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Globe Magazine

‘Wouldn’t backyard chickens be fun?’ you say. Be careful what you wish for

There's been a nationwide run on chickens. But take it from me, and the mystery of my three suspicious Rhode Island Reds: things get messy.

Three Rhode Island Reds outside their new coop.
Three Rhode Island Reds outside their new coop.Jeff Harder
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I TOSSED LITTLE GERRI into a wire rabbit cage and locked it shut because I thought she was eating all the eggs. It was spring 2020, and this had been going on for a year: Instead of brown eggs, all I’d find were cracked shells, congealed yolks, and mystery. Who was responsible? I abided it for awhile, but after supermarkets in my Connecticut town pandemic-rationed eggs and jacked-up prices, stopping this disgusting phenomenon taking place in my backyard took on a new urgency.

I devised a plan. Before Little Gerri could climb the ramp into her gabled home with craft-store letters spelling out CLUCK, I would scoop her up in my arms. I’d sequester her first, then, in turn, each of her three sisters — Kima, Zoya, and Babs. Eventually, by process of elimination, I’d discover which of my chickens was eating the eggs in my backyard.

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When I inherited a flock of Rhode Island Reds two years ago, all I thought about were farm-fresh eggs sizzling in a skillet, and some vague idea that my kids’ perspectives on food would benefit from seeing poultry peck at bugs in their backyard. What I couldn’t imagine was a permanently hobbled hen who whined at my back door until you tucked her into bed. I didn’t expect to stare down a bird of prey with a child’s baseball bat in my hand. I never thought through how this all might end, and I can’t be the only one.

We’re having another back-to-the-land moment here in the suburbs, an era of quarantine gardens and agrarian hobbyism to pass time and grasp for self-reliance while COVID-19 inflicts its damage. Procuring chickens is just one sign of the times: After widespread shortages of chicks for purchase, a March headline in The New York Times read, “America Stress-Bought All the Baby Chickens.” Certainly, sourcing food we’ve raised ourselves is empowering, healthy, and, given all those bare shelves and empty produce bins, a potential grocery stopgap. A lot of us will fall short, but raised garden beds just overgrow and wither away, and slimy sourdough starter goes in the trash. Backyard chickens up the ante. And as I’ve learned firsthand, a journey through amateur animal husbandry ping-pongs from the whimsical, to the grim, to the delicious.

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It started in 2015 when the chickens crossed the road. A flock of three, led by a radiant hen I nicknamed Golden Girl, wandered from my neighbors’ homemade coop to my front yard, pecking at fallen birdseed while I gawked from inside. Backyard chickens, a once-ordinary sight that dimmed with the mid-20th-century rise of factory farming, became trendy during the Great Recession of a decade ago, and I’d occasionally think about acquiring some. I’ve always been drawn to animals, and as an on-and-off vegetarian, I eat a lot of eggs.

Not long after Golden Girl came over, my sister’s family, who live around the corner, plugged in a heat lamp and raised more than a dozen baby Rhode Island Reds, a hardy breed with roots in 19th-century Little Compton. Caring for laying hens looked easy enough to me: refill the water, clean the coop, collect the eggs. By spring 2018, my sister’s free-ranging flock grew too big. Meanwhile, predators killed Golden Girl and my neighbors were about to put the coop on Craigslist — until I asked if I could take it. I knew I didn’t have the constitution to kill anything, but I had generations of dairy farmers’ blood in my veins and a gauzy agrarian fantasy in my head. So on Mother’s Day, in view of my 2-year-old son and seven-months-pregnant wife, I transported four of my sister’s birds from a pickup truck into our fenced-in half acre.

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Validation arrived swiftly. My family gathered nearly two dozen eggs every week and ate them every day: scrambled, in omelets, in chocolate chip cookies. We gave them to our neighbors as preemptive peace offerings — manicured suburban gardens and backyard chickens are rarely compatible. But no one seemed to mind the chickens’ walkabouts. My dogs didn’t maim them. The clucks added a pleasant note to the Saturday afternoon suburban chorus of table saws and leaf-blowers.

I tried to keep the chickens at a distance — no coddling, no emotions — but detachment proved difficult after learning their roles. Little Gerri was the fence-jumping, plump protagonist. Babs and Zoya were interchangeable bit players. Eunice, who was most likely blind, was a supporting actress feathered in pathos. By the time Kima — the lone survivor of a fox’s rampage in my sister’s coop — joined the flock that autumn, I was enraptured. I watched the documentary The Natural History of the Chicken. I read a book called How to Speak Chicken and went “bwah-bwah-bwah” while tossing them Cheerios. I left my wife and newborn daughter in the maternity ward to go let the ladies out for a stroll.

