The allure of backyard chickens
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A few months ago, I used my Instagram Stories to ask: What Spring-release book are you most excited about? I’m interviewing authors from a bunch of the suggested books in the months to come, but I got so many enthusiastic nominations for Tove Danovich’s new book that part of me wonders if her chickens all have Instagram accounts and were nominated themselves (or, you know, nominated the person who wrote a book meditating on what raising them does to you as a person, a citizen, a participant in the larger eco-system, you get it).
I didn’t grow up with backyard chickens, but my mom has had a flock for most of my adult life, and I’ve wanted them the same way I want a third and fourth dog (right now, the only thing stopping me is how much I travel, but some day I’m going to live that flock-of-chickens-three-to-four-dog life). If you eat eggs, you know: nothing compares to the egg of a backyard chicken.
But even if you DON’T want chickens, even if you DON’T EAT EGGS, even if you think backyard hobby farmers are twee and annoying, this interview will make you think a lot more about how intimacy shifts our understanding of ethics, and what it means to write a book that meets people where they are, instead of starting with where you want them to be.
You can buy Under the Henfluence here and find Tove’s delightful Instagram here.
Can we start with the preamble of your chicken journey? I love the story of your Grandmother’s hens, but also the story of you learning about industrial poultry farming as a tween and becoming absolutely furious about it — which is actually a very common experience! How did you go from chicken-curious to chicken-obsessive? And why did getting them feel like, in your words, “the cherry on top of a perfect life — a way to mark that our house had become a home”?
I started thinking about getting a flock back in the early 2010s when it seemed like everyone was talking about backyard chickens. I lived in New York City at the time and knew that chickens and my life in the city weren’t exactly a good match. So I had to wait for them. Even after my now-husband and I moved to Portland, Oregon where we now live, there was a lot to do before I was ready to add a flock into the mix. I’m a millennial but I think anyone who has ever been in their 20s can relate to the treading water feeling of waiting for major life events. We moved cross country; we got married; we bought a house; we got a second dog. There were a lot of big life changes within a year or two that all had to happen before I was ready for chickens. And it was that waiting for all these other things to get settled enough for chickens that made them feel like the cherry on top.
I was a food and culture writer who focused a lot on the sustainable food movement so the hens, initially, were just going to be food producers who I cared for. I think that’s where a lot of people start out with chickens. I’d known about how industrial farming treats chickens and other animals (spoiler: it’s not good for the animals, the people who work there, or the environment) since I was in middle school—I think it was an exposé in Rolling Stone that tipped me off—and as an adult writing about agriculture, it was something I was always extremely aware of. Knowing I’d have eggs from hens with better lives was a big selling point. But I was surprised to fall in love with them. I did not think chickens were going to become such a focus of my life and work at all.
I got them as day old chicks and from the very beginning they were an absolute delight. They looked like fuzzy eggs with legs. What’s not to like? I’d learned enough about chickens to know I could be responsible for keeping them alive but I’d never thought much about them. If I’m being honest, I don’t know that I believed there was much worth thinking about. The they’re “just chickens” mindset, you know. But like any animal, they become really fascinating if you take the time to get to know them and wonder about them.
Even if backyard chickens are now extremely popular in the United States (one estimate puts it around 10 million households in the US) being a chicken person feels a bit like being part of a secret club. They’re not an accepted pet like a dog or a cat and people feel weird gushing over them I think. Pre-chickens, I don’t think anyone ever talked to me about their birds out of the blue but once I had my flock it was all anyone wanted to talk about. My grandma was the first to tell me her chicken stories. She grew up on a farm so it wasn’t a huge surprise that she’d had chickens but I learned that they were a huge part of her and my great-grandmother’s lives. I talk about this in the book but my great-grandma, like many farm women, raised hens for “egg money” so the family would have money for household expenses.
I just began feeling like there was a lot to this world of chickens—both the birds themselves and people’s relationships to them—that hadn’t been explored. I wanted to read a book that looked at those things and the delight these birds bring their caretakers but it didn’t exist. So I wound up writing the book I was looking for.
Before we get any further, I want to talk about a fundamental tension in the world of backyard chickens — but also just hobby farming in general. I find that there’s a real eagerness to highlight the difference between people who raise chickens (or any sort of livestock), plant vegetable gardens, farm honey, or other types of subsistence or near-subsistence farming because they have to (e.g., if they didn’t do this, their family wouldn’t have to eat) and those who farm and raise animals as a “diversion,” or as their way of feeling better about “eating local” amidst the continued expansion of industrial poultry practices.
