If Only All Chickens Could Be Happy

I love chickens. I would guess my fondness for them is due to Annie, who cared for me as a child; she fostered my love for them. Annie taught me to gather eggs from her hens, to slip my brave hand beneath the hen’s soft warm feathers. The hen clucked at me, as I pulled my hand away, holding tightly to the brown magic that was under her, against the bed of straw, clucked at me, not in disapproval, but in understanding, to acknowledge her generosity in sharing what she was able to produce, sharing it with me. I held the eggs against my cheek, the egg warm and smooth, a hug of sorts, certainly a comfort.
Annie had Rhode Island Reds with their copper-coloured feathers and some Plymouth Rock varieties. I was always partial to the Reds. They seemed the friendliest though I did admire the mottled colouring of the Plymouth Rock. When Aimee and Samantha were quite young, we had two pet chickens, Gwen and Charlotte. We inherited them from friends who were moving and had to find a suitable home for their family members. Gwen was a heavy-set Rhode Island Red with a distinguished limp. She came when called, always certain we had a treat for her, her large orange feet slapping the ground with her uneven rhythm. We called her our Guard Chicken, as she always played where the girls played, keeping a watchful eye on Samantha while Aimee was at school. Charlotte was a bit shy, a pheasant cross of some kind, thin and speedy, though she, too, liked to be carried around as if she were royalty. I think William and Kate named their daughter after my pheasant/chicken; it seems the only logical explanation.
I was driving home the other day and a flock of hens were having an adventure in a field beside the road. They pecked and scratched to unearth some yummy snacks and I had to pull my car over to the side of the road to take in the view. I found the sight of these happy hens both comforting and alarming. We willingly house hens in large barns where they are crowded and limited in their movement and never feel the sunshine on their feathers. How did we ever think this was a good idea? When did we start measuring their purpose in terms of our financial gain, the cost of producing eggs far more important than the health of those laying the eggs. I drive by many large poultry barns in the course of my travels and I shudder at the sight.
Chickens in our early farms, farms that raised a wide variety of animals, were an important piece of the puzzle, playing a role in the overall health of the farm. Chickens are great at getting rid of pesky bugs and tilling the soil with their feet and are willing to work the fertilizer they provide into the soil. If you get the chance, tune in to The Biggest Little Farm on Netflix. It tells the story of farming as it used to be, each animal “with a purpose to contribute”. This couple believe the old way of farming is the future, where mono-culture farms no longer exist, where soil that has died can be restored. In 2010, they left their jobs as cameraman and chef to follow their dream, to provide for their belief that the health of our food is “determined by how it is farmed”. They were told the notion of farming in harmony with nature was both reckless and impossible. They proved the naysayers wrong. Watch it to the end, you will be glad you did. If I was starting out in life now, I would follow a similar dream. My day was bettered by watching happy chickens.
wendistewart@live.ca