Living with Girls
To care for chickens is to carry their corpses. An excerpt from Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food.
Max Watman's new memoir Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, depicts the author's quest for real food and real farm life – minus the farm. This excerpt is his cautionary tale of raising chickens – "The Girls" – in his Hudson Valley backyard. Harvest is available now from W.W. Norton and Company, on Amazon and at your local bookstore.
We named our chickens Goldie, Pepper, Karen, and Penguin. Goldie was a Buff Orpington hen, the biggest of the girls and the leader — the top of the pecking order. She was a very good-looking bird, with soft feathers the color of straw — so good looking, in fact, that when I lent her to a neighbor girl who entered her in a country fair, she won a blue ribbon as a perfect example of her breed. I liked to pretend that she lorded this victory over her coop mates. Goldie had been out there in the world. She’d seen things, and she’d taken her prize. She was the most cosmopolitan of the chickens.
Pepper and Penguin were Blue (a color more like slate, really) Ameraucanas, with little pea combs and muffs around their faces; the eggs they laid had pale blue-green shells. Penguin was not much by way of personality, but Pepper was the smartest and most daring of the chickens. She was the one who would hop up onto people’s shoulders and was always out of the coop first when I opened the gate to let them run around in the yard. Karen was a Golden Laced Wyandotte. She was lovely to look at but slightly dumber than the rest: she was easily confused by obstacles — she would stand in front of a twig, unable to go around or over it, or she would doubt her ability to squeeze through a door that wasn’t open all the way. She liked cozy spaces and seemed to find comfort in a slot between a dense bush and the fence. She was very easy to catch. One got the feeling that Karen was a sweetheart.
Penguin died early, before she was two years old, of what I termed sudden chicken death syndrome — she simply dropped. I walked out to the coop and she was lying in a heap by the watering fount. It was a sad, mysterious moment but very much the sort of thing to which one must be inured. To care for chickens is to carry their corpses. They are vulnerable birds. Insects can beat a chicken in a fair fight if they get themselves organized. The birds are susceptible to all sorts of maladies and mishaps. Most of all, everything likes to eat chickens.
Learning about death is one of the lessons that is said to be delivered early to children who live in agricultural settings, along with a familiarity with where babies come from, and it was a pretty well-timed lesson for my son West, who was four at the time and in the midst of a morbid phase, always asking us to drive around in graveyards and wondering whether people were buried under statues. He took the news of Penguin’s demise solemnly and was sad while he digested the information over the course of an hour or so, after which he owned it.
“We used to have four chickens,” he told his little friends. His eyebrows would flare, and he’d deliver the closer with appropriate, shivering excitement, playing the part of a lilliputian emcee of the Grand Guignol: “Now we have three because Penguin died.”
I wanted chickens because I’d had them when I was a kid and because I wanted the eggs. As more people put more chickens in their backyards, some studies have been done on the eggs, and apparently they are not measurably different from grocery store eggs. I can’t really bring myself to believe it. They seem to taste better. They certainly look better in the pan. The yolks have a vivid color and seem to stand up straight. They act better when being whipped into mayonnaise. But even if our senses are fooling us about the organoleptic qualities of the yard egg and the product of our flocks turns out to be indistinguishable from the flat, pale, runny things at the grocery store, there’s still something to crow about. If you take care of the chickens and the space where they live and handle the eggs properly, you have a food that is a marked improvement on the mass-produced egg. It hasn’t rolled through filth, and the chicken that laid it isn’t ravaged by disease and flush full of chemicals to fight those diseases.
You will also have removed yourself from a system that can only be classified as cruel. The egg battery — the gruesome system of farming that provides most of our eggs — rewards even the slightest investigation with a disturbing vision of a deeply callous system in which the animals are unable to act out their most basic instincts such as roosting or nesting. Battery hens try very hard to find a private space in which to lay eggs, but since their cage is about the size of a piece of paper, they do not succeed.
There’s no need for karmic or hygienic squeamishness over a yard egg. A yard egg is a small moral victory.
