When we got our first backyard hens, we spent countless hours naming them. Like new parents besotted with their offspring, we never tired of telling how we came to christen the birds with titles such as Buffy, Colin, Wally, Kiss and two Nancys (named after our neighbors, the Nancys).
Three years into urban farming, we no longer name the birds. Now we just call them "Chicken." Occasionally, we'll specify "Frizzled." Or "Silky." As in, "Frizzled, stop pecking at my toenails. They're not strawberries!"
It's not that we've lost affection for the poultry project. It's just that we've run out of names. Furthermore, when the birds did have names, it was too heartbreaking when they died. And die they do, in the grasp of possums, respiratory infection, old age, ennui, you name it.
In addition to being an educational and amusing enterprise, chickening can be a morbid business. For that reason, I'd recommend any would-be backyard farmer find a support group — birds of a feather, if you will — to share the trials and triumphs of chickening. Trust me, when you discover that first Tiffany blue egg in your coop, you'll be glad you have an audience that can appreciate the news.
That's why we created the Nashville Hen Chicks, a quirky group of likeminded female urban farmers who gather once a month for an all-egg potluck luncheon, sharing trials and triumphs of backyard poultry. When we are not dining on free-range frittatas and crème anglaise or sharing composting tips and recipes for home-brewed kombucha, we maintain an active online dialogue about our microflocks. Topics range from hawk sightings and varmint control to behaviors such as brooding, venting and henpecking — in both birds and humans.
When my family stopped naming our birds and started labeling them according to breed, I felt a fair amount of guilt about it. Nobody wants to see herself succumb to such blatant species-ism. But a timely email from a fellow Hen Chick reassured me that I was not the only urban chickener to recalibrate my attachment to the food source in my backyard.
This Chick's hens were approaching 2-and-a-half years old. If you are prone to anthropomorphizing, you might imagine women of a certain age, still vibrant and beautiful but declining in fertility. Since urban residents are only allowed six backyard hens in Nashville, these middle-aged birds were occupying space where younger birds — spring chickens, if you will — could be making the Hen Chicks' breakfast. Consequently, she was requesting referrals for people who might take the perimenopausal poultry off her hands to make room for a batch of fertile pullets. She remembered a conversation at a recent egg potluck, about a woman who "would love to have hens to butcher herself, cook and serve to her family as a special meal." The email asked if anyone had that enviably pragmatic woman's phone number.
This was something to brood about, indeed. This, from the same Hen Chick who, just two years earlier, salvaged vintage French ironwork to construct a coop for the hens she named after her great-grandmothers! Now that her beloved Ester and Lucy were drying up in the egg department, she was ready to give them the hatchet. Not since the third round of Wimbledon, when tennis commentators spoke of 42-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm with unvarnished bless-her-heart condescension, have I heard such blatant ageism.
A few years ago, I might have cringed at the metaphor of it all. I mean, if you can dispatch a barren hen so easily, what does that mean for any of us birds of a certain age when the hot flashes come? But after breaking the news to our neighbors — the Nancys — about a raccoon massacre that claimed their frizzled namesakes, all I could think was at least the Hen Chick's late great-grandmothers will never have to suffer the inconvenient truth about Ester and Lucy à la King. A backyard full of chicken gravestones had really changed my thinking about poultry as pets.
After the ring-tailed slaughter and burial of the frizzled Nancys, my family put a moratorium on the naming of birds and agreed to a two-tiered system of animal treatment. Named pets would require ceremonial interment — shoeboxes, gravestones, maudlin haikus and whatnot — whereas unnamed livestock would necessitate a simple hygienic disposal. That is to say that Lulu, our utterly useless Havanese terrier, will be buried with full honors, while our prolific sex-link layer of the Red Star breed will be bagged and dropped in the Curby on the first Wednesday after her demise. But that's only if we don't manage to locate the butcher woman's phone number.
It sounds brutal, but my fellow Hen Chick summed it all up with great tenderness in her email. "I'm not happy about handing off three hens, whom we named after our great-grandmothers, to someone who'll kill and eat them, but I know that it's the best option, and it really is about the circle of life," she wrote. Then she added, "We're not naming the new pullets — they're just called by their breed."
Well said, my Hen Chick sister. Meanwhile, when your new pullets arrive, I'd like to introduce them to my new spring chicken. We call her simply "Red Star."