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Those were uniformly good times, when stress was a pile of poultry poop on the deck or a neighbor calling me to retrieve a chicken that was chewing their lettuce. At Thanksgiving on my uncle’s dairy farm outside Worcester, I told him that I now had five backyard chickens. “Did you name them?” he asked. Yeah, I said. “Well,” he chuckled, “that was a mistake.”

Zoya and the author’s son, Hunter.
Zoya and the author’s son, Hunter.Jeff Harder

ON A BALMY DAY IN JANUARY, I heard a frantic Morse code message of clucks and sharp screeches emanating from the backyard. I opened the gate and saw a red-tailed hawk standing atop Eunice’s lifeless body, the rest of the flock frozen in terror. The hawk eyed me and flew onto a leafless tree branch. Grieving seemed both inappropriate and instinctive. I solemnly shoveled poor Eunice into an empty trash bin, then ordered an air rifle from Amazon.

I soon learned, however, that killing a red-tailed hawk — a species protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act — brings a steep fine and, potentially, jail time. So I left the air rifle in its box and made a scarecrow from paint-splattered clothes stuffed with brush from the yard. It was no deterrent: I looked up from my laptop one afternoon to see the hawk grasping for Gerri and I bolted outside brandishing my then-2-year-old son’s foam baseball bat — realizing, a few steps into the yard too late, how I must look to the neighbors. The hawk flew away. Gerri was unscathed, but the spooked flock wouldn’t leave the henhouse for the rest of winter.

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The situation got worse from there. Chickens’ egg production naturally drops with less sunlight, I got lazy with checking the nesting boxes, and the broken shells appeared. I tried a shell-strengthening calcium supplement — didn’t work. Then Babs’s sisters turned on her. I found her under a bush, unable to stand, her underside bloody. I cleaned her wounds and isolated her in the rabbit cage to heal. She eventually walked again, albeit with a pronounced limp, but every attempt at reintroducing her to the flock ended with her sisters dropping beaks onto her head like axes on a tree stump. I formed a hypothesis: Babs developed a taste for the eggs left in the nesting box, her sisters found this unnatural, and they made a pact: She had to go.

Forget about the eggs — I just wanted peace. I refereed a one-on-one encounter between Babs and Zoya, holding a long, brittle stick to separate them if things turned violent. The chickens moved parallel to each other, tense but cordial. Then, when Zoya suddenly thumped on Babs’s head, I slapped her with the stick — just one light thwack, I thought. But the truth of its severity was in Zoya’s step: I now owned two limping chickens.

What had I become? I knew the risks facing a free-ranging flock — Eunice’s death, though sad, was unsurprising — but I didn’t understand the risks within the flock itself. Chickens suddenly represented nature’s brutality, cloaked in feathers, and I wondered if I had absorbed some of that brutality through osmosis. I was overcome with guilt and self-loathing.

But the fowl-on-fowl violence stopped immediately after my outburst. Zoya healed completely and quickly, and Babs was once again safe, if not particularly welcome, to roam with the others. She could no longer climb the ramp into the henhouse, however, and when night fell, Babs limped to my backdoor and let out a low trill to get my attention. Nearly every night for the last 14 months, I’ve carried her like a football into the coop so she can sleep.

I rationalized keeping the flock because they were a chemical-free tick exterminator. (I’ve found just four ticks since the chickens showed up.) But I just wanted someone else to end this stressful thing I clearly hadn’t thought all the way through. The rabbit-cage isolation, which exonerated Little Gerri — she laid a clean egg that remained unbroken — also revealed a surprise twist in the mystery: Her three sisters were munching on their own unfertilized output. I would have given them away to the first person who asked, but no one asks for an egg-eating chicken.

Then, in July, I took a chance at starting over. Tree climbers had just chopped down a rotting Norway maple, leaving the coop exposed. I wouldn’t let the chickens bake in the sun, so I transported my sister’s long-empty cedar henhouse from her yard into the shadow of a thick, forking tree. I filled the nesting boxes with a remedy that I could have easily Googled a year earlier: supermarket eggshells gouged at both ends, hollowed out, and filled with yellow mustard. I ushered the chickens into their new, old home, and vowed to destroy that other, cursed edifice.

The next morning I approached the coop with low expectations. I flipped open a lid and smelled the aroma of a hot dog from the nesting boxes: the mustard deterrents were broken, yellow shards. But in their place, I found one warm, beige egg. A second appeared the following hour. Half a dozen came within two days. I sizzled their massive yolks in olive oil. Eating them on sourdough, with a little salt, I tasted redemption.

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Jeff Harder is a writer based in Connecticut. Send comments to magazine@globe.com