I built a funky two-level coop. The bottom — the so called run — gave them dirt and dust to flap around in, and the top gave them space to nest and roost. They had way more space than four chickens need, according to everything I’d read. I built it mostly out of scrap lumber, and I like to joke that the plans were printed on the side of a can of beer, because when I couldn’t figure out what I was doing while I was building it — it was 50 percent planned, 50 percent improvised — I would take a step back and stare at my beer until a solution came to me. Rachael painted it red with a white stripe across the door, on which she stenciled a rooster silhouette. I used a roll of copper flashing that was sitting in my basement for no apparent reason to flash the walls. On the whole, it looked spontaneous, but it had a special luster — think Haiti goes Ivy League.
The chickens in my yard seemed happy. They ran around, chased each other, ate bugs. They got carrot trimmings and leaves of cabbage out of the kitchen. This might be a bit of country wisdom I picked up in my youth rather than an actual chicken-raising fact, but care should be taken not to feed them meat, because they will look around and will see that their coop mates are also made of meat, and they will eat one another. As I’ve said, everything likes to eat chickens — even chickens. I’ve always thought it was like the hungry cartoon character in the old Warner Bros. cartoons who sees another character on a tray, with those little paper tufts on his legs and an apple in his mouth.
The Girls, as the chickens came to be known, also lent a wonderful vibe to the yard. Big-table backyard dinner parties were enhanced by the chickens clucking around. They made my yard a landscape. They were beautiful to look at and fun to watch. Kids loved them. People would stop at my fence to check them out and ask questions. One little neighborhood girl began referring to our place as “the farm,” which was incredibly satisfying. This wasn’t just another little house in a quaint town in the Hudson Valley. This was a farm.
I am a writer, which means that my professional activities — at least when I’m at home — involve staring at walls, going to libraries, typing, and rationalizing ever earlier cocktail hours. These are very nonagricultural activities. Having chickens is a bit of an antidote to that. I found that I liked the routine of feeding, cleaning, and filling water founts. I liked the galvanized buckets and scoops. I liked the necessity of the care. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold, or raining, or you’re tired: livestock demands attention. You can’t just blow it off. Having things that must be done, no matter what, can be a great boon to those who sit at home and stare at walls and type.
We’d had them for over three years when things went wrong.
I found Goldie dead in the dirt with a broken neck. Something had dug a small hole under the wall of the coop and squeezed in. As the top hen, Goldie had no doubt come down from the roost to do the rooster’s job of defending the flock. (I once watched the Girls attack a squirrel that found its way into the coop while the door was open. They dive-bombed him, one after the other, while he ran around in panicked circles.) I assumed the invader this time was a possum, since it hadn’t eaten Goldie.
Naming livestock really is a mistake — a morning spent picking up flecks of gore proves it — but I can’t pretend the Girls weren’t pets. It was a mistake I enjoyed making. Even if they hadn’t been elevated above their proper station, to care for a creature is to enter into a contract. I had agreed to shepherd these birds, and now they were being preyed upon. It was my job to defend them. I worked to secure the coop, picking up bricks and flagstones from around the yard to skirt the run and make digging under the walls more difficult. I reinforced the wire.
It wasn’t enough. The next invasion came within a month.
Rachael shook me awake before seven on a Friday morning in late October 2010. We would have been up soon anyway, getting West ready for school, rushing around, fixing breakfast for my sister-in-law and her two kids, who had come into town for a long weekend to celebrate Rachael’s birthday. It was the sort of break in a daily rhythm — like the telephone ringing at two in the morning — that signifies something amiss. A neighbor, the mother of the little girl who called our place “the farm,” had knocked on our door and announced that there was a very good-looking chicken scratching around in a driveway a few houses down, and she was pretty sure it was ours.
I stepped into the chilly dawn, transformed. Looking for livestock in the early morning is something that farmers do. Even though I was on edge — chickens don’t like to wander; something had happened — it felt good to be up in the morning with a purpose, seeing my breath in the autumn air, a man with a flock to gather.
I found Karen exactly where my neighbor had said she’d be, in a driveway down the street, and she was weirdly skittish. She didn’t usually run from me. To her, I was the rooster and the bringer of treats. She often followed me around, and while she might duck away if I moved up on her too fast, usually she’d simply squat and let me pick her up. Now she was darting about, clucking, nervous. I got Rachael — I can’t catch her; I need help! — and we cornered her. Rachael scooped her up. Her clucks got louder and louder as we approached the coop. Some beast had dug a hole under the corner big enough for a Scottish terrier to wiggle through, and one side of the coop was completely blown out, all the wire separated from the frame. I put Karen in the bottom and opened the top, looking for Pepper.