And while I think there are crucial differences between the way people approach and conceive of both (starting but not ending with the fact that the former saves money and the latter often loses money)....I also think a strict separation loses some of the complexity of why people do, well, anything. What if you raise chickens in your backyard because it’s a primary source of food for your family, but you also really enjoy it? What if you garden for your community? The lady who had access to the backyard of my Brooklyn apartment raised rabbits back there because that’s what her family in Guatemala had always done — she loved rabbits, and she also loved to eat them.
That’s a long way of trying to ask how you thought about these complicated questions as conceived, researched, reported, and wrote the book — and how/whether they’ve changed with time.
This is such a good question. There are so many tensions like this in chicken keeping. If you look at the current avian flu outbreak, the only way we have of dealing with it is to kill infected flocks. So we’ve killed 58 million birds and counting in the United States. Many of these are commercial flocks but there’s a not insignificant number of households who keep small backyard flocks—whether for a little extra money or as pets or some combination—that have been affected too. Millions of households may see chickens as pets but our laws and regulations for them will always prioritize them as livestock animals. Can you imagine if this happened to your dogs or cats? And if there was a vaccine that could prevent your pets from dying (there’s been an avian flu vaccine for decades) but the powers-that-be didn’t allow it for economic reasons?
I focus more on laying hens in the book than meat chickens which are, thanks to breeding, pretty different. I know many small farmers who are quite attached to their egg laying hens and give them names because even in a business these girls might be with you for two or three years before you slaughter them when their egg production wanes. Those same people are not loving on their Cornish cross broiler chickens who typically go to slaughter around 6-8 weeks old. Even if you want to keep a meat chicken alive it can be hard to do because they process feed so efficiently that their bodies can’t handle it. I think their fates are very much intertwined but it’s harder to form an attachment with an animal that has been bred to be somewhat incompatible with life.
I designed and wrote the book in such a way that, if I was successful, it would appeal to people no matter where they were in their relationship to chickens. It was something I was incredibly aware of. I knew some of my audience for Under the Henfluence would keep backyard chickens. Some would have them as production animals but be curious about them. Others might be the kind who were interested in animal rights. Some people might just like learning about animals and have never thought of chickens before at all! I had so much to learn about chickens when I started and never wanted to judge my reader for not knowing everything I did at the end of writing an entire book about them. I just wanted to share the joy I’d found in my flock.
Tell me more about the “story” that you become a part of when you receive the chicks that will become a backyard flock. Do you think most people really get it before they become a part of it? And what does it force you to understand about the larger business of poultry? [I’m particularly interested here in your assertion that overall chicken consumption won’t go down until more people become “better acquainted” with chicken as a species, and also with your statement, late in the book, that “By buying and loving my own flock of chicks, I was contributing to a system in which many others were disposable.”]
Whether you get chickens in the mail or at a farm store, they are typically incubated and hatched in commercial facilities called hatcheries where—much like in the egg industry—hens are desired and valuable and the males are not. Every year the egg industry kills roughly 300 million day-old male chicks because they’re not useful egg producers. Hatcheries can sell some roosters but not all of them. Likewise, because this is a business where you’re selling not just chickens but breeds of chickens, sometimes you have more than what there are orders for. Those animals are also killed.
The numbers we are talking about are not nearly on the scale of commercial egg farm production (and the barns the parent stock are kept in are often much nicer than what an industrially farmed bird experiences) but getting backyard birds is not cruelty free.
I have a lot of complicated feelings about this which I’m continuing to work out. What I know is that if I hadn’t gotten chicks from a hatchery, I would not have fallen in love with chickens. This book (and whatever good I hope it does for the birds) would not exist. If you are not going to be vegan, having backyard chickens or getting eggs from someone else with chickens that came from one of these farms is 100% a net good for the animals over buying cheap eggs from caged hens. It also allows people the chance to get to know birds that the agriculture industry keeps locked away in giant barns where they never see the light of day. There simply aren’t enough people advocating for these birds in the egg or meat industries.
Red meat has gotten a lot of attention lately because of its impact on the climate. This is true and fair but chicken continues to be the most popular meat in the United States by far. Chickens are without a doubt far worse off than cows or pigs. In the US we kill eight billion of them a year. They’re not protected under the humane slaughter rule, lines for poultry workers keep being sped up which results in horrible things happening to these birds as they’re killed. Some changes are starting to take place in the egg industry with the rise of cage-free but it seems like things are only getting worse for chickens in the meat industry. I hope that getting to know these birds, in person or through my book, might move things in a better direction.
