Rain is pounding San Francisco when I visit Kate’s house. We connected online, through a neighborhood group, and I’m stopping by to check out her hens because perhaps foolishly I’m considering getting some of my own. I’ve been puzzling over whether urban hens are pets or part of a living pantry. I have no idea what to expect. But visiting real birds seems like a good enough start.
As a beginning, it’s not that auspicious. When we step into the backyard the clouds open up even further and we’re pelted with hail. Four hens, bobbing about the garden in a loose group, seem unfazed.
The entire lush and green backyard is on an upslope and looks out across the Castro district and a San Francisco panorama to Bernal Heights, a semi-suburban neighborhood in the city’s geographic center. As I stand in the yard, two hawks circle overhead. The lawn and the neat, framed garden beds are smattered with chicken poop.
Kate has four birds. Two planned, two unplanned. The first pair came to her last year, from a science program at the school her young kids attend. Families from the school often adopt a couple of birds once summer rolls around, she says. The second pair were adopted later. A family who’d also taken in a couple of chicks asked Kate to babysit their birds for a week. She agreed. But soon after, they called, hoping she would keep them — their deck, they realized, didn’t offer much space for growing chicks.
The hens now roost and lay eggs in a spacious, two-room coop Kate’s husband designed and built and have a free run in the garden during the day. Given that each hen typically lays at least an egg a day and that they’re not particularly expensive to feed and house, I’m not sure I’d have given up on young chicks so quickly. Of course, at this point I’m also no more than talk.
Later, when the rain has subsided, I wander back outside with a couple of slices of American cheese for the hens. I’m trying to take this seriously, because it’s my first unchaperoned encounter with hens, and so I suppress the urge to eat cheese and trudge through the light rain to the coop. The hens crowd me, wheezing and clucking and snapping up the torn-up slices, and then wander off when it’s clear I’m no longer useful.
Yet they’re more sociable than I’d expected. And expressive, too, as they flick their heads from side to side and wobble around the yard in search of food.
Kate agrees. If she’s working outside the hens come and sit near her. Hang out. Cluck. “They’re creatures of habit,” she says. “The easiest pets I’ve had.”
Uh-oh. Pets? She’s hit upon the very question that’s been nagging me.
Across the city, in Bernal Heights, Maureen’s three hens scratch in a low wire and molded plastic coop filled with paper scraps, carrot tops and a fair scattering of poop.
Sustaining the chickens and garden is full-time work, and Maureen’s full-time job. But this is no pastoral whimsy. Her urban garden also cuts her family’s food costs. In fact, she’s a little embarrassed at having paid for the coop, an ocean-blue Eglu, because virtually everything else in her yard is salvaged, reused, or donated. The birds muck about in torn-up phone books, gleaned from nearby streets. They eat kitchen scraps. And they aren’t coddled.
“They’re not pets,” Maureen says. She doesn’t name her hens, doesn’t let her son name them, and is adamant that the three birds will be processed.
Processed? For a second I’m thrown by the term and think of Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, Oscar Meyer… Like “harvest,” it’s one of those apt but elusive terms commonly used by people who spend a lot of time cheek-to-jowl with the food they eat. It’s a clever term, too — it masks the fact the hens will be slaughtered while also serving as a reminder that some hens aren’t pets, but rather animals walking a slow road toward the dinner table.
Maureen is calmly matter-of-fact about her birds. She’s clearly deeply committed to transforming her yard in to a self-sustaining garden, to transforming her young son’s understanding of the life cycle of food, upending her family’s entire pattern of consumption. Her small garden was little more than a concrete slab until she went at it with a cement buster a year-and-a-half ago. Now, blueberry stalks grow in wine barrels. Peas climb a small trellis in a corner of the yard. Broccoli, kale, carrots, garlic and leeks are patches of green amid old planks, torn-up newspaper and rabbit droppings, a garden-ready fertilizer.
Gutting the chickens isn’t easy, she says. It’s dark inside the bird and you’re in there with your hand feeling your way around, trying not to bust the gall bladder because the spilled bile spoils the flavor of the meat. You have to tug the organs to get them out.
Once I found a whole line of eggs inside a hen, she adds. “It was like one of those Russian dolls.”
Oh babushka! Could I do this — gut, drain and pluck a dead chicken? Would I have to? Can’t I just hang onto the birds until they’re doddering around and die of their own accord?
