9 Lessons From My Year With Urban Chickens

Chickens can be pretty bird-brained, but keeping laying hens in their backyard has taught these Portland city folk a lot.

Watercolor by Frank Omier, Emily's husband
Watercolor by Frank Omier, Emily's husband
Emily Liedel

PORTLAND — Central to the organic movement is a desire to reconnect with our food and where it comes from. Farmers’ markets allow you to “meet the farmer” and better understand how different products are grown before they end up on your dinner plate.

Last year, after moving to Portland, I decided to go a step beyond shopping at farmers’ markets. I read books about permaculture, started a garden and decided to keep chickens. Of everything that I have done to get closer to my food, raising chickens has been the most rewarding and instructive. I’ve also discovered that there are many misconceptions about raising backyard poultry.

So here are some lessons I’ve learned from a year with urban chickens.

1. Everyone Wants A Chicken Dinner
Chickens are domestic animals. They were domesticated from wild jungle fowl. Most breeds are actually less capable of taking care of themselves than domestic dogs or cats. I found out the hard way when one of my chickens was eaten by a raccoon. If chickens don’t have a human being to provide them with a safe place to spend the night — to lock them in at night and let them out in the morning — they will meet a fate more gruesome than an animal rights’ activist’s worst nightmare.

(Note: So while chickens need humans to survive, humans will generally only raise chickens if they can eat and/or sell their products. Industrial chicken farms are cruel, but refusing to eat either eggs or meat from ethically raised chickens actually makes things worse, not better, for chickens as a species.)

2. An Omelette Is Not A Chicken Abortion
Hens lay eggs whether or not they have mated with a rooster. The vast majority of eggs you buy — at farmers’ markets or in stores — are not fertile. But there is nothing wrong with eating fertile eggs either, and they won’t develop into a little bird unless they are incubated under very specific conditions.

3. Eggs Are A Seasonal Product
Most chickens need a at least 14 hours of daylight to produce eggs, so egg production drops dramatically in the fall and winter when each day has less daylight. Most farmers — even organic ones — get around this by having electric lights in the hen house that trick the hens’ bodies into thinking that the days are longer than they actually are.

4. Chickens Are Not Just About The Eggs
After eggs, the most valuable chicken product is manure. Yes, these little birds produce a lot of it. Chicken manure is very high in nitrogen, which makes it a valuable addition to compost. Farming and gardening, whether intensive or not, depletes nitrogen from the soil — that is precisely what most chemical fertilizers aim to replace. Composted chicken manure makes great fertilizer, and it’s both organic and, if you have chickens, free.

5. Chickens Are Not Vegetarians
You will often see the words “all-vegetarian feed” on egg cartons at the grocery store. That’s because conventional egg producers will sometimes feed chickens ground up chicken bits (or bits of other animals), which can include the remains of chickens or other animals that died from illness. Chicken feed is often labeled “vegetarian” as well, apparently because some chicken farmers sell chicken litter — a mixture of poop, uneaten food and bedding — to be used as cattle feed, and if the mixture contains any beef products it can spread mad cow disease. But chickens are omnivores; they need protein to stay healthy and produce eggs. Free-range chickens spend most of the day scratching the ground looking for insects, slugs and worms, and they eat anything they can catch.

Chickens like salad too, especially dandelions and other weeds. They will gladly convert your weeds and garden pests into eggs and fertilizer.

6. Meat Comes From Animals
The first time I picked up an adult chicken, I was struck by how much it felt — in shape and weight — like a broiler from the supermarket. I have always understood intellectually that all meat has to come from animals, of course, but now the relationship between chickens (and other animals) and dinner is much more vivid. My husband and I can no longer think of “chicken” as a piece of meat that comes wrapped in plastic at the grocery store.

After one of our hens was eaten by a raccoon, we got two new chickens, both of whom turned out to be roosters. We ended up eating one of the roosters. We slaughtered him with the help of a farmer friend, and we made sure to use every part, including all of the organs, the feet and the head. Having direct experience with the animals you eat makes you very reluctant to be wasteful.

7. Chickens Are Cool
We play with the chickens, talk to the chickens, watch the chickens and have favorite chickens. If you never interact with a chicken up close, it is easy to think of them as strange egg-producing machines. Seeing how happy chickens are to wander around the yard together makes it almost unbearably sad to think about industrial chickens locked in cages so small that they can’t even turn around.

8. Mail-Order Birds
Perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered when I started looking into getting chickens is that you can order day-old chicks on the Internet, and have them delivered via the postal service. It’s like ordering a book on Amazon, except that you have to order at least 25 chicks so that they can keep each other warm while they are en route. This is possible because chicks don’t need to eat or drink anything for 48 hours after hatching.

9. The English Language Is Full Of Fun Chicken Expressions
All cooped up. To fly the coop. Pecking order (chicken flocks have a hierarchical social structure that is enforced by vicious pecking). Hen-pecked (a rooster who is below one or more hens in the flock social structure). Cock-eyed (roosters turn their head funny when they look at you). To make something from scratch (chickens forage by scratching the ground).

Chickens, it should be noted, are also actually known for being “chicken.” If you wonder why everything scares them, refer above to point No. 1.

*Emily Liedel is Worldcrunch Special Projects Editor

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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