Return of the Hens


Img00094_2Freed from confinement, they were completely charming in an utterly thuggish way, barreling up to me every time I came into the yard and squawking for a prosciutto rind. They were amazing layers, too–one giant egg a day every day from each hen, the most efficient source of food in the world. As soon as they could peck for a portion of their diet, they basically ignored the organic feed I was offering and fed themselves.

But they are called “Sexlinks” because they are a hybrid that allows for the males and females to be easily sorted by feather color as chicks. In other words, they are bred as an industrial product, not as a backyard pet. And there was something machine-like about the way they set about destroying my garden, digging, digging, digging with their powerful drumsticks, in search of worms and insects, upturning my perennials, breaking off my emerging lilies, turning my lawn into a sandbox.

Then there was the problem with the neighbor, who came over one morning without warning and introduced himself to my husband by saying, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” I think that meant, you can rid yourself of the chickens nicely–or I can punch you.

Now, I have the uneasy sense that living near me in the confined and crowded space that is is a city may be slightly hellish, what with the composting, and the shouting at the kids, and the inability to back the car out of the garage without hitting the gate across the alley. However, I do try. So I gave away the hens and saved my husband a punch in the nose.

Of course, the angry guy is now notorious in Saratoga Springs because he called the cops on another neighbor whose backyard pond had attracted a peeper. Apparently, he thought peeper song was just like hen-squawk, something that deserved the really big guns to be called out. Fortunately, he’s no longer a neighbor. He wound up getting divorced–I’m really surprised any woman would let a man with such a nice personality go–and sold his house to a fun young couple.

I found that I missed having chickens in the yard. Of course, I missed the eggs, which were wonderful. And I missed the unbelievably gorgeous compost that resulted from the straw and chicken poop that I cleaned out of their coop every other week. But what I really missed were the visuals–the gentle busyiness in the background of chickens pecking at the grass. While the suburbanites I grew up with found peace only in sterility, I only feel peaceful when there is a tumbling chaos of animals and children in my yard. I’m sure some day the combination of genes that spells farmer will be identified and treatments developed.

So I decided to order chickens again this spring, but in a modest quantity that might give my perennials a fighting chance. Just three.

Thank goodness for bloggers. I ran across one a few years ago who was building a small chicken run in a city yard and asked her if she wasn’t worried about her chickens going nuts in the space.

She wasn’t. She’d already had experience with a placid breed named Buff Orpington, which she called the “dumb blondes of the chicken world.” Henderson’s delightful chicken chart agrees with her, calling them “big, friendly birds.”

Even though I’d decided to let my hens roam, I thought tolerant and friendly were really useful qualities in a city, and I’m not just talking about chickens.

So my Buffs are as overblown and pretty as a 50’s movie star. They let my kids catch them and pet their beautiful feathers. They are already so big that the lovely guy next door predicts they will soon dwarf my dog. They’re not laying yet, but they are already doing their most important job: making a house feel like home and a street feel like a neighborhood.


  1. I love Buff Orpingtons. I think of them like the Polish grandma I never had – big, warm, affectionate, unruffled, able to make do on whatever they’re given. My mom’s used to like to nest on anyone on the porch around sunset – there were five chickens of different breeds and they’d gently fight to sit in the lap, but settle – one on each shoulder, one on the head, two on the lap. Good memories.

  2. I had to laugh about your sexlinks experience – I, too, bought 3 a few years ago and they also devoured any seedling and scratched relentlessly in my garden. Sold ’em! I’ve had better luck with Silkies (easy to contain in a yard because they can’t fly). I recently added 3 young Welsummers (for those dark brown eggs), but since I have a large chicken yard, my garden is safe for now. I’ve noticed they are eating the mint that tries to spread into their yard! Three downsides of chickens I’ve learned in my over 35 years of having chickens: predators (lock them up at night) and rats and mice that like the lay mash – I lock that up at night, too. And aggressive roosters. Sticking with buying pullets (young hens) solves many problems. I’ve never noticed an odor with just a few chickens that are allowed to be un-caged. But maybe our hot, drying climate helps with that.

  3. Oh, I wish! But my county, so enlightened and obliging in so many ways, is totally blinkered when it comes to chickens. NO. NONE OF THE ABOVE. But I loved reading your stories about them, and will live vicariously through other people’s hens. by the way, if they lay so well, why do I have to pay $5.00 per dozen for eggs from happy chickens at the local farmers’ market?

  4. All this hen talk has made me want some of my own. Garden Man gives me the “one eyebrow raised” look. You know the one – the one that says “ain’t happenin’.” Ah, well. Keep the stories coming – I am enjoying them.

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