Poultry in Motion

A chicken in the yard is worth two in the coop.

As an aficionado of country how-to-do-it books, I possess several volumes with titles like The Home Chicken Flock, Starting Right with Poultry, and Chickens for Fun and Profit. As their names indicate, they are earnest, homely treatises aimed at backyarders and small-farm owners, and I have read them all with careful interest that we self-sufficiency devotees, however impure, reserve for such material. I therefore know a certain amount about hen yards and laying houses and dropping pits and the spacing of roost poles, and over a period of time have acquired or constructed a few bits of relevant hardware like waterers, feeders, brood coops, and so on. But somehow, despite good intentions formed while reading beside a winter fire, the use I have made of this information and equipment has been incomplete and fitful and not in general zealous.

The notion has sometimes whispered itself to me that maybe I am just not a Chick Fun and Profit type… Yet we have always had some chickens around, half wild for the most part, and quite aside from enjoying what good rich red-yolked eggs we can find and an occasional free-ranging fryer, we have come to count on them as part of the surroundings. I seldom consciously notice the crowing of the roosters at dawn, for instance, but when I wake up elsewhere I notice its absence, and miss it. And over the years the view from my office window here at the rear of the barn would have been a poorer one without occasional glimpses of alfresco cockfights, or of some old game biddy with her chicks as she chases and spears and dismembers small quarry of various sorts, sharing out bugs and tarantula legs and lizard entrails and clucking with crazy glee to indicate how very nutritious they are.

What I know I’m not is a scientific poultry-management enthusiast. I had a couple of books on that subject too, bought by error and given away soon after I had explored their contents. Polemicists have declaimed in print against the inhumanity of confining birds by the scores of thousands to mesh-floored cages from the moment of their miraculous emergence from the egg to that dark time when they are efficiently killed and plucked and gutted and shunted to market as copses pallid with fat, certified disease-free because of the antibiotics they have gobbled up in their mash. And have declaimed against keeping laying hens in much the same fashion, bumfoozling them into extra egg production with eternal electric light. I have nothing to add on this subject, maybe in part because one of the nicest things about chickens is that it is rather hard to get emotionally involved with them, and inhumanity toward the idiotic breeds of fowl that have practically been manufactured for such industrial use, if it is inhumanity, hardly seems worth getting worked up about. Not that I wouldn’t rather eat the other kind of chickens and the other kind of eggs. But that is for empirical reasons, because they are healthier and taste better.

My objections to participation in such poultry raising are also empirical, based on two or three swatches of clear-eyed observation. One such occurred not long after World War II, when with a friend from college days I took a tour around Texas to look up old companions and to find out how they had weathered the whirlpool years since graduation. By and large, we found that those we could locate had weathered them as we had—i.e., with emotional development arrested as of circa 1942 and with a degree of confusion as to what all the intervening military brouhaha had meant to them, if anything, but with an exceeding willingness to drink beer and strong waters and to swap war stories. The zigzag trip lasted for weeks and stretched from the High Plains to the coast by way of various ranches, honky-tonks, large and dignified homes, Guadalupe River fishing shacks, motel rooms, and other stopping points. And at one stage we conferred the blessing of our presence on two old classmates, married by then and less confused than most of us or so at first it seemed, who had allied themselves against the future by acquiring and modernizing a broiler operation on two or three acres of land not far from the shining towers of Waco.

For that time, I suppose, it was a fair-sized endeavor, with a flow-through population of perhaps nine or ten thousand birds funneling in one end as downy chicks and out the other as meat. Big and sophisticated in comparison to the “chicken farms” that during the Depression and on briefly into postwar years constituted a retirement dream for multitudes of thirty-year military types and other pensioners, it was a diminutive forerunner of the enormous corporate operations which today have driven most individual owners out of the poultry game. It occupied some long tin sheds whose grayed roofs shimmered under the Texas sun and from whose raised flap windows flowed the massed gabble of those thousands of perverted and nervous birds, as well as the massed pungency of their droppings. The weather was hot, without much wind, and if an instrument for measuring the intensity of odor exists—as it well may, for all I know—and had been focused on that operation or on any point within the small, stucco, unairconditioned house that had come with the property and was now sheltering both our friends plus wives plus one small baby, it would have most certainly exploded. Nor, in my scant experience, is it possible to ignore or get used to the scent of chicken manure—as one can ignore and sometimes like, for instance, equivalent emanations from horses and cows or even, according to the biased testimony of some pig-fancying friends of mine, from swine.

They had all their capital in the thing, about ten thousand dollars each, which one had inherited and the other had earned playing murderous poker as a naval officer on a


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