Chicken Envy Gets a Reality Check

shellys-chicken

I assumed that because I live on 20 acres in the country and my twin lives within Redding city limits, I’d be the one with chickens (and goats and cows and other farm critters) and my sister would have a cat or a dog or goldfish or whatever.

But alas, Shelly has chickens while I remain chickless.

This is so weird. Because I’m seven minutes older than Shelly, most of our lives I’ve been the trail-blazer, which is typical of twin situations. Usually, the older twin takes the lead.

For example, while nobody’s around to say for sure, I’m fairly confident I crawled, talked and walked first.

Nevertheless, sometimes twin timing gets screwed up, such as when we were 7 and scheduled for identical tonsillectomies. The surgeons postponed Shelly’s tonsillectomy for another six years after I almost hemorrhaged to death on the operating table.

And at 19 we made appointments for matching Dorothy Hamill haircuts, and I braved the scissors first – eager to be transformed into an ice-skating beauty asap. But after Shelly took one look at my pale, bare neck and short bob, she decided to keep her long and luxurious and gorgeous hair.

I’m almost over that.

But we were talking about chickens. I don’t recall which of us first professed our fantasy to have some laying hens, but it appealed to us both. We talked about how cool it would be to wake up each day and head for our tidy hen house in search of fresh eggs. We’d return with our vintage wire baskets filled with beautiful pastel-colored eggs.

My chicken desire heated up after Bruce and I built our home in Igo. All that ruralness — chickens just seemed so right. My chicken lust grew even stronger after I interviewed Sharon Chesnut -the Chicken Whisperer – who spoke so affectionately about her love of chickens.  Interesting that the women I knew who had chickens were absolutely smitten with them. Funny, but I also noticed that many men have a great dislike for chickens (live ones, not fried, roasted or Kieved).

But wanting chickens and getting chickens are two different things. To quote my husband – the chicken-hater – people in hell want ice water, too.

So here we are.

Shelly the city-dweller beat Doni the country-dweller to chicken ownership. She did more than wax romantic about chickens. Last spring she took the initiative to drive to Palo Cedro Feed where she selected a trio of little black fluff ball chicks (the traditional yellow ones were already taken).

As a group she named her chicks The Supremes, hoping that all the little black chicks would one day grow up to be laying hens (not roosters, which are forbidden inside city limits).

She’d never buy eggs again. And at a cost of just $2.25 per chick, The Supremes were a bargain – less than the price of a Banquet chicken pot pie.

But like many seemingly inexpensive earthy endeavors (vegetable gardening, or olive oil production, for example), Shelly’s chicken expenses shot up from there. The list is long, starting with the purchase of the book, Keep Chickens! ($16.95), and a 250-watt infrared heating lamp ($13.75), a plastic 1-quart water jug ($1.90), a drown-proof plastic water jug base ($1.50), a 12-chick feeder trough ($3.50), a heat-lamp clamp ($4.25), 10 pounds of “chick start” food, 20 pounds of pure pine shavings ($8) and something called a hooded brooder for $11.25.

For the life of Shelly she can’t recall what the heck a hooded brooder was (is).

She also spent a pretty penny on a locally made Victorian hen house ($325), and a dog run (chicken run) situation around the hen house ($80) and enough chicken wire to construct an aviary-like chicken yard that Pavel, my daughter-in-law’s brother, called a chicken prison ($30).

Initially Shelly kept the infant chicks in a big plastic storage bin ($10) inside her house, lest a cat or raccoon or something carry them away outside.

As an aside, let me say that any time one brings farm animals indoors, one can count on one’s living room taking on the air of a barnyard.

My, how The Supremes grew. 

Now they are so big and sassy that no cat or raccoon or opossum would dare mess with them.

Right on schedule The Supremes blessed Shelly with eggs right around Thanksgiving. Shelly learned from chickensecrets.com that a chicken only lays one egg per day, which would be just about right.

Not to get too off subject, but can you imagine the internal process required to actually form an egg inside your body – hard shell, yolk, white, etc. – and then expel one every day? Every day?! Makes childbirth look easy. So glad I’m not a chicken.

