Poultry, Thy Name is Chicken

A Red Star chicken named Red Star

A Red Star chicken named…Red Star

When we got our first backyard hens, we spent countless hours naming them. Like new parents besotted with their offspring, we never tired of telling how we came to christen the birds with titles such as Buffy, Colin, Wally and Kiss. Our favorite anecdote was about how a pair of frizzled cochins both got dubbed Nancy, in honor of our two beloved neighbors, Uphill Nancy and Downhill Nancy.

Three years into urban farming, we don’t name the birds any more. For one thing, we ran out of names. For another, it was too heartbreaking when they died. And die they do — in the grasp of possums, respiratory infection, time … you name it. Chickening can be a morbid endeavor. We’ll have more on that in future posts.

In any case, for our emotional health we had to stop thinking of our poultry as pets. Now we just call them “Chicken.” Occasionally, we’ll specify “Frizzled.” Or “Silky.” As in, “Frizzled, stop pecking at my toenails. They’re not strawberries!”

Such shameless speciesism seems cold. But just as I was beginning to worry about my hardening heart, I received an email from a fellow Hen Chick that made me realize I wasn’t the only urban chickener to recalibrate my affection for the food source in my backyard.

The Nashville Hen Chicks are a group of chicken-owners who get together for an all-egg potluck once a month. When we are not dining on free-range frittatas and crème anglaise or sharing composting tips and recipes for home-brewed kombucha, we maintain an active online dialogue about our microflocks. Topics range from hawk sightings and varmint control to bird behaviors such as brooding, venting and henpecking. But this Hen Chick email went beyond observations of the chicken coop, to a philosophical exchange about the food chain.

Here was the deal: The writer’s hens were approaching 2 ½ years old. If you are prone to anthropomorphizing, you might imagine women of a certain age, still vibrant and beautiful but declining in fertility. Since urban residents are only allowed six backyard hens, these middle-aged birds were occupying space where younger birds — spring chickens, if you will — could be making her breakfast. Consequently, the writer was requesting referrals for people who might take the peri-menopausal poultry off her hands to make room for a batch of fertile pullets. She remembered a conversation at a recent egg potluck, about a woman who “would love to have hens to butcher herself, cook and serve to her family as a special meal.” The email asked if anyone had that woman’s phone number.

This was something to brood about, indeed. This, from the same Hen Chick who, two years earlier, salvaged vintage French ironwork to construct a coop for the hens she named after her great-grandmothers! Now that her beloved Esters and Lucys were drying up in the egg department, she was ready to give them the hatchet.

A few years ago, I might have cringed. But after breaking the news to Uphill and Downhill Nancy that their namesakes were eviscerated by raccoons, all I could think was that the Hen Chick was lucky her great-grandmothers weren’t still around to hear the gruesome update. A backyard full of chicken gravestones had really changed my thinking about poultry as pets.

In fact, it was after the slaughter and burial of our frizzled Nancys that we put a moratorium on the naming of birds. From then on, we agreed that only animals with names, i.e. pets, would require ceremonial interment, whereas unnamed livestock would necessitate only hygienic disposal. That is to say that Lulu, our utterly useless Havanese terrier, will be buried with full honors, while our prolific sex-link layer of the Red Star breed will be bagged and dropped at the curb on the first trash day after her demise. But that’s only if we don’t locate the butcher woman’s phone number.

It sounds brutal, but my fellow Hen Chick summed it all up with great tenderness in her email. “I’m not happy about handing off three hens, whom we named after our great-grandmothers, to someone who’ll kill and eat them, but I know that it’s the best option, and it really is about the circle of life,” she wrote. Then she added, “We’re not naming the new pullets — they’re just called by their breed.”

Well said, my Hen Chick sister. Meanwhile, when your new pullets arrive, I’d like to introduce them to my new spring chicken. We call her simply “Red Star.”

Birds of a Feather

cowfeathersWhen Rabbi Phil passed our house last week on his way home from shul, I invited him up the driveway to check out the chicken coop. I love to show off the new Ameraucanas and the very prolific double-egg-laying Red Star, and since Rabbi Phil is considering raising quail, he was an eager audience.

Phil Ackerman-Lieberman is one of the brainiest people I know. I don’t often understand what he’s talking about, so I smile and nod a lot.  He is currently working on a publication he calls Jews and Dogs, exploring various traditions and rituals involving canines. I smiled and nodded, then told him about my creative writing project, which I call WASPs and Hens.

As we walked past my small front-yard vegetable patch, our conversation veered toward the subject of the Jubilee Year. Biblically speaking, that’s when people displaced from their land get to come home. Landowners aren’t supposed to plant crops that year. Since the story I’m writing is about farming and homecoming, I’m particularly interested in the language of Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee Year.

In most versions of the Bible that I’ve seen, there is a line about “strangers and sojourners” or “strangers and travelers,” but occasionally I’ve seen reference to “strangers and tenants.” There’s something poetic about that particular translation — an implied impermanence, a tenuousness I want to convey about my characters. That’s the language I want to borrow for my own story, but I’m not sure exactly which version of Leviticus it comes from.

Rabbi Phil offered some suggestions, then we headed back to the chicken coop, where our children were clomping around gathering feathers. His son presented him with a strawberry-blond-and-white plume. Rabbi Phil said, “Thank you. I can use it for work.”

I didn’t say anything, but…really? For work?

Then Rabbi Phil explained that he was recently certified as one of a small handful of people authorized to draft a Jewish divorce decree. Naturally, a Jewish divorce decree must be written with a quill.


I told him he was welcome to take the quill home, but after further inspection, the rabbi deemed it too small and let it fall to the floor of the coop. My strawberry-blond-and-white chicken looked ashamed, crestfallen. Honestly, I felt the same way.

Rabbi Phil, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you something to write with. You sure gave me plenty to write about.