Maureen’s comments are a wake-up call. She is utterly practical and I’m realizing I’m not. I’d figured I could probably take a deep breath and kill a bird — if I had to. But in my fear of harvesting a hen I hadn’t thought beyond the chopping block. I remind myself that I don’t particularly like chicken meat. Part of me, I realize, is bothered by the thought of the work that goes into raising — and eventually processing — hens. But another part of me is bothered at being bothered about the responsibility of it all. I’d clearly been thinking of chickens as egg dispensers, not pets. Harvesting them was the elephant in the room.
Later that afternoon, I step outside alone to take another look at the Eglu. The hens scatter nervously as I approach. Maybe I’m imagining it, but these birds don’t seem like pets.
As I leave, I backtrack to a poster hanging on Maureen’s kitchen wall, an original and a gift from her husband. “Plant a Victory Garden. Our Food is Fighting. A Garden Will Make Your Rations Go Further,” it declares.
Over at Bernal Beast, a nearby pet supply store, I talk about the full monty hen kill scenario with Abe, a store coworker. “I think it’d be kind of tedious,” he remarks, of having to pluck and prepare a bird. He has a point. The chicken is likely to be tough. A soup bird. No more than a meal or two.
Tony, the store’s owner, is more circumspect. He doesn’t own chickens himself but calls his customers “forethinkers.” “They can see that not only nutritionally but economically it’s the way to go,” he says. “It also goes along with having a garden.”
He thinks he’s onto something too. Demand for hen supplies has been rising over the past one-and-half to two years, if his sales are anything to go by. He now stocks 50-pound bags of scratch and crumble chicken feed. Customers come in from all over San Francisco, he says.
He seems wistful when he remembers the hens his extended family raised when he was growing up. “They just have the whole world to themselves. They’re just hysterical.”
I’m getting the sense this sentiment is pretty widespread. Dana, a friend of a friend, raises hens on a small urban lot in Gardnerville, near Lake Tahoe.
Her two 11-month-old Rhode Island Reds and her dog hang out — supervised — in the backyard together.
“I let them in the yard as they enjoy eating grass and bugs and if they can’t get back into their coop, they come up onto my deck and come to the window and holler at me,” she writes in an email.
But processing them? She doesn’t see herself killing unproductive hens. She’s considering retiring older birds to a friend’s 2-acre property on the other side of town.
So am I back to square one? Can I get out of harvesting my hens? Or am I just lazy and reluctant to face up to what farming is really about? I call up the first person I’d spoken to about chickens.
“I can’t imagine killing them,” Jeannine says. Her young daughters helped raise the soft, fluffy pullets in their home this winter and while the hens, now outside, don’t have names, the family knows each one by the quirks of its personality.
Raising birds, she says, is a fantasy of living in a rustic setting that can’t ever be played out. But it’s practical too, she adds. After all there are the eggs. And raising hens has inspired her to think about making other things, like a victory garden.
We are old friends and it’s her three hens, a Wyandotte, a black sex-link and a Buff Orpington, that have inspired me to try raising my own. One afternoon we sit on an old, salvaged cast-iron bench at the top of her yard watching the chickens go about their business. We’re inside an enclosure that crosses into her next-door neighbor’s yard, and which is shared between six hens in all.
Eric, Jeannine’s husband, tells a story about his grandfather, who as a young man immigrated to the California from Germany by way of a sponsorship that attested he could farm chickens. He had no idea how to raise hens, Eric says. He was busy reading chicken farming books on the ship. The older generation, he adds, are not caught up in the new urban romance of chicken-rearing.
It occurs to me that raising hens is a different way of being “practical” about food. If picking up a dozen from the supermarket saves time and money, how practical is it to build a coop from scratch, to commit to cleaning birdshit from a coop, to be OK with slowing egg consumption as the hens get older or the weather colder? I’d probably be happy to build a coop, to clean it, to wait for eggs. But chickens as pets? Is that practical? If I get attached to the hens, harvesting them at a year old seems unlikely. So when egg production tapers off within a year or two, then what? I’d hate to see my new hens as broken egg machines. I realize I’m still pretty entrenched in the rigid efficiencies of food production. Keeping old hens as pets might not be going the whole urban egg hog, but it seems the most practical path for now, a cautious reality of this generation’s new urban farm.