The thing is, Shelly’s never gathered more than two eggs a day, which means one of The Supremes is lying down on the laying job. It’s not like she can catch them in the egg-laying act. They do it in private.

Anyway, the more I watched Shelly with The Supremes, the more slowly I fell out of love with the fantasy of actually owning chickens.

As much as I envied Shelly’s fresh eggs, there were aspects about poultrydom I didn’t envy. For example, I don’t envy dealing with chicken poop around her yard, or having to double check soles before entering the house.

And because Mary, Flo and Diana like hanging out on Shelly’s back porch more than their hen house, I didn’t envy how she needed to build a sturdy chicken-wire barricade between the porch steps and backyard.

Nor did I envy the way Shelly worries about her chickens when she’s out late at night.

“I hope they go inside when it’s dark” she’d say, or, “I hope The Supremes come in from the rain” – which I’ve seen firsthand is a real concern because Shelly’s chickens will actually stand in a downpour and get absolutely soaked just inches from the shelter of their warm, dry hen house.

Apparently chickens weren’t as bright as I thought, either, which reminds me of a story my daughter shared recently about one of her chickens.  It went missing for a few days but was later finally found upside down inside a large basket. The chicken had fallen head first into the basket (chickens are nosy – er, beeky), with its chicken butt and chicken feet facing skyward. 

Two things were amazing about this discovery:

1. Sarah’s chicken was alive (still is).

2. Nature’s call for that chicken to lay an egg was so strong that the poor chicken resumed her duty, even in that horrible position. Some time during her basket ordeal she’d laid an egg, giving the impression of an egg-excruding feathered fountain, if you will.

Other body functions resumed during that time, too, which initially made the egg somewhat difficult to see.

But back to Shelly’s chickens. When she leaves town, she arranges for a chicken-sitter to check on The Supremes. And even when she is home, Shelly does a hand-clapping chicken round-up each evening to coax The Supremes into their house for the night, and come morning, Shelly opens their pen so they can have the run of the yard. 

The more I observed Shelly and her chickens, the more I noticed that Mary, Flo and Diana were far more meaningful to Shelly than as mere egg-producers. Rather, The Supremes have become my sister’s beloved pets.  They cluck happily each morning when Shelly appears. They shadow Shelly as she works outside. They fertilize Shelly’s yard and eat bugs and chase pesky squirrels and provide hours of entertainment for Shelly’s granddaughter, May.

may-chickens

(I have a serious case of grandchild envy, too, but that’s another column.)

As touching as Shelly’s love is for The Supremes, I can admit that perhaps chickens aren’t for me, after all. For one thing, they require more care than I’d imagined. And we’ve also discussed the fact that they’re not cheap (cheep! – couldn’t resist), either. Finally, truth be known, I must not be a farmer at heart because I don’t have the stomach for enduring so much chicken poop. 

All of which begs the question for me:

Is all that mess and hassle worth just two or three eggs a day?

I’m thinking – uh, no.

Now goats … surely goats would be easier …

Perhaps I can talk Shelly into getting a couple.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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25 Responses

  1. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    Oh Doni. DO NOT try to persuade Shelly to get any goats IF you want to remain on speaking terms with her…..

  2. Avatar Kathleen says:

    We have 5 chickens and LOVE them!! They are good for at least one belly laugh a day. The eggs were the reason I got them but that has become secondary. The bad news is, because we've gotten to know chickens personalities. we can no longer stomach eating commercial chicken because of the environment in which they are raised and I can't quite get to the point of raising meat chickens. The good news is they have organic free range chickens in the stores now. The bad news is they are $9 a pound! As a bonus, we had very little problem with ticks and mosquitos since getting them. I also have 2 goats and love them also but if poop is a factor for you they may not be your thing either as they are poop machines ;^)

  3. Avatar Sara says:

    I have six chickens in Redding and love them! They are known as "The Girls." I would recomend them to everyone!

  4. Avatar Ellen says:

    Donni,

    I was laughing out loud when I read this column. I have 3 chickens now.We also got them for the eggs. My chickens are named Shrek,Coco and Latte. When I got them, I had no idea about the mess. Ours love to roost in the garage in the dog crate. The trail of chicken …..starts from the garage and makes a beeline to the porch. It then makes for the greenest grass. I often wonder if it is worth it but asanother reader wrote, they follow me all over the yard and Shrek comes when I call her name. The other good part is , they eat ants and snails like crazy. I have not had to worry about ants since the chicks discovered them.

