Why I Can’t Romanticize The Lives Of Our Chickens

I awoke this morning to feed and water my hens, only to find two of them mangled by an unknown assassin.  Both heads were missing.  There was no sign of forced entry.   Somehow the third had managed to escape; I found her frantically hopping around near the alleyway behind my house, and it looked like she was missing some tail feathers.


The two barred rock hens were great egg-layers, quasi-pets, and cheap entertainment, providing plenty of smiles while watching them take dust baths, dig for worms, and squawk for no apparent reason.  As for the third hen, pictured above, my wife and I will find her a new home.  Chickens are social creatures and prefer to be part of a group.

As a gardener, hunter, and keeper of chickens, there is no end to learning, epiphanies, and opportunities for reflection.

I’ve learned which sections of my small yard seem to have the best soil for growing a variety of crops.  I’ve learned blackberries can grow anywhere.  I’ve learned to heavily prune fruit trees in the winter, that catnip tea makes a great natural sleep aid, and that green beans are amazingly prolific, as long as you keep picking them.  And I’ve had to reevaluate why and how I eat animals.  The list goes on and on.

Over the years, I’ve also had similar insights as fellow blogger Issac, who eloquently reflects on Michael Pollan’s book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education in this post.  He writes, “The gardener accepts contingency, his/her own and nature’s: He/she focuses on the task at hand, acknowledges and learns from the past, but does not lament or philosophizes too much about why things happen.”

I’m saddened by the death of the chickens, but it’s over and done with.  By keeping the hens, I accepted dealing with their life cycles, whether predators, disease, providing meat, or old age leads to death–you shouldn’t romanticize the life of a chicken, although I suspect it is happening a lot now that backyard coops are gaining popularity.

I’ll undoubtedly face more challenges with future chickens, plants infested with slugs, lost deer trails, and droughts in the brutal Kentucky heat.  But these hobbies enrich my life in meaningful ways, and I can’t imagine dropping them for more sedentary activities that do nothing to bring me closer to life cycles, the soil, and the balmy air on a June morning in Louisville.


  1. Alan,
    You’ve challenged me with your thinking about chickens and “happiness.” I definitely anthropomorphize with the birds, and assume certain chicken behaviors correlate to our own behaviors and emotions. That said, I’ll gladly trade the risk in my local birds’ immune system risks for tastier eggs, community building, and the risks and rewards associated with taking care of backyard hens.
    It’s definitely a post about what I take from gardening in general.

  2. What makes a chicken happy anyway? We anthropomorphise by assuming it’s open space and fresh air. During my Ph.D I collaborated with a professor of animal science who told me that using a healthy immune system as a proxy for “happy,” some (but not all) factory farmed chickens were better off than free-range ones. As you have just seen, nature is red in tooth and claw, and the world does not usually conform to our wishes for order, peace, and justice. Chickens will be eaten, they will peck each other to death, they will die if left alone… There is nothing we can do to ensure all the chickens are happy.

    This is an important lesson, and if I read this post right, it is what you take from gardening more generally. Adapt to the world in all its imperfections, and still manage to find beauty therein…

    Thanks for thought-provoking posts, as always!

  3. Yes, it’s my last Bread Loaf summer, so as long as I tackle some 16th and 17th century Brit Lit., I should be leaving with a degree:
    Please send me your must list!
    psbarnwell at hotmail.com.
    Just arrived and working off jet lag…

  4. We are in until next Thursday. Enjoy Oxford! Do you need me to send you a list of must see/drink pubs? I was there for a training last year, gorgeous! Are you going for Bread Loaf? I was thinking about applying to go to Oxford with BL in the next 2 years.

    I begin a new phase of the German teaching career. Will be starting at Frankfurt Int’l mid-August.

  5. Already found a home for number three, so that’s good news. I’ll be heading across the pond to Oxford to finish a Master’s degree in English this summer, so I’ll be posting with some new perspective about life in England. Enjoy your summer too! Is your school on a similar calendar?

  6. Happyappalachy,
    It’s really easy to get attached to backyard chickens, that’s for sure. Farming is certainly full-time work and a lifestyle choice. I’d like to have a hobby farm some day, and I’ve told my wife that if this vision comes true, we can’t just have a menagerie of creatures without some of them becoming dinner someday…
    What do you plant in your garden?

  7. A neighbor of ours woke up to a similar crime scene. No one was ever quite sure if it was a dog, a raccoon, or a bobcat. Sending positive vibes you way as you endeavor to find number 3 a new home. And enjoy your summer off!

  8. I grew up on a quasi-farm. Quasi because our animals (chickens, cows, horses) were more hobbies than contemplated to provide food or serve any particular purpose. We had plenty of crops, but those too were more something for my grandpa to do in the evenings than they were for us to eat — we gave most of it away to the neighbors. But sometimes I think I would like to go back and have a farm, but the rational part of me says, “No, you are too easily attached to anything with legs.” So I guess I’ll stick to my tiny urban garden and my domesticated animals.

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