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Commentary: Chickens Are New Labrador Retrievers

By Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Buffalo, NY – Just the other day, we were driving past yet another front lawn peppered with chickens. "Geez," my husband said, "Chickens are the new Labrador Retreivers." He's right. The new wave of pets for second ring suburbs is a bit fowl, and my family is right in the midst of it.

For us, the journey started in Holland's elementary school. Our eldest had a kindergarten with a science-loving teacher, an incubator, and eggs. "Can we adopt the chicks?"

"No. Not this year. We still need a roof on our house and to fix those big holes in the walls. This is a people year. Maybe another year."

"Goody! Maybe next year, when Georgia's in kindergarten, she can adopt some." "Yes, maybe." But with a bird-loving husband and an empty barn, of course we found ourselves at the kindergarten teacher's home one week later, with a huge green Tupperware bin, "Trick-or-treat for poultry!" I felt like I should say. Those fluffy little ping-pong balls lived in the bin for a while, but soon enough, we made room for them in our barn. One died in a pink and purple hat I knitted (it looked so sick, and Mark thought that looked like a cozy resting place.) Four of the five remaining ones were...you guessed it...roosters.

Now, in case any of you are planning to jump on this latest chicken-bandwagon, you have to be careful of roosters, and when chicks come from kindergarten, you won't even know if you have roosters. You'll only know when they begin to make little crows and start attacking you. Then you, like me, can keep a hoe near your front door so that you can hold it above your head as a weapon each time your children go outside to play. "Get away from my boy, you chicken!" you will scream, waving the hoe. You, like me, will eventually adopt our friend Sarah's farm philosophy, "If it's not nice, it can't live here," or our new friend Jessica's, "If it can't get along, it goes in the freezer."

Roosters will occasionally provide you with bawdy entertainment. One late July evening, my in-laws joined us for a cookout. We were sitting around the picnic table, wiping watermelon juice from our chins, when our three-year-old son yelled, "Oh look, Nana! Mr. Green's puttin' a sperm in Hattie!" Such PG-13 chicken action prepared our children well for our most recent "birds and bees" conversation: "Yes, it's kind of like when Mr. Green jumps on a hen..." We don't talk about Hattie anymore. She disappeared one day, raccoon victim probably, and we found our dog gnawing on her foot days later.

One of the best things about keeping chickens is how cute they look pecking around your yard. So cute, in fact, that all of my neighbors have chickens. We feed each other's chickens when anyone goes on vacation, and well, the whole road looks adorable.

Back when my husband convinced me that we needed chickens, I did not imagine myself liking this reality science-fair project. So I warned him. "Fine," I said, "we'll get chickens. But I will not feed, water, or help them. They are yours."

Now, how glad I am, for oh, the eggs. I never knew that scrambled eggs could be orange and taste like as Mark says, sunshine. Never knew that eggshells could be naturally blue and green. Never knew how many friends would become childhood-misty when I give them a dozen fresh eggs. So much for gifts of wine. Chickens have changed my life. We're even painting parts of our home based on egg colors.

But then I never knew that you have to clean the eggs off either. Or that sometimes hens don't want to let you have them. They want to hatch them, and peck at your evil, egg-stealing hand. I didn't know how sad I would feel burying Newspaper, our black and white chicken under a full moon on my birthday. Or how happy we'd all feel when Penny, caught by a fox, survived.

Yes, chickens are hip these days. If you decide to get some, know that they are feather balls of up and down. They're beautiful, useful, and right in style. Maybe even the new Labrador Retrievers. We're used to them now. That's why we're getting sheep.

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.

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