BY THEODORA ZIOLKOWSKI • PHOTOS BY DAN BISHOP
There is nothing like finding a warm brown egg in a pillow of hay. Each morning I look forward to pulling on my mud-crusted boots and stomping out to the coop to collect the brown eggs—which, like the chickens that lay them, each has its own “character.” Some are smooth and caramel-colored, others beige and freckled; others are so large they don’t fit into cartons.
I leave the coop knowing my girls have worked hard to lay the eggs I enjoy regularly with my coffee and toast or, on the weekends, in a heavenly stack of fluffy pancakes. I enjoy knowing that the food I cook with and consume with family and friends comes from animals that are happy and loved.
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Three years ago I ate my first fresh eggs at a B&B on the Isle of Mull. I was in Scotland as a studyabroad student and on spring holiday in the westcoast isles. Breakfast each day consisted of the most golden scrambled eggs I had ever seen. They were fresh eggs, my hosts informed me, and had come from their very own chickens.
These eggs were the best I had ever tasted. Soon after my return to the States, I began to notice that chickens were not only being raised in the backyards of families in Scotland, but were steadily laying in the backyards of chickenenthused owners in my beloved Vermont, too. I began to take an interest in these so-called chicken owners. How many eggs did a chicken lay each day? Were chickens messy? And most important: Were they friendly?
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I’m a Pennsylvania girl—a suburban Pennsylvania girl, specifically. I grew up on a block that has a beautician, a doctor and a funeral parlor. Today I live in the rolling hills of the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont. From the dinner table there is a vista of purple, snow-capped mountains. Just beyond the garage is the chicken coop.
I suppose the origin of my fascination with chickens is similar to the famous question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I cannot say whether my attraction for chickens began distinctly when I had my first farm-fresh egg or if it stems from my love for furry, feathered and fuzzy creatures (as a child and even today, I have an exceptionally serious love for stuffed animals), but I can say that I am attracted to keeping chickens for both the chicken and the egg. I love my flock of feathered friends and I love knowing that happy, healthy chickens produced the eggs I eat.
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I inherited my 12 Rhode Island Reds from a family friend. The afternoon before their pickup, I raked out the coop, spread fresh sawdust on the floor and hosed down the grain cylinders. The coop—a homemade little haven complete with two roosts, 12 laying boxes and a wood stove to keep the chickens warm in subzero temperatures—was built years before by my boyfriend and his father, who as a child kept dozens upon dozens of chickens. The warning he wrote as a 10-year-old in red spray paint across the coop door still reads: BE AWARE OF CHICKEN. After their arrival one autumn evening, I ended up naming several of the chickens after characters from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Voldemort is the smallest and darkest of the flock; Dudley is the largest and, ironically, the most personable; and Luna is the ever-shifting name for the chicken who has the whitest tail feathers. I quickly discovered, because chickens molt, that the chicken I originally christened Luna probably lost her name within a week to a chicken with an even whiter backside.
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Today I keep a bucket of chicken-friendly veggie scraps and other leftovers—waffles and oatmeal being two of their most coveted dishes—to feed the girls. Grapes from the arbor outside the dining room are another favorite; occasionally they will play a game of chicken rugby with a tomato or two. We get an average of eight to a dozen eggs a day, though in the colder months the number of eggs can drop. As for maintenance, the girls are very self-sufficient. They eat, they sleep, they greet me when I visit and they lay delicious eggs. All I have to do is keep their grain bin filled, their water bowl clean and collect their eggs. On warm days I let them roam free in the yard. It’s impossible not to smile while watching a chicken run.
Tending to my chickens has fulfilled a companionship I have somehow always craved, and also a kind of spiritual void. Not only do I care for 12 feathered sweethearts that weave around my ankles when I visit them, but after I collect their beautiful brown eggs each morning I can divvy them out to family members and friends and eat them myself knowing that the eggs were, I truly believe, “made with love.”