Rural Bearings

by Megan Nichols

I never asked for chickens. “Happy Mother’s Day,” my girls yelled, running out of the truck. My husband was wearing a proud but sheepish grin and carrying a cardboard box. 

When I realized that my Mother’s Day gift was alive, I was hopeful that the darkened distortion of my sunglasses would mask my disappointment. We had moved to the country less than a year ago, and I was still getting my rural bearings. By comparison, my type-A husband was moving full-tilt, overseeing barn renovations, driving the tractor, and mending fences with childlike enthusiasm. 

Feeling overwhelmed by the day-to-day, my own sense of gung-ho was lagging behind. We were only a few months into the pandemic, and I was working from home while supporting my daughters’ online schooling. I already had to make umpteen mini meals each day, and now I had nine tiny beaks to feed and care for. 

With no prior experience with poultry—or birds of any kind—I reluctantly Googled temperature and care requirements for chicks. I looked at my girls and forced a smile, “It looks like these cute little guys are going to be living inside for a while.” This was an obvious housing decision to everyone else. 

“Mom, these are not just any chicks,” my younger daughter explained, “These are Easter Eggers and they are going to lay colored eggs.”

Really? I was doubtful.

Still, we moved forward with a naming ceremony and signage for: Eleanor, Potato, DeeDee, JoJo, Moo, Evie, Rascal, and Hairy Feet Bing Bong. My pragmatic husband worked with a local shed builder to create a chicken coop on wheels so that the chickens could move around the property for variety in their grub eating. I quietly celebrated when the weather cooperated for us to relocate the chicks from our house to the coop just before their six-week birthday. I admit, holding their fluffy bodies and watching them grow into awkward teenage birds was fun. 

However, the work felt much heavier than the joy. I cleaned their box and accessories regularly, but the stench and dust were persistent. My chicken-owning friend from childhood reassured me over text messages, “I promise, you will come to love them.” I replied with a string of mixed emotion emojis. 

On October 14, the first egg appeared in the nesting box: small, slightly rounded, with the palest sky-blue shell. I know the exact date because this egg had a more extensive photo shoot than my own babies: egg in grass, egg in hand, egg on leaf, and eventually, egg in pan.

My inner foodie couldn’t deny the beauty of the sizzling non-watery egg white, supporting the most vibrant, bulbous yellow yoke. The taste and texture of this first egg, as well as those that followed, far exceeded the flavor of the store-bought variety. It wasn’t long before I started daydreaming about delivering eggs to new neighbors and old friends, sharing our multi-colored bounty. I termed this imaginary business, “Meg’s Eggs.”

Our hens have been laying for awhile now, but the novelty has not worn off. If anything, my excitement has increased through spending more time at home. Lifting the nesting box lid to find an egg nestled in the straw continues to bring an illogical sense of elation to my less-joyful-than-usual-COVID-psyche. My husband has moved on to other projects with cattle, and my daughters have returned to in-person school. They ask for chicken stories when they get home, and they playfully laugh at me. I hear mumbled name calling behind my back, poking fun at my ritual of creating special snacks and activities for the chickens. Self-deprecating is my style, so I join in on the mockery. “I haven’t even started spiraling their zucchini yet,” I argue, “I’m only giving them the care they deserve.” 

The significance and timing of the arrival of chickens in my life is not lost on me. The start of Potato’s egg laying career overlapped with the end of my employment with an organization I had worked with for more than a decade. Being the only person in our family on the farm full-time has allowed me to observe and better appreciate our growing menagerie of animals. The chickens are officially my responsibility and worry. I keep track of their laying habits and try all kinds of things (e.g., hanging bananas, setting up scavenger hunts, and varying perches) to keep them happy during the frigid Ontario winter months. The eggs have come to symbolize continued productivity in my life, helping me maintain hope for future work and confidence in my ability to learn new things.

I marvel at the hen’s continuation to lay eggs when I, in comparison, have done so little to make this happen. I remember, after a fast and painful delivery, looking down at my first newborn daughter, “Wow, little one, you did so great.” This tiny new human had been created and forged a difficult entry into the world, with comparatively little guidance from anyone, myself included. Those feelings changed soon after bringing her home, with the realization of the magnitude of infant care. 

But as for the chickens, those awe-inducing feelings remain. When morning chores are as simple as delivering fresh water, poultry feed, and sharing our compost, I feel like I do very little to reap so much. Through caring for these beautiful birds, I have gained a healthier morning routine, a meditative hobby, and a continuous supply of the most delicious eggs.

Our move to the country, although full of unforeseen challenges, has been a positive shift for our little family. My Mother’s Day chickens provide a daily reminder that I am developing my own rural bearings. 

photo credit: Meg Kannan