Backyard chicken coop teaches family lessons known to generations past

Lucie Amundsen
Lucie Amundsen: In the egg trade, birds that no longer lay regularly are known as spent hens.
Submitted photo

Lucie Amundsen, a Duluth writer and graduate student, is a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.

The urban farming movement has hit Duluth hard. My neighbors are erecting hoop-house gardens. Two families we know keep bees. I know a guy who knows a guy who can hook you up with some under-the-radar goat cheese.

And our family? We keep hens. Five chickens in a backyard coop. They arrived in a peeping cardboard carton shaped like a Happy Meal and lived their first fluffy weeks in a kiddie pool under a heat lamp. Then came their awkward adolescence: beaks growing faster than faces. Feathers sprouting out from under down. It's a universally cruel stage.

Now they are robust lady hens. My favorites are the tawny-colored Buff Offingtons, a bodacious plus-sized model of a chicken wearing fluffy pantaloons under full feathery skirts. They cluck softly as they peck and scratch in our little garden. Their scaly feet are from a lost epoch. And there's a real ancientness to a bird that must turn its entire head to take you in with one intense eye.

They are living idioms from a bygone Americana. They come home to roost. They have a pecking order. And given the chance, they will cross the road. Earlier generations knew all this. Older folks I've only known in suburban settings chime in with their own youthful chicken tales. My own 78-year-old father worked on a neighbor's poultry farm when he was a kid ... back when all chickens were free range, and kids were too.

Most surprising, our little flock has given us some much-needed knowhow. My husband, who had never built so much as a bird feeder, designed and built a coop around a salvaged skylight. And like children from a past era, my kids now do chores that involve feeding and watering and gathering eggs. They even engage in some minor entrepreneurship. My little guy delivers eggs with a newspaper comic tucked into the carton. He calls it "Milo's Yolks & Jokes."

Of course, it all comes with responsibility. These birds peck a precarious line between pet and livestock. We've lost some to poor fencing and raccoons. There was a survivor, badly wounded, that we had to help out of her misery. A kind neighbor came over and showed us how. We all emerged better for it, no longer dilettantes but more fully fledged urban farmers.

Since then, we've been careful not to name our chickens. In a couple of years they will cease to lay regularly. In the egg trade, these birds are crudely known as spent hens.

As the old-timers say, we're in this from feet to feathers. One day these hens will end up in somebody's stewpot. I'm OK with that. Just don't think I'm a dilettante if they don't end up in mine.

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