Chicken Coop For The Soul
By now, you’ve probably found a way — or many ways — of coping with the pandemic. Maybe you can’t get through the day without a nice walk, or maybe you skew more toward comfort food and Netflix.
People with children stuck at home or loved ones who need extra care know this year has not been about finding your inner baker for everyone. But having someone — or something — to care for can be therapeutic.
Pet adoptions have soared during the pandemic. That’s good for the animals as well as their humans. And that’s true for more than your average cat or dog.
In my case, that proved true even for — of all things — chickens.
If you’re wondering why on earth I would bring chickens into my backyard and tolerate them eating up my vegetable garden, you’re in egg-xactly the right place.
I call the ladies the Supreme Coop. They’re named after the four women who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court: Ruth Bader Hensburg, my favorite and the obvious leader; Sandra Day O'Clucker, the most ladylike of the bunch and a tribute to one of Arizona's own; Sonia Sotomachicken, the gentlest justice who is rather fond of a colleague's daughter; and Elena Keggan, a sassy redhead whose name I am most proud of.
Two women of the Arizona Supreme Court are represented in the flock as well: Ann Scott Beaker, a gorgeous Araucana with fluffy cheeks, and Rebocka White Berch, a lone wolf who is forever struggling to get a better spot in the pecking order.
The chickens were my partner’s idea. For years, I was not into it
Cue the coronavirus pandemic.
Suddenly, grocery stores were overwhelmed - and so were we. We needed something to distract us.
The city of Phoenix does allow residents to keep chickens, as long as their enclosure is at least 80 feet away from any homes - check - and prevents them from wandering onto someone else’s property - check.
The city ordinance also says, quote, “No male poultry shall be kept within the city limits except such male poultry as are incapable of making vocal noises which disturb the peace, comfort or health of any person.”
In other words, no roosters — check.
So, my partner built a coop. And in mid-September, I walked out of Gordon’s Feed and Seed in south Phoenix with a box full of cheeping chicks. 2020 was instantly better.
“I love it. I love that story, because people are underestimating birds, and also, they are underestimating chickens," says Dr. Margit Gabriele Muller, executive director of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. Sometimes you have to cross an ocean to find someone who can appreciate your interests. "Chickens can make fantastic pets, and they can really get very affectionate with people. I mean, just imagine, a chicken is able to recognize 100 human faces. They know exactly that you are you, and your partner is your partner.”
Muller is also the author of the award-winning book "Your Pet, Your Pill: 101 Inspirational Stories About How Pets Can Lead You to a Happy, Healthy and Successful Life."
She says pets improve our physical and mental well-being, whether your pet is a falcon or a fish.
“When you look at this fish, you are really into it. You are even improving your ability to process thoughts and to retain information. Even, you are increasing your attention span, which is great, like, for people who are suffering from Alzheimer’s," Muller says.
During difficult times, having a colorful fish to look at or chickens to tend to can have a real impact on our bodies.
“When we are stressed out, our well-being is decreased. Our stress hormones go up. But when you play with your pet and you cuddle your pet, your stress hormones are going down," Muller says. "That’s science. That’s proven science.”
And there’s something else your pets can give you that a partner or kid can’t always guarantee.
Dr. Lori Kogan is a Colorado State University psychologist who studies human-animal interactions — and the special relationships they develop.
“They kind of love us no matter what, right?" Kogan says. "And so, if we’re in sweats all day long or we didn’t wash our hair, they don’t care.”
Her point is that a pet’s love is reliable, even when not much else is. Your dog will always go for a walk with you. Your cat will almost always purr for chin scritches. And your chickens will always want what you have.
And those little things can go a long way toward centering you.
“They’re, like, not worried about what’s going to happen tomorrow or is the vaccine coming to town," Kogan says. "They’re just concerned with that present moment, and they help bring us back to that place. It’s just, it’s a lightness of being that I think sometimes is hard to get from other areas of our lives, and especially right now.”
Caring for chickens is a lot like caring for yourself. Fresh air, staying hydrated and a healthy diet are key.
The Supreme Coop justices enjoy their usual chicken feed throughout the day. But we also let them roam around the yard — hence the shredded garden I alluded to before — and treat them to vegetable scraps from neighbors, left in brown bags at our door.
They're not especially difficult to wrangle. They don’t like to feel left out, that’s the key. If someone finds something tasty, like the heart of a pepper still bedazzled with seeds, everyone wants a piece.
I never expected to be ending this year reflecting on chicken-care. But here we are.
This year could have been a lot worse, I think. But Sandra, Ruth and the rest — they were healing in a really unexpected way.