It took me a second to realize I’d found her. There wasn’t much left. Pepper, or what had been Pepper, was on her back, eviscerated. Her breasts were eaten clean. There was an empty cavity of breastbone, devoid of organ or meat, and her slate blue wings were outstretched against the golden straw on the floor, as if she were making a snow angel. There was a globule of blood. A bit of her head was still attached.
I let Karen out into the yard to walk around — no wonder she didn’t want to be in there — and cleaned the mess. By the time I’d replaced the straw bedding in the second level, I was seething, a backyard Achilles: “We will let all this be a thing of the past, and for all our sorrow beat down by force the anger deeply within us. Now I shall go, to overtake that killer of a dear life.” Something was going to die for this. I would take revenge. I would keep poor Karen safe, and I would kill whatever was responsible.
I drove to Walmart and bought an air rifle that advertised itself as strong enough to shoot small game. As always, I ran into a couple of neighbors while I was there, and I got a few raised eyebrows for pushing my cart around with a rifle in it. My little Hudson Valley town is split rather clearly between the old Italian and Irish blue-collar families who don’t relate to New York City and don’t flinch at the sight of a rifle, and the new crop of urban refugees, absurdly well-educated young families, mostly, who write letters to the editor and harbor an aversion to firearms (or in this case, things that resemble firearms).
I have always bridged these two worlds. My day-to-day life is inarguably micropolitan. I find my rabbits in the grocery store, not the hedgerow, and I’m more likely to be seen buying a tiny button of goat’s cheese than ammunition. But I was raised in the country, and I have a strong streak of redneck in me.
I spent the rest of the morning taking some target practice up in the woods at my friend C. Russell Muth’s house.
Russell showed me a duck he’d shot, plucked and ready, and I said she was smaller than I thought she’d be. I deal with big domestic ducks most of the time, ducks bred to have breasts as big as Canada Geese. This was a little bird, like a narrow Cornish hen. Russell pretended to be hurt, or maybe he meant it. She smelled perfect: clean but gamey.
What do you want to do with her? I asked.
“I figured we’d eat her tomorrow — maybe a little cook’s lunch?”
I was flattered.
“Hey, listen,” said Russell, “I’m just happy to have someone to do this with. I don’t always know how to eat these things. I know how to shoot them.”
The “cook’s lunch” was going to be a big deal. Russell was coming over during the day to help me prep — my wife had just turned forty, and I was pulling out the stops to celebrate.
But first, I had to try to kill whatever had eaten Pepper. The anger of Achilles will not be put on the back burner while one tends to the hors d’oeuvres. Revenge is demanding.
I talked to friends about this. I called my father. He told me stories of dashing naked out into the woods in the middle of the night, swinging a rake at a possum that had been breaking into the henhouse. A friend of mine who had started the year with twenty hens and was down to five told me stories of indiscriminately blasting holes into the walls of barns, shooting at phantom raccoons with a rabid fury. It drives you to the edge.
I sat up late in my little writing shed behind the house. The window was open and the air was cool and I had a good, clear shot at the point of entry to the coop. I managed to sit there for a couple of hours with the rifle at the ready on my lap. Nothing came. Karen was locked safely away elsewhere. Around one in the morning, I drank a glass of whiskey and headed off to bed.
The next day, I watched Karen wander the yard and eat bugs. It was a sad scene, her scratching around by herself. I’m sure she missed her little society. She had no one to cluck to, no beaks competing for juicy worms. Chickens don’t desire solitude. Solitude is for apex predators. Bald eagles want to be alone, peering out into the distance. If you’re a chicken or an anchovy or something like that, you want to bolster the odds of your survival by standing next to lots of cousins. Watch guinea hens walk around together in a field, clustered together, and you can see their plan: when the fox runs by and grabs one of them, most of them will be okay.
