I rise to the defense of chickens. Last week, in The Huntsinghamobile News, William Singleton reported the tragic story of one Virginia Murdoch, persecuted by the city of Homewood for sequestering seven American Dominique hens in her back yard. The chickens, a gift from her husband, apparently violated a city law that mandates birds produce no noise, no odor, no pollution and be kept 300 feet from another residence.
Mrs. Murdoch might have skated on the environmental issues, but Homewood is a squished-in community where it’s often hard to find thirty feet between residences, let alone 300. Therefore, the chickens have been obliged to fly the coop.
Mayor Scott McBrayer took an expectedly authoritarian position, saying, ““We’re in a city, and it’s really not a place to be trying to raise livestock or any kind of farm animals.” As a student of Homewood history, though, he surely remembers that the area was rife with livestock back when it had considerably fewer pretensions to municipality.
In a city where skateboarders are pariahs and front yard vegetable gardeners are shunned, a nonconforming chicken owner might well get the civic skunk eye. Mrs. Murdoch, before bidding adieu to her brood, raised a provocatively egg-sistential question: “If we can have guns, how come I can’t have chickens?” The short answer is, because They say so, but consider the difference that could be made if the City Council adapted the chicken law to munitions. Homewood could be home indeed if residents were allowed to have guns only if they produced no noise, no odor, no pollution and were kept 300 feet from adjacent buildings.
I sass like this because I was raised in Homewood and indeed still toil inside its saintly city limits. Moreover, I can address this chicken ownership question with impunity because I was once one of them. The owners, that is.
We had had conventional pets, most memorably an English bulldog named George whose tenure was cut short because, although an excessively friendly animal, his gait and his mug constituted to us kids nothing but menace. I don’t recall exactly why we took up with the poultry—as a youngster, I was mightily terrified of the turkeys that ran loose all over my grandparents’ place in Blount County—but I remember well coming home one summer with a cardboard box containing a bantam rooster we named Rudy.
Rudy was a handsome bird with an unusual rose comb that resembled a flattop haircut, but his comb was affixed to a brain pan too small to handle the hectic life of Homewood, and he succumbed in a screen door accident that in other households might have led to dinner.
After a suitable interval, two more bantams arrived to try their luck in the big city. The rooster and hen were named Fred and Wilma (I think The Flintstones were still in prime time when all this transpired) and they set up housekeeping in the utility house out back.
The cats we had, Dino and Baby Puss, were nonplussed by the interlopers, as their previous ornithological encounters had been blue jays and mockingbirds. They were ill-equipped to deal with flightless fowl that could outshout them, and retired to the corners of the yard or a tree when the bantams strode about.
Fred and Wilma did the things chickens do, which included crowing well before the dawn they were supposed to bring up, and egg-laying, which took place in various locations around the yard and made for Easter hunting fun every day. Because it was a different time, we were able to buy ten-pound bags of chicken feed at the grocery store down the street. Because it was a different Homewood, nobody seemed put out by Fred and Wilma’s presence in the neighborhood.
Chickens make interesting company, more so than any fish or hamster. Their conversation, mere clucking to the uninformed, is more engaging than that of many City Council members.
They are low-maintenance critters and one of the few pets that can contribute to their upkeep, via the cackle-fruit.
Many of our readers have never tasted a truly fresh egg, and that is a sad state of affairs. Try as corporate chicken ranchers might, they cannot get eggs to a grocery store the same day they’re laid, and, besides, if memory serves, an egg can remain on store shelves 45 days and still be categorized as “fresh.”
The back yard egg has a richly colored yolk and its whites are firm. What you can’t see are less cholesterol and saturated fat or more Vitamins A and D than its store-sold counterparts. Then there’s the matter of taste: back yard eggs have some.
I can speak with some authority in this matter as well, because the very weekend after Virginia Murdoch’s tale hit the papers, I ran into a covert chicken keeper elsewhere in Homewood. I’ll not name names, to spare this person a visit from the Pullet Police, but the keeper’s coop was clearly less than 300 feet away from the neighbors, from whom not a peep has been heard.
I was introduced to a bevy of beauties, American Dominiques and Rhode Island Reds, with names I’ll withhold as well. The hens are plump and gregarious, but make considerably less noise than the woofer-thumping SUVs that pass by on a regular basis.
The keeper showed me a relic only a chicken lover would appreciate, which was a wrinkled egg, looking a bit like a Frank Fleming porcelain sculpture. It was impressive, but less so than the dozen eggs the keeper gave me, proudly pointing out each hen’s contribution to the carton.
They fried up elegantly. The eggs, that is, not the hens.
I hope the chicken keeper also keeps a low profile. Virginia Murdoch’s flock wound up having to relocate to Mountain Brook, and when the Tiny Kingdom comes off more tolerant of diversity than Homewood, something is dreadfully askew.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.