by Ezra Black

I have always been a great lover of chickens.

Especially in McNugget form, or jerked Jamaican style with beans and rice on the side, but until I became an egg farmer that love remained unrequited.

It all started when I joined a chicken coop co-op.

As an egg farmer, I learned chickens love you the way people should love each other. Ezra Black/NNSL photo

I am no activist and I had zero desire to join the local food movement, but I had recently moved to a new place in town. The coop was in the backyard. I was generously offered a membership in the co-op and I thought why not? What have I got to lose? Why not jump on this opportunity to connect with nature and get fresh eggs?

You might be surprised to learn that raising backyard chickens in Yellowknife is perfectly legal as the practice is forbidden in many other urban locals for a wide variety of reasons.

For one thing, chickens carry diseases with odd names, like pasty butt and the fowl plague. They’re magnets for predators – I’m sure the foxes would love to get in our henhouse and the ravens probably wouldn’t be too friendly either. A rooster’s constant crowing is bound to upset the neighbours and then there’s the smell.

But backyard chickens in Yellowknife make sense.

We live in the middle of a sparsely inhabited remoteness and almost all the food in the grocery store needs to be trucked a vast distance to get there, which means growing stuff here is the smart thing.

We had about eight ladies, as they were called. They originally hailed from the Polar Egg farm in Hay River and they lived in comfort in our little coop. They had their nice little nesting boxes and plenty of places to roost. They had a ventilator in there to keep things relatively fresh, electric lighting and even a heater to keep them toasty warm in the winter. Outside they had a lovely outdoor space enclosed in chicken wire to run around and take dust baths.

And they ate pretty much anything.

In the olden days, chickens were barnyard scavengers that would eat leftover table scraps and any grains and bugs they could find. Back then, they only laid a few eggs a week but our chickens had been bred to lay everyday, and as such they needed a much more nutritious diet.

Their main staple was chicken feed mixed with their own crushed up egg shells, to replace the calcium they lost from all that laying. We mixed it with grit, which were tiny rocks the hens needed so their gizzards could grind up food, which was neat.

They also loved my stale loaves of Russian black bread. They adored my box of baby spinach. I never fed them chicken but if I had, I’m sure they wouldn’t have complained.

My shift was every second week. I’d put on a raincoat and rubber boots and head for the coop. I would clean the poo, change the water, lay down fresh straw, refill the feed hopper and collect the eggs.

A chicken loves a person the way people should love each other, I learned. They would greet me with intense, unwavering focus and were attentive to every move I made. They didn’t care about my imperfections, they didn’t judge me or manipulate me for their own ends. All they wanted was to be close to me, enjoy my presence and eat my stale bread.

Like any relationship, it wasn’t always fun times and frittatas.

I did my best to wash my hands after handling the poultry. I went to the Salvation Army and got a separate pair of boots and clothes to use in the coop, but between laziness and the overall griminess of the work, I definitely increased my chances of getting salmonella.

We have all heard about Einstein’s theory of relativity. But did you know what Einstein

considered to be his second greatest idea, according to him?

Ηe once declared that his second greatest idea was to add an egg to a pot while cooking soup. That way he could have a soft-boiled egg without having an extra pot to wash, which is how I know that Einstein was no chicken farmer because those eggs came spattered in all manner of filth.

And I was absolutely murdered by mosquitoes in the dankness of the coop because it’s hard to swat when you’re wrist deep in chicken waste.

And then there was the one bird. She must have been at the top of the pecking order or something because she was always giving me the eye. I’m pretty sure she was trying to alpha me.

But all in all I loved those birds. And they loved me and now they’re gone.

The other day I came home and the coop was empty. The other members of the co-op decided to cull them. I still don’t know why. I’m the most junior member of the group and nobody tells me nothing.

Part of me wishes they’d been let loose on the land to live out their lives free-range style. Sure, predators and the elements would have caught up with them eventually but I’d have liked to see them liberated, even for a short while.

Another part of me wishes I’d been there to axe them myself like Candy’s dog from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

In that book, Candy lets his friend take his dog out back to shoot him because the dog is old and decrepit and he doesn’t have the heart to do it himself. He later regrets that decision and I understand that now.

These chickens were my friends. If anybody was going to kill them – and presumably eat them – it should have been me but there’s nothing left of them. Just a mess of feathers in the backyard.

The day after their quick and terrible disappearance, we got about 13 new hens. Judging by their darker plumage, I’m going to assume they are probably younger and more productive than our old ones.

But I don’t know these fowl and I’m not ready to put the effort into restarting a relationship. And like most people in their thirties, I regard young people with suspicion and these chickens are no exception. It’s just another reminder that there are younger, more dynamic birds waiting to replace you the minute you stop laying.

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