People started rolling in, as expected, around three in the afternoon. We were popping bottles of champagne and shucking oysters as fast as we could. The kids were running around on the grass, playing hard and landing in big piles. The smoker was chuffing fragrant woodsmoke into the air. I’d dusted that wood duck with good salt and fennel pollen and drizzled her with olive oil. She sat in the smoker, a moderate wood fire going in the firebox, next to a rolled pork loin shot through with garlic and rosemary — basic dinner fare for when we were all hungry later. Some of us would fill up on the treats I’d bought for Rachael’s party, but there are always a few who won’t dive into raw oysters.
When the duck was cooked, I gave one of the legs to West, and Russell and I shared the other. I took the breasts off the bone and sliced the meat into thin slivers. She was marvelous. Gamey, high, just right. Rich with kidney flavor and blood, a wild thing brought to a cutting board.
She’d had five acorns in her gullet when Russell brought her down. Russell and I smeared pâté on chunks of crusty bread and laid thin slices of the breast on top. I made one for Rachael that stopped her in her tracks and made her swoon.
That night wound down slowly, with a few late guests sitting around in our microbarn (it’s set up as a speakeasy, or a grown-up clubhouse, adorned with skulls and paperbacks and memorabilia; we call it Kansas City). We were using an old chicken box — a wooden dowelled one used to transfer chickens — as a coffee table. Inside it, Karen was clucking contentedly. It was a funny way to spend an evening, but I figured if I kept Karen in a coop inside a building, she’d be safe.
I worked on her shattered home over the next week or so, doubling the wire on the walls and thinking about running some wire underground. This way, a digging animal would hit the wire and stop trying to tunnel in. In a slow, burning fury, I sat up nights with the air rifle. I never saw anything.
While I worked on the coop, I made Karen a real cage in the barn. I felt that at least she was safe for now. I was wrong.
Rachael was out of town, and I popped up in bed, startled awake. I went downstairs, checking that the doors were locked and looking for whatever had fallen or broken — the typical middle-of-the-night security wander. I couldn’t find anything. Maybe the wind had blown a trash can over. Standing over the sink drinking a glass of water, I heard a noise in Kansas City. I looked out the window. The rock that wedged the double door shut — thirty-five pounds of granite — had been moved. The door was blowing in the wind.
I grasped at the hope, briefly, that the wind was the culprit. It was blowing hard off the river. Maybe it had pushed the door open.
Then I heard Karen warble and moan, a sound more emotive than anything I’d heard since I moved a wild rabbit I’d rescued in the woods as a kid. I picked him up to clean his cage, and he let rip with the famed cry of the rabbit, the crux of Watership Down. That sounds like a baby being tortured. This sounded weirder. The long, low wailing cluck that came out of Karen sounded like she knew it was the end and that the end hurt a great deal.
I was frozen and panicked. I called my wife. What do I do? Do I go in there? She’s already lost.
First Rachael tried to convince me that since she wasn’t home, I couldn’t afford to go outside and fight wild animals in the middle of the night, especially since I didn’t even know what it was. West needed his dad.
I claimed, hotly, that the thing wasn’t going to kill me. Even as I spoke the words, I entertained a vision of a coyote leaping from the shadows to tear off a piece of my arm on the way out the door.
Her next point was inarguable. Karen was dead, or mortally wounded. If she was wounded, I was going to have to kill her.
“You’re in your pajamas. If you chase it away, it’ll be back later.”
I had to let it run its course. The battle was lost. I stood, hating myself, trembling at the window, waiting for something to happen.
There was a thump and another warbling moan.
I am listening to my pet being eaten alive.
I stood there for half an hour, or two minutes, or all night. I don’t know. Then I saw a little hand grab at the door, which was flapping back and forth in the wind. I saw him poke his nose out and dash furtively across the yard and over a fence. A raccoon. He was huge.
My mouth opened as if to yell, but if any sound came out, I didn’t hear it.
The next day I cleaned Karen up, mopped up the blood, disgusted with myself, with the whole thing, still seething at the raccoon.
He didn’t leave. He kept breaking into Kansas City, looking for chickens, knocking over the tub of feed that was in there. I sat up nights. He had a pattern. I knew his path, and I had deaths to avenge.
