Why my chickens crossed the road

by Chef Boy Ari

My chickens crossed the road the other day. They were the only two chickens I had left, since the others got killed by a dog. The two survivors, both of which were Buff Orpingtons, survived because they ran for the coop during the carnage, while the Barred Rocks, Australorps and Blue Cochin Bantams ran in circles. The Buff girls got naturally selected.

I had thought my girls were pretty street-smart. Whenever they went out for a little “free-range” action, they’d wander the alleys, into neighboring yards (if they didn’t have dogs). If a dog came into our yard, the girls would run or fly away – even over a 6-foot fence if necessary. If you look around the world, chickens are hardly strangers to urban environments. Usually they can hang.

Unfortunately, urban American chickens have more than roads and bloodthirsty dogs to worry about. In many places, raising chickens is illegal. Although Animal Control usually has more important things – like psycho dogs on the loose – to worry about, if a neighbor complains, the ordinance is enforced. While small, progressive towns can be surprisingly uptight about urban poultry, larger cities – like Seattle and Portland – have ordinances allowing small, well-behaved “personal use” flocks.

As gardening is about more than vegetables, raising chickens is about more than meat and eggs. Both activities help connect you to the food you eat, and to the place you live. And if you already garden, raising chickens will greatly enhance that experience.

Before I owned chickens, I’d search the classifieds for people giving away manure so I could enjoy the privilege of driving around and shoveling shit on and off my pickup.

The girls changed that by providing all the manure we needed. Wherever I put their mobile pen – or “chicken tractor” – they’d go to work on the weeds, worms and whatever else they found, turning it into eggs and leaving their “special sauce” in the ground for the next generation of plants.

I miss hauling around manure about as much as I miss that old compost pile. So barbaric! I mean, really, why let your kitchen waste just rot when it could make the ladies so happy? And remember, what’s good for the hen… Yes, it’s true, they fed me breakfast for three years. Three years of bright yellow and orange sunset yolks that make me smile just remembering. The aioli we made with those eggs…

After the dog attack, I had to get used to just two chickens. And then when they didn’t come home to roost one night I knew something was wrong. The next morning I made the neighborhood rounds and learned the chickens were last seen across the road, in someone’s front lawn. Some of my neighbors, many of whom I’d never met, said, “Someone probably caught them and ate them.”

It’s an easy thought if you’d never hung out with my sweet girls, much harder than killing, gutting and plucking one of them. Plus, you’d have to cook her for days to make her soft enough to eat. I should know, because that’s what I did after the dog attack.

The plan for when they stopped laying was free rent and pasture for the rest of their lives. But after the dog attack, taking them into my body made more sense than burying them in the dirt.

And then the last two wandered off, leaving me devoid of chickens. The garden was suddenly a lonely place. It wasn’t as much fun without the girls inspecting every inch of dug-up ground, breaking apart the clods while hunting for worms. Sure, I missed the eggs, but as much as I missed them following me around the yard, running in front of me so I’d pet them, and cooing when I said goodnight.

Soon, I was flipping through a poultry catalog preparing to order new chicks, when some neighbors came by to offer condolences. Before long, they wanted to get in on my chicken order and by the next day, half the block was in on it too – a half-block of illegal chickens.

But they won’t be illegal for long. Across town and across the country, more and more people are getting into chickens and forcing their public servants to change the laws. Already in my town, an amendment to the ordinance banning chickens has been drafted. If passed, it will probably include rules governing things like the presence of roosters, permissible numbers of birds and containment. Oh yeah, containment. Had my chickens been in a fenced yard – still free-ranging, but protected – that dog might not have killed them. And the two Buff girls probably wouldn’t have wandered across the road, either. Although my neighbors hadn’t yet complained, they might have eventually. Not everyone wants chicken turds on their lawn.

The girls had everything a chicken could want, right here at home – cool places to scratch, lots of table scraps, friends. So why did they cross that road?

Obviously, they crossed the road because they weren’t contained. And because, like us, Buff Orpingtons are smart enough to wonder if the grass is greener on the other side. I hope, for their sake, it is. •

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