  5. Avatar Bruce Greenberg says:

    I must respond to the " People in Hell want ice water" remark. It's true I said that, probably a bit harsh, but I had chickens in another life. I don't hate chickens but I know what's involved in keeping them.

    We have neighbors that sell fresh eggs.

    Ice water anyone?

  6. Avatar Ginny says:

    My mother had chickens loose on her property in the never-land outside of Morgan Hill. She fell in love, as much as a human can, with a pretty rooster. Golden Boy became old and couldn't fight any longer. After being beat up by the other roosters, she brought him into the dining room . Thank Heavens it had lino on the floor. Golden Boy lived out the rest of his life where he could look out the sliding door to the outside. Lots of newspapers, disinfectant, and him sharing the dinning room with us for over six months. He died after living in Rooster Heaven on Earth. Where else could he have roosted on any numbers of chair braces, warm and loved. He had a nice funeral!

  7. Avatar Doug Mudford says:

    Doni,
    Your column today is pure gold. It made me smile. I think I'll save it for a re-read on the days I need a pick-me-up.
    Doug

  8. Avatar Robert says:

    Doni:

    Goats kill trees. Something to think about. I like my goats, but I wish they would ease up on the trees. So far they've only murdered 17 small oaks, 1 apple tree and tried to kill 2 maples. Goats are also escape artists so I hope you have good fencing with tight mesh (i.e. electrified redtop 1 X 2, no light-weight field fencing) otherwise you'll find them in your garage eating paint and standing on your Audi.

    Let your sister get the goats first.

  9. Avatar Troy Hawkins says:

    Doni,
    Delightful! I loved this sweet, fun, envy breaking piece. Shelly's girls are so cute. Adam and I have chicken envy too. I do not plan to spend much time at Shelly's until we actually get them here at the T & A Ranch. I do not want to be persuaded by poop!

  10. Avatar Sharon Chesnut says:

    Hi Doni – Enjoyed your article – with all the discussion about chicken ownership and the real world consequences of same, I am considering a new career as a Chicken Consultant…..or perhaps a Chicken Reality Website (oh wait – you already have that covered). My 5 are alive and well, even though I recently accidentally locked them in the garden overnight (with no access to their chicken house). I made it up to them with a serving of hot oatmeal………I know, I need more to do……
    regards, Sharon Chesnut

  11. Avatar Melissa says:

    Doni, I'd made a similar assumption about my city dwelling friends. Like you with your sister, I'd assumed that my friends in San Diego were missing out on the joys of rural living. Then I went for a visit and discovered that they've not only converted all available yard space into raised garden beds, but they've also got a chicken coop! Weekend mornings my friend Matthew can be found outside drinking coffee and watching his beloved chickens roam around. Way more "country" than I am in Red Bluff! Thanks for a fun article!

  12. Avatar Grammalyn says:

    We had one chicken — one of the hatchlings from Kindergarten back in the 80s. The darn thing pecked at my freckles constantly, thinking that they were insects, I guess. We did love her, but some critter had her for lunch. Tough lesson, for sure.

  13. Avatar Susan Daugherty says:

    What a delightful column, Doni. I'm with Troy though; I don't want to burst my bubble by visiting anyone who already has chickens
    I have this whole lovely vision of raising chickens and growing vegetables and, yes, raising a goat or two, once I get to Crescent City. This dream of a "simple" life has kept me going through the harsh realities of building a house and I'm just not ready to let go of it yet! I need a dream to propel me through the months of sorting my collection of "treasures" to get ready for the downsizing!

  14. Avatar Budd Hodges says:

    Doni, is this a chicken joke? As the saying goes…" don't count your chickens until they hatch."

    If Bruce won't go for the chicks, how about monkeys? I've heard they're a barrel of fun.

    Or maybe Shelly can come out to your ranch with excess fresh eggs when the Supremes produce a bumper laying.

