Home Page

Cooped Up

By Tina Traster

February 25, 2010 -- When I looked at the house I was to buy five years ago, I noticed a little green shed on the north end of the property with the inscription “Fresh Eggs Sold Here.” It wasn’t entirely a gratuitous flourish; the owner actually kept a flock of free-range hens. These birds, like roving cats, were known by everyone along the road.

When I met the owner at the house closing, we talked about raising chickens. I swore my family would uphold the henhouse tradition.

But that spring, we repainted the shed barn-red and filled it with bicycles and gardening tools.

Not long after, I befriended my neighbor Lisa, who kept a brood of Araucanas and bantams in her backyard chicken coop. Summer dinners on her deck were a burlesque of clucking, pecking and squawking hilarity.

I told my husband we had to get chickens, even though Lisa had mentioned having to fend off a complaining neighbor by proving she was in compliance with the town ordinance. She showed the town inspector that her coop was 50 feet from the neighbor’s property line and that there were no more than 25 birds, the town’s legal limit.

I always left her house with baskets of blue and green eggs that became fluffy omelets. I had no idea how earthy a fresh-laid egg tastes. I wanted my own flock — and the accompanying eggs — but time kept passing and I remained chickenless. Every time I got close to embracing the project, I, well, chickened out.

Chicken-raising is en vogue in suburban and even urban back yards. Keeping hens, like driving a Prius, is a panacea for a world that often feels out of control and irrational. Martha Stewart and Web sites like Backyardchickens.com would have us believe there’s nothing to it.

In fact, raising chickens is not much different than parenting. There’s weaning, naming, feeding, cleaning, protecting, loving. I may want to become “mother hen,” but can I protect these hens from predators? Can I run an electric line from the house to the coop? Will I find a veterinarian who knows how to treat a chicken? Am I ready for the responsibility?

Last month, I vowed to raise chickens, but this time I meant it. I plan to have them by Mother’s Day. The first decision is whether to start with 2-day-old chicks that require heat lamps and constant vigilance (25 is the minimum order from the Murray McMurray Hatchery), or whether to get a half-dozen mature hens.

It’s a tough decision. Every summer at farm fairs, my daughter, now 7, coddles tiny chick fuzzballs and begs, “Please, Mom, can we get some?” But chicks sent via the mail (in boxes with a breathing hole) don’t all make it. And the male roosters need to be given away (they’ll likely end up on a plate — not a pleasant thought for a vegetarian).

Meanwhile, I’ve counted off 50 feet from both neighbors’ property lines and sited the coop on our mountain slope. My husband will need to grade our land and build a concrete platform, which will make it nearly impossible for a predator to burrow into the coop. Ours will not exactly be free-range because they’re easy pickings for the hawks. We will need a large, enclosed wire pen outside the coop for the chickens to run in.

Every time I crack a store-bought egg, I feel a little more excited about our due date. And as soon as the weather warms, I will recruit my daughter to paint a little wooden sign that says, “Fresh Eggs Sold Here.”

Columns | Essays | HuffPo Blog | Newspapers | Magazines | Business/Finance | Travel | About Me | Contact