Getting three chickens, at the start of last year’s lockdown, prompted my friends to ask if I knew what I was letting myself in for. Clarifying, they followed up with the question, “In about four years, when they stop laying, how are you going to feel about killing them?”
What do you say to that? I acknowledged their harsh reality check without understanding it at all. This presumption that we’re supposed to murder our pets as soon as they outlive their usefulness was a new idea to me. Of course, the only reason they were happily discussing the killing of my chickens is because, well, they are chickens. I soon discovered that, putting forth a similar proposal about someone’s dog that doesn’t pull sleds or round up sheep; or a cat that’s lost its mo-usefulness is considered the height of rudeness.
What gets me is that, for a while at least, chickens produce eggs, plus manure for the garden, and, in that way pay towards their keep. What do dogs or cats put on the table to justify their existence? Not a lot. Other than those wonderful creatures like guide dogs for the blind, PTSD animals for war veterans, farm dogs and therapy cats, most pets exist simply as an ever-present sideshow whose toxic by-product doesn’t even help grow vegetables. In fact, we are forced to pay to dispose of their stinking produce, not to mention the subsequent acres of soiled nylon carpet that get thrown onto landfill every day. What possible good is that? I just don’t get how dog-owners can gleefully chatter about having my chickens put to death when, by their own argument, their idle, cash-gobbling mutts ought to be disposed of as soon as… oh dear, I sense I might be going too far. I do apologise.
But anyway, saying that we eat chickens is another non-argument. It’s purely cultural. Vegans and vegetarians don’t eat any animals at all, while other parts of the world happily gobble up anything on legs (check out the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin if you are looking for a new food combination.)
For all kinds of objective reasons, I think chickens win hands down (or at least claws down) as the best of pets. But, of course, it’s for subjective reasons that people love their animals: as in, how their pets make them feel. In the forward-viewing humanesque faces of dogs and cats we see ourselves reflected and find therein a kindred spirit to love us unconditionally until, after a decade and a half, they croak, either at the vets or underneath the coffee table. And my dog and cat owning pals are assuming that, while their pets are lovable and fun-filled bundles of joy, my chickens aren’t.
Well, I beg to differ.
Let me introduce my trio to you:
Boudicca – the fearless one – is a member of the Cream Legbar nation of chickens. She is brown and proud with a small, neat comb. She lays pale blue eggs.
Cilla (the black one) and Valeria (the grey/white mottled one) are both of the Andalusian persuasion. They are my Picasso chickens because their floppy red rooster-like combs and long necks are straight out of a Mediterranean abstract painting. They both lay white eggs. By the way, did you know the colour of a chicken’s egg is the same as their earlobes? Isn’t that amazing!
I like watching them. As I write, Cilla and Valeria are relaxing on a stone step during a brief spell of warm sunshine, while Boudicca paces to and fro, spying on me through the window, holding out for any sign that I might be about to walk outside to scatter a handful of corn. Boudicca would follow me to the end of the earth so long as I was carrying the Marmite jar that holds the corn.
Chickens will eat just about anything. Truly omnivorous, they gobble grass, gravel, birdseed, chickenfeed, Chinese food and lasagna. But their favourite seems to be leftover fish and chips. I could also put in an argument that they do further useful work by eating pests such as slugs and grubs, as well as trimming grass and weeds, but if I did, I would have to allow for the fact that they also decimate worms, lettuce and broccoli. When Valeria jumped out of the run and ate our meagre, strawberry crop last year I was mad at her for a week. But then again, I once knew a dog who ate an entire birthday cake.
Chickens also function like proper little farm machines. When I threw horse manure on the garden, they went to work breaking up the dirt and rotovating the earth in their search for crawly things. As I watched their tireless scratching and pecking something struck me. Their wings, other than for a frantic flutter, are basically useless. chickens do everything with their feet and beaks.
Imagine, being a chicken: like a person with no hands or arms. You’d have to do everything with your mouth and feet; like those painters we sometimes see on TV, who make us stop moaning about our own lives for a few minutes. But I guess that’s the trade-off you make to be a bird. During all of my imaginings of self-propelled flight it never crossed my mind that I’d have to give up my hands in order to do it. I guess I always imagined I’d have something like angel wings sprouting out of my back or alternatively, as in dreams, being able to flap my arms with enough force to take off and fly, if not above the rooftops, then at least around the kitchen.
Most of us would love to fly. But, if it meant giving up your hands, would you still choose flight or would your pragmatic sense kick in? Would you think to yourself, “Flying’s all very well, now and then, but there’s work to be done and food to be put on the table and I can hardly do all that with no hands and a pair of feathery wings sprouting out of my arm sockets. Nah, I’ll stay the way I am thanks.”
And then I think: is this the choice that artists make? Do they swap their metaphorical hands for a pair of wings? Do they give up the predictable earthly benefits that come from the myriad uses that hands can be put to and choose instead to take off into the beautiful and dangerous sky, finding traction on the rushing air, swooping to new heights and relishing the ability to see everything from new perspectives?
But here’s the rub: when you choose the path of the artist and give up your hands for a set of wings there’s no knowing what kind of wings you’ll get. Perhaps you’ll be blessed with the mighty span of an albatross or condor – effortlessly soaring on the thermals for hours at a time; or you might end up more like a woodpecker – with your rattling feathers carrying you along on an inverse arc as you hurl yourself through the air from tree to tree; or maybe you’ll be a penguin whose wings enable torpedo-like flight underwater but which, on dry land, are about as useful as snow coffee cups; or, with luck, you’ll have all the playful fun of songbirds speedily chasing one another around trees and bushes in the afternoon sunshine. Or, maybe you’ll be more like my chickens: only flying when absolutely necessary and, even then, not very well.
And you never know, once you’ve made the big decision and traded in your hands for wings, you might be the type of artist who realises they have made the worst mistake of their life, discovering, too late, you are just like the unfortunate dodo: flightless, vulnerable and just a tad too delicious.