Mother Hen's Day

When I bought my house five years ago, there was a little green shed with the whimsical inscription "Fresh Eggs Sold Here."
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When I bought my house five years ago, there was a little green shed with the whimsical inscription "Fresh Eggs Sold Here." It was not entirely a gratuitous flourish because the former owner kept a flock of free-range hens. These birds, like roving cats, were known by everyone along the road.

When I first met the prior owner at our house closing, we talked about nothing else but raising chickens while lawyers shoved papers under our noses to sign. I swore we'd uphold the henhouse tradition.

But that spring we repainted the shed barn-red and filled it with bicycles and gardening tools.

Not long after, I befriended Lisa, who kept a brood of Araucanas and Bantams in her home-spun backyard chicken coop. Summer dinners on the deck were a burlesque of clucking, pecking and squawking hilarity. I told my husband we had to get chickens even though my friend Lisa had just shared her tale of woe about having to fend off a complaining neighbor by proving she was in compliance with the town ordinance. She showed the town inspector her hen coop was 50 feet from the neighbor's property line and there were no more than 25 birds, the town's legal limit.

She smiled sweetly as she handed him a basket of still-warm eggs.

I too always left her house with baskets of blue and green eggs that became fluffy omelets. I had no idea how earthy a fresh-laid egg tastes. I brooded for my own flock but time kept passing and I remained chickenless. Every time I got close to embracing the project I chickened out for one reason or another.

Chicken-raising is en vogue in suburban and urban backyards. Keeping hens, like driving a Prius, is a panacea for living in a world that feels out-of-control and irrational. Martha Stewart and web sites like Chickens 101, CottonPickin Chickens and Backyard Chickens would have us believe there's nothing too it.

Call me a feather-brain but raising chickens is not much different than parenting. When it's all said and done there's weening, naming, feeding, cleaning, protecting, loving. I may want to become "mother hen" but is my land suitable? Can I protect these ladies from predators? Can I run an electric line from the house to the coop? Will I find a veterinarian who knows how to treat a chicken? Am I ready for the responsibility?

Last month as I watched the coverage of the Haiti earthquake I donated money. I felt that helpless feeling most of us have when we watch disaster unfold and wish we could do something substantial to stop the pain. We toy with the idea of rescuing an orphaned child or stranded animals while we watch telethons and then return to the stuff of our life.

In the days after the earthquake, I vowed to raise chickens but this time I meant it. I plan to have them by Mother's Day. The first decision is whether to start with aw-gosh two-day old chicks that require heat lamps and constant vigilance (25 is the minimum order from the Murray McMurray Hatchery) or whether to get half dozen mature hens.

It is a tough decision. Every summer at farm fairs my seven-year-old coddles tiny fuzzballs chicks in her small palms and says "please Mom, can we get some." On the other hand, chicks sent via the mail (in boxes with a breathing hole) don't all make it. And the male roosters need to be given away (which means they likely end up on the plate, which is not a pleasant thought for a vegetarian.)

Meanwhile, I've counted off 50 feet from both neighbor's property lines, and sited the coop on our mountain slope. My husband will need to grade our land and build a concrete platform, which will make it nearly impossible for a predator to burrow under and up into the coop. Ours will not exactly be free-range because they're easy pickins' for the hawks that wheel overhead. We will need a large wire run.

Every time I crack a store-bought egg I feel a little more excited about our due date.

And as soon as the weather warms, I will recruit my daughter to paint a little wooden sign that says "Fresh Eggs Sold Here."