By Susan Biggar
A Web Exclusive
The best thing about our suburban house is the back garden. I readily admit it’s not a pleasant sight for anyone with a green thumb, because it’s not that kind of garden. The grass is worn thin in key places, like threadbare knees on favorite jeans. In fact, there’s not a trace of green at the two ends, which double as soccer goals in winter and cricket batting boxes in summer. The plants that survive living on an all-terrain sports field get almost no pruning or tender loving care. And the rain dries up for months on end, sometimes at the most unexpected times, leaving it looking more like a beach than a backyard. But, having said all of that, it’s big, flat and empty—and begging for company.
Well, that’s what the kids suggested when they talked us into the chickens. Or maybe it was my husband, Darryl, who pushed the hardest. All I remember is everyone saying what a good idea it would be, how many eggs we would rake in and how tranquil and rural we would all feel, living here in the depths of suburban Melbourne, Australia.
It was about a year ago when our friend from the country offered us three 4-month-old chooks. Being heavily into dogs and naive about chickens, I initially resisted. But our three boys were pet-less and Darryl, who until then had opposed the introduction of all creatures large and small, was enthusiastic. The thought of progressing from chicks to puppies pushed me over the edge, and I agreed.
When the chickens finally arrive, I am surprised by their beauty. One is a large Rhode Island Red with silky smooth auburn feathers. The other two are smaller, silver birds—a South American breed called Araucana. The Red will lay browny-red eggs, while the silver ones produce a pale duck-blue color. I’ve got the frying pan ready for the first omelets.
Unfortunately, their first day with us turns out to be exceptionally busy. By the time evening comes, I’m rushing to get to a meeting and, in the ensuing chaos of dinner, baths, homework, babysitter—because enthusiastic Darryl is conveniently in France now that the chickens are here and the poop needs picking up—I manage to forget all about our feathered friends.
Around 11 o’clock that night, I realize I haven't locked the chickens in their coop. Our state, Victoria, boasts the largest population of foxes of any urban area in the world. Chicken dinner is a bit of a fox favorite, thus one unlocked night could lead to a feast. I trudge out to close the coop.
According to well-known poultry theory, much-quoted in our family during decision days, chickens are easy to own because at sunset they retreat to their coop with no chasing, herding or coaxing required. But on this very dark night with a weak flashlight in hand, I can see enough to know that our coop is 100% chicken-less. I scour the backyard and street for over an hour, hoping to meet a friendly neighbor heading our way with an armload of feathers. After calling several pet-savvy friends for advice, I eventually accept their wisdom and go to bed, praying for a miracle.
God is merciful. At 6:30 the next morning I find the naughty threesome huddled high on the branch of a tree over our sandpit. I’m so grateful I could kiss them. All night I had worried about breaking the news of their demise to my boys over bowls of Raisin Bran. I later learn that on their first night in a new home, chickens need to be led, kernel by kernel, to their coop.
After that initial hiccup, the first week with our pets is surprisingly delightful. Florence, Jonti and Hannah happily roam the yard, pooping, clawing and making the place home. The kids spend hours feeding them by hand. The experiment seems to be a success.
However, the next weekend we’re gearing-up for a family bike ride when we notice the chickens missing. Eventually we find Hannah cowering in the roost. Jonti has hidden herself in a tree. But Florence, the leader of the pack, has disappeared. Five minutes later we see Lucky, a neighborhood dog, running down the side of the house. Florence is soon discovered, dead, in the bushes.
It’s a strange phenomenon, the mixed feelings of sadness and guilt arising over the death of a little chicken which we barely knew. We’ve only had her a week, yet she was a part of our little community. And, like a child, she was dependent on us to protect her—which we failed to do. The pointlessness of her death, by a playful dog, leaves us numb.
“It’s only a silly chicken”, Darryl and I remind each other when we’re unable to shake Florence’s death off easily. After all, we eat lemon chicken, chicken cacciatore and even chicken nuggets without the least pangs of guilt. I know of farmers who can wring the neck of their chickens when the end is nigh, without a niggling of angst. Yet we feel emotionally wrecked by this death.
After a few minutes of shock, the kids seem to forget that Florence existed. We try, mostly unsuccessfully, to follow their lead and let it go. She’s packed into an old Asics shoebox and bid an unceremonious farewell.
A few weeks later I am up early one morning when I hear an odd noise coming from the garden. It‘s a half-hearted "cock-a-doodle-doo". Upon investigation, I confirm that it’s Jonti: our sweet brown hen is a rooster in disguise. She, er he, will have to go back to the country—roosters are strictly Verboten in our suburb.
Now we are left with just one remaining pet, Hannah, and are beginning to lose confidence in the wisdom of this venture.
Over the next month Hannah begins acting strangely. First, it’s a wobble; next she starts to shake and soon stops eating. We learn that she has developed a common, fatal chicken disease. What becomes the final week of her life drags on like a funeral dirge. We are already emotionally drained from losing the first two; another imminent pet-death is seriously depressing. After Hannah dies we carry her off in the now-traditional shoebox. It’s the final, painful end to our failed chicken-rearing days.
We haven't laid eyes on a single egg. We have repeatedly fed, pooper-scooped and worried like mother hens about these birds. I’m just thankful it’s chickens we’ve been killing off rather than dogs; I couldn’t cope with burying Golden Retrievers at the rate we’ve been boxing-up our Araucanas. Personally, I’ll be happy to never again lay eyes on another chicken, except for the edible ones at Safeway.
However, to our amazement, rather than suggesting we tear down the chicken coop and put in a swimming pool, our boys are keen to give chicken-rearing another go; they plead with us to get another trio of chickens. After some debate, we give in. I put on a brave smile as we head down to the Queen Victoria Market—an enormous, permanent market in Melbourne, selling everything from grapefruit to live animals. At the market, Darryl and I heavily guide the selection toward the three healthiest-looking chickens: Ginger, Hannah and Jonti.
It's now about eight months later and we've had nothing but joy—and, it must be said, a truckload of poop—from our second crop of pets. They tolerate awkward snuggles from Ellis, our two-year-old with a King Kong build, who wraps his stubby arms around them, leaving their legs dangling helplessly. Ginger endures repeated rides around the garden in the back of the little yellow dump-truck. Recently our six-year-old came crashing into the house, laughing, and yelled “Ginger licked my tongue.”
The chickens graze peacefully on the lawn, creating a calm, pastoral wonderland in this otherwise totally suburban garden. Daily we enjoy the delight and pride on our kids' faces as they arrive in the kitchen with several still-warm eggs cradled tenderly in their cupped hands. The chooks produce 15-20 eggs a week, leading to regular Saturday morning bacon and egg feasts and incentive for baking. Good for the soul, if not the cholesterol levels.
Darryl’s grandmother died last week; he was a pallbearer at the funeral. Looking back, the simple lessons of watching our chickens live and die, of carrying away those two small dead animals in cardboard boxes, might have been preparation—a small preparation for carrying the body of a beloved grandmother. Saying goodbye was still, of course, emotional and sad and will leave a gap much greater than one left by a departing chicken. But maybe our family can understand a bit more tangibly that death is just one part of life.
The chickens won't last forever, but these lessons will. And in the meantime, if you come around to our house, you'll probably find us in the back garden enjoying our farmyard paradise.
Susan Biggar is an American freelance writer. A graduate of Duke (BA) and Stanford (MA), Susan was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but has lived in six different countries over the past 20 years. She and her New Zealand husband, Darryl, are now hoping to never move again! They live in Melbourne, Australia with their three young boys.