  15. Avatar Barbara N. says:

    Doni,

    This article reminded me of the good old days when you wrote for the Record Searchlight. Not much there now but the news to look forward to, but that is a different story!

    Loved it, keep them coming!!

  16. Avatar Darcie says:

    Once again you have written a golden egg ..er piece. Thanks!

  17. Avatar shelly shively says:

    Fun article about my beloved Supremes, Doni. Another incentive for having one's own egg layers is the aspect of healthy food.

    Ahem, as an aside, re the '7 minute older/trail blazer' topic…..I have seen a letter written by our mother that cites "Shelly" as crawling circles around "Doni", who "just sits". None of that matters now, especially since I have chickens….but, I'm happy to share the Supreme's eggs. 🙂

  18. Avatar Eve says:

    Doni……I had a pet Bantum chicken (also black) when I was a child. It followed me everywhere, but didn't lay eggs. That "pet love" evolved into wanting to have chickens for eggs as an adult, but that just never happened. Instead, I now have a LARGE collection of 'chicken art' in and around my home. Still no eggs, but also no mess to have to clean up! Maybe the best of all worlds…..besides, I'm not sure that our 3 resident cats would be too happy with real chickens. Thanks for the great story….it really brought back some fond memories.

  19. Avatar Canda says:

    What a fun article, Doni. Your sense of humor really comes through in this delightful piece. I agree with Barbara-your RS articles were so enjoyable and entertaining to read. Great stuff. Please keep it coming. As Ellen was, I was laughing out loud, and I don't even have chickens. Well, maybe a freezer full, but that doesn't count, does it?

  20. Avatar Jenni Middleton says:

    Get the goats!

  21. Avatar Banjo Bill says:

    I thought people weren't allowed to have chickens inside Redding city limits. After reading your article I may consider getting a couple of laying hens for the eggs, but NO ROOSTERS for the obvious reasons, i.e. morning wake up crowing, I assume?
    However we do have a bird dog, do you think that may pose a problem, if so do you have any suggestions? Please contact me, cuz I'd love to surprise my wife, braawwk!

    I would probably have to also get another DOG HOUSE, for obvious reasons.

  22. Avatar Banjo Bill says:

    I forgot to mention in my earlier post, I too LAFFED OUT LOUD SEVERAL TIMES … it's a wonderful article, and I may send it to all my CHICKEN-BLEEP FRIENDS….

  23. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    I was born in a little house my dad built on the chicken farm his father had bought right before he died. The chicken and egg business saw my dad's family through the depression years.
    At one time during college my roommate and I bought a chicken to lay eggs for us. She never laid an egg but she and our dogs became great friends. She was an excellent "watch chicken". Whenever someone would approach our home she would start a series of chicken sounds that would climb in volume the closer that person got to our door.
    When my roommate was in a fender-bender at the local store, she settled out-of-court with the family whose car she had backed into. When they came to the house to pick up the check they fell in love with the chicken and she became part of the settlement. This was timely since we had just been received an eviction notice because the landlord found out we had a chicken.

  24. Avatar Michelle says:

    Until last summer we enjoyed our little bantam frizzle hen who had the run of the place. But Esther was the quintessential garden claw and was forever uprooting anything freshly planted. That chicken sensed moisture, bugs and worms and nothing could escape her sharp claws. It was either my xeric garden or the chickie. I found a nice home for her with one on my students. Esther was preceded by Hester, who mysteriously died and fell off her perch (the patio ceiling fan) belly up–no kidding her legs were skyward. Before her was Fester, who became so feisty he tried to take on the Jake Russell terrier. We gave him away before the terrier sought revenge. And finally, our favorite of all was Chester, who met his untimely demise in the duck pond. It was froze over with ice and he fell through and drowned. We miss her and the dogs miss her eggs–they became proficient egg suckers finding her little snacks here and there. But I do not miss the dead plants and dirty sidewalks!

  25. Avatar Neil says:

    Love the story of the goats eating paint and standing on the audi….think I'll stick to chickens. I heard that chickens die here in Redding because of the heat. Could I get by by having their coup placed under the shade of a large redwood, or must I get sophisticated with sprayers etc.?