Wild city: Chickens are always interesting

I know it isn’t very nice, but I snicker every time I read an article about urban chickens. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against raising chickens for meat and eggs. I’m an enthusiastic locavore. I shop at farmers markets and grow greens, herbs, veggies and fruit in my small city yard.

And I like farm animals. My husband lives in fear of arriving home from work someday to find a goat grazing out front. I like the way chickens look, their form. I wouldn’t put it past me to raise urban hens myself.

But I grew up rural, and having chickens around was a good bit less charming than city folks seem to think it will be.

Granted, the baby chicks we’d get each year back then were adorable. A call would come from the post office to pick up our living cargo. We kids got to go along. We were handed a box emitting both a loud cheeping sound and the ammonia stink of chicken manure.

We’d bring the chicks home and pet their yellow, fluffy backs, while my mother took them one by one and dipped their beaks first in food, then in water. They are that stupid, she told us. They need to be taught to eat and drink.

Very soon their white feathers began coming in and the chicks became something else: dirty birds that were mean to each other and panicky. (It is no coincidence that the animal that screams, “The sky is falling,” in the children’s story is a chicken.)

Urban chickens are named and held in their owner’s arms. Ours lived in a dark, dusty shed. Their small fenced yard had rotting table scraps on the ground. It has only occurred to me just now that maybe we kept too many birds in too grubby and cramped a space. Maybe they would have behaved differently if they’d had nicer digs and had been given the run of the place.

Maybe they would have been less aggressive. Ours picked out the meekest members of the flock and established the so-called pecking order. Brutally attacked, the unfortunates lost many feathers, or even died.

So I’ve softened a little on the idea of the beloved urban chicken, but the most recent article on the subject in the New York Times got me giggling again. A New Yorker is selling to fellow city dwellers small chicken coops he builds for $600. One of his models sells at a garden store for more than $1,000. His business is going so well he is getting out of antiques and going into coops full time.

When I was growing up, if you’d told someone you had spent hundreds of dollars on a chicken coop the size of a dollhouse, they would have questioned your sanity.

But then again, I have to admit the New York guy’s design is nice: two shelves, the higher one for nesting, the lower one for the food and water. That, and a very small fenced-in run, all in a rectangular wooden box.

As my husband noted, it is amusing to observe the lengths New York foodies are willing to go to out-local (that is, to get fresher eggs than) their friends. Where would people in Manhattan put a coop, anyway? On the roof? On the deck? Under the bed?

The most I’ve consorted with chickens in recent years is at the State Fair. When my daughter was young we began a practice no self-respecting rural person would consider. We step into that cacophony at the Poultry Building, that hot, hazy room full of hens clucking and roosters crowing. We find one saucy-looking fellow, then stand next to him, throw back our heads, and cock-a-doodle-do.

He answers right back. This practice may be evidence that without realizing it I crossed over to the city side on this matter long ago.

I recently made a city person’s chicken mistake. I was visiting a friend in rural Wisconsin. It was 8 a.m., a beautiful day. Her neighbor, an old woman whose hair stood straight up and who was wearing a heavy jacket, sat in a lawn chair facing her barnyard. Plump, robust auburn chickens were on the loose there.

I said, “Hi. How are you?” and she snapped, “I just got up.” But then she looked out over the yard and said, “Chickens are always interesting.”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I love chickens.”

She looked at me as though she were trying to assess just what kind of idiot I was.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” she said, dourly, and then, putting an end to the matter, said once again, “Chickens are always interesting.”

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.