A city girl and her chickens

When we moved to the German countryside, I was sure I wanted chickens, sheep, cows and pigs.  The only farm animals we have managed thus far are chickens.

Now that it is -15 degrees celsius (or even colder tonight) whoever has chicken duty has to knock out the frozen water from the trough and sometimes even bang open the shed door where the feed is kept. We bring hot water down from the house in the morning, pouring it in with a satisfying crackling and popping sound. I love this, even when I hate it. Makes me feel like I’m living something Real.

When we were still living in the city, I was bothered by the feeling our children were growing up in a sheltered cocoon. They didn’t have enough exposure to nature, not real nature. Yes, there were parks. Yes, there were trees. Our neighborhood was known for its charm. We even had our own beautiful little yard. But it wasn’t Nature with a capital N either.  I wanted the seasons and to feel the changing of the sun during the day, to be forced to be out in the rain and the snow, to get our hands dirty with our own vegetable garden and the brutality of wilderness.  And we have. It hasn’t always worked out as we had planned,  but I can say that no day goes by for me unnoticed.  It has slowed me down.

And nature is brutal. One night, weasels slaughtered every single one of our chickens.  At 7am, my husband appeared outside the kitchen window, face pale. He motioned me to come and leave the children behind. Chickens are normally very loud – cackling and pecking and talking. That morning there was no sound, very eery. All 10 chickens were lying there, killed in a blood rage, limp feathered bodies spread across the straw. Whew. What a waste. And then we had to bury them all. I mean, what to you do? You can’t put them in the garbage. I was really angry at that weasel for a while.  Why? Why would nature programme an animal for such slaughter.

We’ve had a fox occasionally.  We’ve had birds of prey with stunningly beautiful, lethal beaks – especially in winter when they get hungry and our chickens are just sitting there to be taken – swoop down and kill. Once he got himself caught inside the covered area. I faced him with a pitchfork, ready for battle. Until I realized I would certainly lose to that needle-sharp weapon of his, and got the hell out of there.  We’ve developed various strategies against these predators. We’ve let the chickens run free around our property. We’ve had them in a covered pen.  We’ve had them in an open fenced-in area.  But this winter, the birds have taken 6 chickens. We have only 3 left, a rooster and two hens.

They lay every day.  We keep a light on in the evening to trick them into thinking its daytime so their biorhythm doesn’t change. They aren’t the smartest of animals, I have to say. Pretty small brains. But, the rooster will come and tell me if he finds himself out past sunset, confused by the lights of the house.  He and the hens stand on the terrace looking confused, as if they are small children woken in a strange place.

He crows until I come, asking what is the matter. Crow. Crow.  And then everybody is required to come out and chase them down towards the chicken house light.

When we first moved here, we had soft hearts.  We bought hens from a farmer, and then when one got sick, we brought her into the bathroom in the house, kept her warm, fed her grated carrots and apple. We called the farmer’s wife to ask what we should do. Her response:

Pause….. “throw her against the wall”.

That was when we began to see that farmers view chickens as stock, as food for the soup pot or as producer of eggs for the market. If they are sick, well, just kill ’em and get some more. They’re cheap. Not worth spending the time or money on ’em if they ain’t producing.

I had built up a fantasy that I would be able to raise chickens for food, learn to chop off their heads, pluck them, and pop them into the oven. (A mother from school actually has a place to sit outside to pluck her own geese and ducks when they are on the menu).  But, one day in the midst of all this ‘learning about chickens’  I visited a friend in our old city neighborhood and, on a whim, bought a (yes, already plucked and prepared) chicken at the fresh market. I roasted it and served it for dinner. Our children stared at it in silence. Then, the comments:

Where was the head?  Is that its Popo? (bum)

We contemplated it. No one wanted to eat it.  Even I was nauseous. Suddenly, it was a real animal, a bird just like those we went out and cared for each day. With all its body parts.  And that was certainly the end of my fantasy I’d be able to slaughter my own farm animals.  And pretty much the end of chicken on the dining room table.