A recent Washington Post feature declared diapered backyard chickens the quintessential status symbol in Silicon Valley, ruffling the feathers of more than a few chicken keepers. In the feature, Peter Holley cites lavish expenditures ($20,000 for a coop!), evermore advanced technology like iPhone apps to regulate the birds’ environment, and — of course — cloying tales of humans pampering their flock with organic salmon, watermelon, and steak.
For Holley, the chicken trend is like every other “hipster” obsession. And, on the surface, it’s a fair comparison. Between the undoubtedly free-range, super brunchable eggs, and the tiny house — I mean coop — construction, chicken keeping really is the perfect hobby to take your lumbersexual-with-a-ukulele mystique to the next level.
But it’s also more than that.
As a chicken keeper and millennial cusper, I wholeheartedly embrace my flock as a symbol of an investment in my well-being. This probably sounds as hipster as my produce delivery subscription that only delivers avocado. I’m fine with that.
The very first time I picked up a chick, I cooed at it like someone plucked directly from Holley’s article (minus the money). The chick rolled its inscrutable dinosaur eyes at me. I was smitten. From their downy fluff to their long, bumpy toes, chickens are endearing pets as much as they’re useful livestock.
Chickens are the cure for loneliness
The immediate household motivations of keeping chickens are obvious and well-documented. Chickens provide:
- hyperlocal, humanely sourced food (eggs and possibly chicken, if that’s your thing)
- composting of kitchen scraps
- fertilizer for the garden
- pest control
Fifty-seven percent of flock owners also keep their chickens as pets. So it’s no surprise that chickens also provide those same health boons. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets — and thus chickens — can lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels and provide more socialization, exercise, and time outdoors.
For my kids, our birds are an irresistible draw. They drag books and toys into the coop and set mealworm and potato chip tea parties. And, since our current flock turns their beaks up to the nesting boxes, every day is an egg hunt.
At the other end of the life-stage continuum, there’s good indication that keeping chickens helps chase away loneliness for the elderly: They can provide purpose, community, and direct mental health benefits. In one care home, The Telegraph reported that chickens lowered violent incidents among people with dementia by 50 percent.
The nonprofit program that brought chickens to that care home, HenPower, also notes that keeping chickens lowers Alzheimer’s risk, which is correlated with isolation, and reduces the need for antipsychotic medications.
Surprisingly, chickens aren’t bad with nonhuman elders, either. On a frosty morning when I was worrying that our old tomcat was missing, I pulled open the coop door and expected an empty roost. Instead, I was nose to beak with my hens. And nestled among them, safe and warm and looking quite pleased with himself, was my lost cat.
Money can’t buy happiness or simplify your life
The Post’s article does a disservice to chicken keeping by making it seem out of reach for mere commoners. Chickens will swallow as little or as much money you throw at them. But spending gobs of cash is certainly not required. And it likely won’t make your flock or your family happier.
Our coop is cobbled together from scrap lumber and found items. Even the screws holding it together were pulled from an old fence scavenged off Craigslist. Our birds eat kitchen scraps and the undigested bits of food the rabbit eliminates, supplemented with a scatter of pellets and oyster shells for their scratching pleasure. If they become sick or injured, we gently usher them over the Rainbow Bridge.
For us, the simpler and more self-reliant our life, the freer we feel. While there probably are folks who keep chickens to signify their social status, there are more of us who see chickens as the opposite: a small rejection of that pecking order.
Buying into the status quo comes with high costs in terms of health and happiness (and even more spending on “self-care” to combat that stress). For many of us chicken keepers, chickens aren’t objects to maintain in an already taxing life. They’re an escape from it.
Chickens can be the ultimate digital detox and reality check
Backyard chickens provide consistent opportunities to unplug from tech-heavy lives and connect with nature. Florence Williams for National Geographic links enhanced well-being with access to the natural world by focusing on trips to natural areas. But bringing the wild home feels similar.
It’s a bit like “microdosing” the outdoors by forest bathing, as described by Rahawa Haile in The Atlantic. If small doses of the natural world can still provide the benefits of full immersion, then the dependable daily rhythm of chicken chores seems like an acceptable alternative, too. And a ready salve for the particular exhaustion of living in a digital world.
Not by chance, my teen’s window looks out on the chicken coop. Our chickens watch for him to wake up and perch on his windowsill, glaring through the glass until he breaks from gaming and opens the window to smooth their feathers and give them treats. (I’ve tried glaring through the window to get his attention myself, but it’s not as effective.)
One thing Holley missed in his article is how much chicken keepers see our own humanity in the birds. Just like the elders seeking connection in care homes, chickens aren’t solitary creatures.
After our flock experienced a tragic raccoon attack, the lone survivor — a quirky Orpington with absurd feather boots named Björk — quickly sunk into depression: lethargic, barely eating, eerily silent. Then, as if by magic, a change came over her. She went broody, lonely without anything to care for. Holed up in the nesting box, she hissed and growled menacingly. She tore out her own feathers to pad her nest.
To help her, we crept in the dark and opened the coop to slip day-old chicks under the sleeping bird, uncertain of the outcome. As the sun peeked over the holly tree that shades the coop, new sounds woke our sleeping household: a cacophony of joyous clucks and excited peeps.
Running outside, we found our hen sitting on a writhing tangle of chicks, meticulously puffing her feathers to warm them, emitting deep, contented clucks to reassure them the world was safe.
Becoming a mother changed Björk. It gave her purpose and set her course. This makes sense to me. In a small but meaningful way, raising chickens does the same for my family.
Melissa Mayer is an eclectic writer who loves projects that explore the liminal spaces between science, sexuality, and culture. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her wife, children, and an unreasonable number of animals. Follow her stories through her portfolio or LinkedIn.