Living with chickens

Madeleine Siegel/Courtesy

Growing up, I had two favorite bedtime stories from my mom’s past. One was about a tractor in the rain, and the other was about chickens.

My mom grew up on a dairy farm in Darien, Wisconsin, a town of 800-some people at the time. When my grandparents got married in 1951, they inherited a piece of my great-grandpa’s farm and some of his herd. They moved in to an old chicken coop while they built the house where my mom grew up.

As the mother of two daughters and two sons, my grandma was very strict about which chores were for the girls and which were for the boys. The girls would work inside with my grandma, and the boys would stay outside with my grandpa and the cows. A tomboy and bookworm with her own set of ideas, my mom often convinced my grandma to release her from the cooking and cleaning duties. Instead, she cared for the chickens.

At my bedtime, I would ask my mom to tell me about her chickens. Did some have names? Did she pick favorites? How could she pick favorites!? What color were the eggs? Did the roosters pick on her? I can still imagine my mother in boots and overalls, going around to the nesting boxes and collecting eggs.

Fast forward 16 or 17 years, and it’s my third week as an intern at Green String Farm in Petaluma, California, a farm I called home last spring and summer. The land is tucked into the rolling hills of Sonoma County and nestled between two of the highways that cut through eastern Petaluma. It is one of many farms in North Bay but only one of a handful that has a strong teaching component. For morning chore this week, Erica, one of my fellow “spring-terns” and I are on chicken duty. Each morning at 6, we put a pot of coffee on the stove and head out to open the coops.

But there was drama in the chicken community. One of our farm managers wanted to bring a couple of new roosters to the coop in the hopes of keeping some of the rowdier roosters in line. Erica and I were asked to help introduce the two roosters into the coop just around dusk when the creatures were sleepy. Hopefully, this would make the newer roosters easier to carry and the older ones less protective of their territory.

And so, just around dusk, we met at the small pen where the new roosters had been settling in, pecking here and there. To pick them up, the move was simple: grab the rooster’s legs and flip him upside down. This maneuver puts the rooster in a calm, hypnotic state, letting its head dangle and its wings gently flap open (a move Wikipedia claims Al Gore has mastered).

As one of the farm’s chicken whisperers, Erica had one of the roosters in her grasp within moments. I stared at her in amazement, watching as the rooster appeared to fall asleep in her arms. I watched the other rooster’s movements and after a few clumsy misses, I had him upside down. Phase one was complete. For phase two, we walked out of the pen, past the barn of sleeping lambs, the herb garden and the celery patch and toward the chicken coop. It was almost completely dark, with just the stars and the moon lighting our way.

I fumbled with the latch of the coop door, rooster still in hand. Careful not to let any of the other chickens out, I slowly opened the door and stepped inside. I gently placed the rooster upright and set him down. He stretched his legs, ruffled his feathers and began pecking at his new surroundings. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Erica followed behind to let the second rooster into the coop. But as soon as her bird’s feet hit the ground, he darted out of the door into the darkness. We exchanged frightened glances, threw the coop door shut and took off after him, zigzagging through the celery patch and the herb garden in hot pursuit of the flighty animal.

Dusk had passed now, and we could no longer see the missing rooster. Thankfully, his unabashed rustling in the darkness helped us trail him. We jumped the fence of the lamb pen, tracing his winding path until my friend stopped short.

“Ah hah!” she yelled, a hypnotized rooster dangling triumphantly from her hand.

Although this was one of many lively moments on the farm, this one often sticks out in my mind. I told my mom about the runaway chicken the next day and expected her to have a dozen stories just like it. Instead, I was surprised by how excited she was. I think she was happy that I could share my own story with the stars of my favorite bedtime tale.

By moving to the rhythm of the seasons and connecting with animals and plants alike, I developed a relationship with the land I had not experienced before. The boundaries of the work day faded so that taking care of our farm became taking care of myself. Transitioning out of Green String and back to Berkeley, I am still trying to reconcile the yearning to grow my own food with the desire not to be tied to a piece of land. I hope that the two can find a balance.