Lots of people in the Milwaukee area know our farm well. It was a thriving business and a popular destination for over forty years. When folks learn that we are the new owners, the first question they ask is, “What about the chickens?”
The chickens are staying. As of Monday, we are in charge of their welfare. All thirty-nine of them. Scott and his staff at Monches are done renting and we are keepers of the coop.
My husband is not nervous about this. He once spent a summer in Israel, working on a farm with 250,000 chickens. His favorite part of the job was entering the hen house early in the morning and triggering a wave of chicken heads popping up, like dominoes in reverse. He would move them, a thousand at a time, using buckets, ten chickens per bucket. After a day of work, his jet black hair would be albino white from chicken poop dust. To this day, he loves the grainy smell of chicken dung. He enjoys gathering eggs, and doesn’t mind the occasional peck on the hand.
When Jane Goodall was a very little girl, she visited her grandmother’s farm in England and was tasked with collecting eggs every morning, a job that she loved. She hadn’t gathered too many eggs before she noticed a discrepancy: as far as she could tell, the chickens lacked a hole large enough to expel an egg. She asked the adults about this, and they did what many adults do. They ignored Jane. Perhaps we have that benign parental neglect to thank for the development of one of the most tenacious and questioning brains in modern science. Jane hid herself under the hay in the coop and waited five hours for a chicken to lay an egg, a sight which thrilled her to the core.
Chickens are a mystery to me. Their feet and combs look more like plants, and the patterns on their feathers remind me of fish scales. I read that chickens have earlobes and sometimes the earlobe color can be correlated to egg color.
My friend Chris came out one day and studied the flock. She told me we have a lot of Polish hens, which she warned can be temperamental.
My friend Peg came out a week later and told me that we have a lot of cochins. They’re the gentlest kind of hen. Peg also told me about a rooster whose feet froze off one harsh winter. He managed quite well, hopping around for a couple more years before eventually expiring one hot summer day.
This is the kind of gruesome folklore that farmers love to pass around to each other. All these years, the gruesome stories I’ve been sharing involve teenage boys who fall off buildings or who write their names in pee in the neighbor’s snow. Animal antics should be an interesting change.
My husband and I went to see the film Biggest Little Farm. It is an eye-opening documentary about a young couple who know nothing about agriculture, and who think they’re “living the dream” by starting a farm. Which was an unsettling film to watch when you are an old couple who know nothing about agriculture and who think you’re “living the dream” by buying a farm. But what most distressed me was the amount of chicken murder and mayhem visited upon this poor family. (Can someone please explain to me why coyotes engage in mass poultracide? Isn’t it against their best interests to wipe out an entire flock?)
Anyway, the film confirmed that I know nothing about chickens. Do they respond to names? I think so. Do we, as the new owners, give them new names? My dad suggested Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. My son’s Italian pal Dominic suggested Cacciatore, Fricasse, and Vesuvio. My friend Patrick suggested twists on 90s supermodels like Christy Turkington. OPI nail colors? Dahlia names? Farrow and Ball paint colors? Someone on Instagram suggested naming them after the Kardashians.
At our place, there’s one chicken who was adopted from another home — dropped off by a customer who lovingly raised her but could no longer care for her. Her name is Henrietta, and I believe she is a young Polish. She is smaller than the other hens, has a frizzy bouffant hair style, and stomps around like she owns the place. My daughter-in-law took one look at Henrietta and said, “That’s you!”
I really like Henrietta. She’s got great style. I think I’ll begin getting to know her better.
If you want to get to know our chickens today, watch the videos below. In the first video, my husband refers to Henrietta as “Joe Dirt,” which got under my skin. It reminded me of the time some guy in a bar asked me if my name was “Meatloaf.” Henrietta is a lovely name, a noble name, a charming name well suited to such a classy chick and anyone who doesn’t treat her nicely will be mucking out the coop.