Fowl life lessons: adventure, murder and scrumptious eggs


Photo courtesy of Lynne Goldsman. Feathered friends: Esmerelda, Juniper Phillis and Anabelle Lee cluck around the Dean's backyard, providing entertainment, sustenance and drama.

The Southerner

Photo courtesy of Lynne Goldsman.
Feathered friends: Esmerelda, Juniper Phillis, Betsy and Anabelle Lee cluck around the Dean’s backyard, providing entertainment, sustenance and drama.


In August 2009, after months of deliberation, my father decided to join Atlanta’s rapidly growing urban chicken-farming population. The rest of the family had little say in the matter, and, like the children’s story the Little Red Hen, neglected to help him build the chicken pen, which he labored over for weeks in the backyard.

I was the only one who chose to join him on the drive down to rural southern Georgia, where an appointment had been made to pick up two Rhode Island Red chickens.

“Free eggs!” he said excitedly throughout the hour-long car ride, “Loving pets! You know, chickens are man’s best friend!”

At the chicken farm, while I was preoccupied by the pungent odors from the chickens and the other animals at the farm, my dad simply oogled at his newfound friends, somehow finding beauty in their beady black eyes and their sharp, angry beaks.

When we finally got back home, there were two reddish brown chickens sitting in a cardboard box. We let them loose in the backyard, where they proceeded to explore their new home, eating mosquitos and worms that they snatched up from the ground. My sister named hers Betsy, supposedly to have an ideally “country” chicken, while I chose the name Esmerelda for mine, seeing as my twelve-year-old self found this to be the most extraordinary name in existence.

About six months later, we adopted two chickens from some of our neighbors, who had bought quite a few more than they wanted. These two were dubbed Juniper Phillis and Anabelle Lee—we were studying Edgar Allen Poe in seventh grade Literature.  My dad completely ignored their names, calling them his “girls.”  This was probably a wise decision, considering the fact that we couldn’t tell any of them apart.

Now, our dog, Snickers, is an Australian cattle dog, so its in her nature to herd things: tennis balls, dog toys, and, of course, chickens. It’s safe to say that the chickens were thoroughly traumatized by her, as the dog made a regular habit of jumping at them, tearing out feathers as she tried to herd them into their pen.

In such a violent environment, it was inevitable that the chickens would meat their end. The first to perish was ironically Anabelle Lee, who was killed by a hawk. Apparently, she was too heavy for the bird to carry, and fell into the backyard, lifeless.

The three remaining chickens lived another year or two in peace. In the eighth grade, I used them for my science project, feeding them protein-rich peanuts for thirty days to see if it increased the weight of their eggs. The size hardly increased, but it resulted in rather odd-tasting scrambled eggs.

Over time, the unfortunate scent that had occupied the henhouse from which the first two birds were adopted took over our backyard, and I began to venture back there less and less.

Soon later, Juniper Phillis and Betsy were killed by wild animals. My family suspects Snickers as the culprit in the first chicken’s death, but the subject is unutterable in our household, where she acutely listens to each of our conversatins, particularly those that concern her.

Betsy was taken captive by a fox, which my father chased out of the yard. Unfortunateley, he was too late.

“Well, it’s a pity that I chased away the fox,” he sighed later that night. “At least someone could’ve made a meal out of it.”

Over the next year or so, Esmarelda slowed her egg production. Many family dinners involved us debating what to do with the her once she stopped laying. Keep them? Get rid of them? My mother wanted to eat them. Yuck.

Esmarelda, I can imagine, was often very lonely. After she stopped laying eggs, my sister, brother, and I never came out much to visit her. My father still did, but much less enthusiastically than he previously had.

A few weeks ago, my parents heard a loud squack ring out into the night. My dad, who was the truly the chicken’s biggest fan, rushed down the stairs in his pajamas, grabbed a flashlight, and sprinted out he door, What he saw was a horrific sight.

A raccoon was clawing at Esmarelda, who was squacking at the top of her little lungs. When the raccoon was gone, so was she. We weren’t sure if the raccoon had eaten her, or if she had run away.

A week or two later, my dad noticed a neighbor’s Facebook status announcing a red chicken had been found waddling throughout their backyard. Immedietley, Esmarelda was claimed and brought back to her rightful home in our backyard.

I’m certain, however, that Esmarelda was happier as a wild bird. I can only imagine how terrifying her life must be: living in constant fear of Snickers eating her, or a raccoon eating her, or a hawk eating her, or a fox eating her, or my mother eating her. Unfortunately, I doubt she’ll live up to the 8 to 12 years that is average chicken lifetime.

However successful the experience may be, it goes without saying that joining the urban chicken-farming community is certainly an adventure, as well as an excellent learning experience. I learned that there are foxes in Atlanta. I learned that the ugly red dangly things on chickens’ necks are called wattles. I learned that chickens like to eat banana peels. But most of all, I learned that fresh eggs taste much better than the ones you buy in the grocery store.

Overrated as they may be, I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with the four hens.

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