It seemed like a good idea at the time...
Yesterday was a sad day at my house. I went outside after work to dismantle the chicken coop where my five beautiful hens lived up until several weeks ago. After being an outspoken advocate for urban chickens and lobbying town council to let me keep hens in the backyard, it was a tough and humbling realization that chicken-keeping just isn't my thing.
There were many wonderful things about having those birds. I loved the soft clucking sounds they made. It gave soothing background music to my day that, once gone, made the property sound eerily quiet. The girls, as we called them, would always run to the fence to greet us when we came outside. (They probably just wanted compost scraps, but still, it was cute.)And their eggs! Oh, they were the biggest, best, and most beautiful eggs I've ever eaten. Despite knowing how it works, seeing it happen in real life is another thing altogether. It was like magic, giving them food and water and having our breakfast materialize in their nesting box.
So what went wrong? Nothing specific. We never had a single issue with predators or rodents, nor any noise complaints from neighbors (except when we got two roosters by accident at the very beginning). Instead, I began to struggle with two issues: the poop and the confinement.
A friend had warned me that chickens are filthy, but I didn't take it seriously. After several months, though, I understood. Chickens might be egg machines, but they are poop tornadoes. It was an endless battle, possibly made worse by the fact that they had to live within a fenced area (bylaw rule); it kept the poop contained, but it also led to accumulation, compaction, and problems with odor, despite my regular efforts to clean and shovel. When the kids were doing chores, chicken poop got tracked onto the walkway to our house and into our mudroom and became a source of tension. Maybe someone else would do a better job at staying on top of the mess, but I found it overwhelming.
Then there was Drumstick, our favorite bird, who always flew the coop. Every day I'd find her rustling in the leaves in neighboring flowerbeds and she'd always look up in alarm, hightailing it back to the coop as if she knew she was in trouble. This made me sad because I didn't want to keep her fenced in, but I had to according to the bylaw. I started to feel terrible about the hens having limited space to roam, despite having done my research and confirming with their breeder that the space was sufficient. It felt unnaturally cramped and almost cruel to keep them in there.
Another lesser issue was having to rely on friends to check on the chickens twice a day whenever we went away. This was difficult to arrange, since I quickly learned that other people aren't as enamored with backyard hens as I am.
With colder weather approaching, I made a decision that was supposed to be for both the hens' benefit and my own. It was time to move them somewhere else. Butchering was not an option, though it was the original plan. After 16 months of cohabitation and interaction, there was no way I wanted to eat Drumstick, Jemima, Hannah, Snow, or Speck. I found a woman who was eager to take them on, add them to her small flock, and give them a much bigger space to roam. They've been there nearly a month and are doing well.
As I worked yesterday, ripping out the fence and shovelling residual straw and manure, I had time to mull over the experience. I don't quite know how I feel about urban chickens anymore. While I love the idea of enhancing one's food security, taking control over some aspects of food production, and shortening the distance from farm to table, I also think that keeping livestock on small urban lots is not ideal. It is dirty and noisy, no matter how much I tried to tell myself otherwise, and the confinement wasn't terribly fair to the birds themselves. Was it better than the lives of battery hens? Absolutely, but is that good enough? Just because something is better than the worst that exists doesn't make it good.
At the very least, the experience has intensified my aversion to factory-farmed chicken meat and eggs. I simply cannot eat those products from the grocery store anymore (not that I did much before) because I know too much about the birds themselves, their quirky personalities, and how dirty they get. My point of reference has shifted through personal experience and that's why I will only buy eggs from local rural farmers whose birds roam freely, even if means paying more and eating less.
I still miss those hens, their eggs, and their gentle clucking. Every time I walk out of the house, I glance in the direction of where they used to be. When I made a pie last night, I thought about how much they would've loved the apple peels and cores. But I know that they have a better life elsewhere and that is consolation.