Last Fall, I interviewed Ifeoma Ozoma about her homesteading outside of Santa Fe. Since then, I’ve been glued to her Instagram stories as she not only TAUGHT HERSELF TO BUILD A BARN, but has become proficient in rabbit and goat husbandry. She knows just how cute these animals are, but she is also very clear that death is part of life on a farm, and you can both be sad about these losses and understand them as part of the reality of raising and nurturing animals.
Being a steward of their lives often also means being a steward of their deaths, and that can be a hard balance to cultivate, particularly when they take on a larger role in our emotional lives (I’m thinking specifically of how much time you spent watching chickens during Covid isolation, for example). How have you dealt with this tension — and how, in your reporting, have others?
My chickens, at this point, are very much pets. They go to the vet when they’re sick and I bury them when they die. I have cried at many chicken funerals. I also don’t eat poultry of any kind. That said, I don’t think short of a cataclysm of some type, we are going to stop eating chickens within my lifetime (though, wow, some of the fake chicken products coming on the market now are truly incredible).
I talk in the book about how my family were/are farmers in North Dakota. I grew up hearing stories about the farm and life on it and had such an understanding of farming as being something where you take care of the animals and give them a good life in exchange for their “products” whether it be eggs or wool or result in those animals being slaughtered. I see that as our contract with farm animals. At a minimum, they deserve good lives and a quick death. Industrial agriculture gives them neither. I think if we are eating animals we should be affected by their deaths on some level. Instead we treat them like they’re machines with inputs and outputs and it’s just not right or fair. I’d love to see animal agriculture return to animal husbandry.
I find myself thinking pretty much constantly about what it takes to change people’s minds — about guns, about reproductive rights, about climate change — and the ways we’ve become outright weary of didacticism or argumentation that smells like argumentation. One of the wages of polarization is a hunger to consume things that either confirm our priors or, in being so clearly wrong, somehow *also* confirm our priors.
You could’ve written a book that was much more of a “defense” of the rights of chickens — the sort of pamphlet that you or I would’ve written back when we first found out about industrialized farming. But you wrote a very different sort of argument. What is it, and how did you think about crafting it in a way that people could hear it?
I circled around this a little when I talked about wanting to write a book that would meet people where they were with chickens. I’ve read so many books about animal agriculture—exposés, academic books, and so on—and the facts can be really hard to read even if I think they have an important place. My experience with them was always that they were sad and made me angry and fired up the first time or second time I read them but eventually all that faded away. There are just so many things to care about in the world.
As we’ve seen in recent years, anger and outrage can be effective but I think they’re hard emotions to hold onto long term. Sometimes people are willing to change and a more forceful book like that can catch them in the right place but I couldn’t help but wonder about all the people who would never in a million years pick up one of those books. I didn’t only want to preach to the converted.
So I led with joy. I wanted to see if I could take the readers on a journey that mimicked my own with chickens and show them how wonderful and quirky and sweet these animals can be. Chickens aren’t special in this regard—I think all animals are fascinating if we take the time to learn more about them and how they move in the world. But we don’t kill 65 billion of most species every year for food. The book starts with my experience in getting and coming to know my own flock and then moves out into our relationships with chickens—clicker training chickens to do tricks, showing them at poultry shows—and ends with a bit about who they are on their own.
It would have been disingenuous to talk about these birds without including the bad parts of how chickens were raised but I tried to let it exist as part of the story. I didn’t want to push the reader too much too soon. I see the book as an invitation to the reader to fall a little in love with chickens. Maybe they’ll take me up on it and they’ll decide to change. Maybe not. Only time will tell if it works!
You can buy Under the Henfluence here and find Tove’s delightful Instagram here. She’s currently on book tour, too — if you live in/around Seatte, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Minneapolis, or Spokane, click here for specifics.
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Chickens have “personalities,” their eggs are slightly different enough so I can tell who is laying. They can be extremely funny — but they need to be tended whenever you leave town, by someone able to get a dawdler into the coop and deal with equipment failing in the winter. There is a lot of death. Hawks, raccoons, skunks, foxes want to eat them. Ours pecked to death a crippled song bird and devour dead mice who drown in their water bucket. A broody hen went on a rampage and pecked two other hens to death during the night. They get sick fast with the runs and can die. Changing their bedding, a mixture of new and old poo, poo dust, dander, and dust isn’t my favorite. But my husband loves the moments of peace in the evening, coaxing them with mealworms, picking one up and walking around, listening to them vocalize as they diligently scratch for bugs. It’s being part of a web of life and behaviors that isn’t human and mostly untamed and undirected. To hang out with a descendant of the dinosaurs is something else.
Yes, please, a thread prompt on regional food! I'm particularly interested (as always) at the connection between the food and the historic activities and people that created the food.