City Chickens

Colin Phipps Issue: Section:

"I tell them how much the boys love the chickens. I don’t tell them about our last place. "

I can hear the boys down below, in the coop, going about their business. The younger one tosses scratch and compost, singing to the hens, in a sweet, plaintive voice, calling them by name, enjoining them to feed, “Porkchop don’t you you cry for me, I come from Alabama with green beans on my knee, Creampuff don’t you want to eat? I come from Alabama, Cupcake come and eat.” The older one fills the water pan and collects, from the nesting boxes, three, still warm, blue eggs that will be their breakfast. The distant drone of the early morning traffic, sweeping along the interchange, washes rhythmically, The sun crests the distant ridge, setting the dark glass of the bay afire with streaks of ocher and swaths of gold. The two dogs circumnavigate the yard politely, controlling their more primitive urges. The old girls know as much and pay them no mind. They, with their lovely Mesozoic brains, race to every fresh fall of grain, to every new vegetable delight.
This is how it is, every morning. There may be a light drizzle, the sunrise may not be as brilliant, but the boys and the hens, the dogs and the eggs repeat themselves, and it is lovely.

When people ask me about keeping chickens in the city, this is the picture I paint. I tell them about how good the eggs taste- how incredibly orange the yolks are. I tell them how easy it is and discuss design elements of chicken coops and tractors. I tell them how much the boys love the chickens. I don’t tell them about our last place.
At our last place, things were a bit different. The boys were younger and not yet cut out for what is now their morning chore.  As such, I took it upon myself to sing to the girls as I tossed them scratch and collected eggs. We had no view of the bay and not much of a yard, but we had chickens in the heart of the city, and I thought that was pretty cool. We also had a block long bank of ivy running along one edge of our yard, that was home to rats. Not more than you can imagine, but plenty still. In the beginning they behaved as city rats should. They kept out of site, furtively pillaging the water and food, leaving only slight hints of their presence, but gradually, over time, they became more emboldened. We would come home, lean over the fence to say hi to the girls, to find a family of ten - fifteen rats in the wide open, feasting, lounging, outright disrespecting the law of the land. The dogs were useless; they were indifferent. How can a dog be indifferent to a rat? I set traps and caught a few of the younger ones, but when I started finding towhees and finches in the traps, I had to figure out another means.
It came down to a gun. I bought myself a little pellet gun. I had never shot any living thing before. I caught a few fish in my day, and had trapped mice and rats before, but never shot anything. In the beginning, when I had a rat in my sites, things would speed up. I would succumb to what my father describes as “buck fever”. There would be a kick of dust and the rat in my sites would spring up and dash away into the verdant depths of the ivy. By and by, I figured it out and got all “zen and the art of shooting rats” about it.
This is how it was, every morning: In the crisp, or the fog, or the drizzle of dawn, I would sit on the back stoop, fifteen yards out from the pile of grain, enticing. I would sit and listen to the sounds of the city. The birds singing, the eye in the sky chopper buzzing high over early commute, the hydraulic lift and clang of the garbage trucks, the articulate, amplified call for the “24 Divasadero”, and the decompressing hiss of those same buses genuflecting to allow passage. I would sit and listen and breathe. I would sit and listen and breathe and wait. I would wait for the biggest, fattest, most disrespecting rat. In time, I would slowly raise my gun, site the rat and breathe and lose myself in the infinite rhythm, that subtle figure eight of breath and stillness, and life  and death. “Ploink”, hardly a sound at all, and the rat would drop. I would get up, collect the rat in a plastic bag (compostable of course) and let the hens out of their coop.
This is how it was until order was restored and my fury neighbors became furtive once again.
I don’t miss the rats - not at all, but I do miss sitting and listening and waiting.

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