked David why it took him forty minutes to shut up the henhouse at night, he explained that it takes a long time to pet and sing a lullaby to each hen before bed. David even trained the chickens to jump for treats, such as a fresh green leaf.

Alas, tragedy hit. Raccoons discovered the henhouse and attacked. Several died; one lost an eye. My normally peaceful father ran out in the middle of the night with his shotgun to protect the chickens, but the attacks continued. As the flock dwindled, despite reinforcements to the henhouse, taking care of the chickens became more of an unpleasant task than my family wanted. Most had stopped laying daily eggs anyways, which is typical for layers after two years.

Just prior to my sister’s wedding, Mom announced that it was hen-slaughtering day. I stared at her in shock: “What? How?”

“Well, didn’t you read about it in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?” she asked.

I protested. “Yes, but I can’t just go out and do it!”

She hauled out the Encyclopedia of Country Living, 10th Ed. and began reading aloud all the various methods of slaughtering hens. That’s when my dad put down his foot. “I’ll do it before the wedding, but not right now.”

My brothers have not yet replaced the flock, so the henhouse stands empty and the yard is quiet. We all miss those hens because they made great pets, with a useful and delicious function. There are rumours that more may arrive in the springtime, but who knows. My mom has many unconventional ideas and recently mentioned goats, so I never know what to expect when I go home for visits.

Tags: Animals | Animal Welfare | Farming | Pets

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