He stopped in the yard one night, and I raised my gun, but I couldn’t shoot before he sidestepped into the shadows, and I was barely sane enough to know that shooting into shadows is exactly how you end up on a neighbor’s doorstep trying to explain why you shot her cat. One afternoon, West was upstairs playing after school and I was in the kitchen. Glancing out into the yard, I saw him there, pawing at the piece of ground that smelled like Karen, because it was where I swept out the straw and blood. The size of a basset hound, he compulsively fondled the grass. I opened the door and looked at him. He stared right back, evidently fearless. There’s a basket of balls by the door — West’s toys for the yard. I threw a baseball at him and missed; he didn’t flinch. I threw a basketball and hit him. He ran at me, thought better of it, and perched behind a chair, watching me from ten feet away. I wouldn’t say he was hiding. We were making eye contact. He just needed to put something in between us. Eventually he left, but he was in no hurry.
I walked along the route he took through my yard and found, in between the house and the deck, a rather large pile of raccoon shit. He was engaged in psychological warfare. He knew we were at war. I smeared peanut butter on some paving stones in a well-lit spot and waited through the darkest hours, watching. He stopped there one night. I quietly opened the door of my writing shed and raised the rifle to my eye. He didn’t even look. I sighted him in and pulled the trigger. He fell sideways and snarled. I’d gotten him! I was thrilled. But he didn’t die. He ran away. I shot him three more times. I have never hated anything the way I hated that raccoon.
Finally, we took away everything that might be interesting to eat, and he stopped coming around. I can only hope that he died of lead poisoning and that it hurt. I promised that if he came back in the spring, I would find a way to kill him. I had lurid fantasies in which I trapped him and threw the trap in the river.
This is what it came to. I wanted chickens, and now I raged and seethed and fantasized about killing an animal that was simply doing what he does. I don’t fault Russell for shooting ducks, and I surely can’t fault a raccoon for eating chickens. I’m sure my well-fed Karen was delicious. The raccoon did nothing wrong, but I would kill him in a second. That’s my half of the bargain, after all. It’s just as natural for me to defend as it is for him to attack.
Although many of the numbers must be guessed at, a quick calculation of how much the eggs cost me is useful. I bought a $200 coop at a yard sale and watched it fall apart. The coop that replaced it was built with scrap lumber, with chicken wire and hinges from Home Depot. Looking around my yard, I see that I purchased a summer watering can and a heated fount for the winter. There’s a feeder and a big galvanized tub and scoop for the feed. There’s a heat lamp with a bulb. Repeat purchases were straw, cedar, and feed. Over the course of three years, the total cost hits about $435. I also spent a couple hundred dollars hiring high school kids to watch the Girls while we were out of town, which brings it up to about $635. It adds up to about $4 a week. Some weeks I got more than a dozen eggs, and some weeks I got far fewer. Where I live, I can buy very good eggs — real eggs from hens that roam freely on a family farm about 50 miles away — for under three bucks. I don’t get the joy of watching my chickens peck at my yard, nor do I face the sorrows of their deaths. I do buy the pleasure of knowing that I am helping a farm near me stay viable.
I can’t help but hope that my story puts those who are unprepared for the ordeal of having chickens off of the idea. I watch with alarm as American families put cute coops in their backyards. Chickens are the new knitting — a trend that implies domesticity and wholesomeness. But making scarves and carrying the remains of animals around are two very different things. The trend reached a pinnacle (one hopes it was the pinnacle, anyway) when Peggy Orenstein wrote an article for the New York Times in March 2010. It was titled “The Femivore’s Dilemma” and was accompanied by a photo of an attractive woman in a well-gardened backyard. She wore muted, earthy blue and was draped with a shawl. She cradled one of her flock in her arms. She was like the California Virgin Mary, surrounded by climbing pink roses. I could only wonder how she would handle the morning she finds her chicken ripped apart with its brain sucked out of its skull. Bringing livestock home is hard stuff. • 24 March 2014
Excerpted from Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food by Max Watman. Copyright © 2014 by Max Watman. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Max Watman is the author of Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine (Simon & Schuster, February 2010) and Race Day: a Spot on the Rail with Max Watman (Ivan R. Dee, 2005). He was the horse racing correspondent for the New York Sun and has written for various publications on books, music, food, and drink. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a literature fellowship in 2008. He was raised in the Shenandoah Valley and has worked as a cook, farmer, silversmith, tutor, greenskeeper, warehouseman, and web designer. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and son.