This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.
“By raising chickens in your yard, you’re taking money out of the pocket of a cruel system; that doesn’t mean it’s cruelty-free.”
Under the Henfluence takes an honest look at the costs and benefits of keeping a small flock of chickens in a domestic back garden, or yard if you speak American. This practice, while still regarded by many as somewhat quirky, has grown in popularity over the past couple of decades. A few generations ago it was common for a family with outdoor space to keep hens for their eggs and meat, along with growing small quantities of fruit and vegetables. This was before the fashion for manicured lawns and neatly tended flowerbeds changed how most households manage their little pockets of space.
The author and her then partner acquired their first three hens a couple of years after moving from a New York City apartment to a half acre property in Portland, Oregon. The birds were ordered from a commercial hatchery as day old fluffy chicks, shipped via the postal service for personal collection locally. Raising chicks is messy due to feather dust but cheaper than purchasing pullets at point of lay. It is also a way of bonding with the birds early, making them easier to handle and train to behave.
Danovich is a journalist and uses her skills to investigate various aspects of modern hen keeping. She visits a hatchery where it becomes clear how disposable these curious and canny creatures are considered to be. The business side of selling day old chicks requires that around half are killed at birth – too many males, a breed not as popular as expected, born slightly imperfect.
“For better or worse, we are industrial”
This somewhat depressing start, so often overlooked by those whose buying habits make the endeavour financially viable, contrasts starkly with the life pampered pet chickens can expect thereafter.
People keep chickens for food, as pets or as show birds. The author investigates this latter phenomenon. Again, it is not new even if only the interested are aware of the practice and associated events. Raising birds that conform to a ‘standard of perfection’ grew in popularity during Victorian times, after the young Queen was gifted a small flock that delighted her, thereby starting a craze. Initially a great deal of money changed hands in exchange for particular, exotic breeds. These days, showing hens is more of a hobby but one many take seriously and are willing to pay to enjoy.
Many aspects of hen keeping are explored and explained by the author. Hen keepers must know how to recognise and deal with: sickness in the flock; attacks from predators; introducing new hens; persuading a broody to stop incubating infertile eggs. There are a growing number of vets able to treat ailments in poultry, although many keepers would still baulk at the cost. Meat and eggs from these birds are relatively cheap and, sadly, few value them beyond this measure.
“An ISA Brown hen, a common egg laying breed, typically lays an egg that’s 3 percent of her body weight. For a 170-pound woman, that would be like giving birth to a five-pound baby multiple times a week. It’s a lot of work”
Recognising that creatures other than humans harbour feelings and display intelligence is a fairly recent development. This has effected how dogs are now trained, and the author attends a course in which hens are shown to be capable of learning to perform for treats. Suitable poultry are used to support therapy in humans. Dementia patients have also responded positively when their care facility invests in a small flock.
“”dumb” animals get a lot more intelligent when we take the time to watch and understand them”
Having gained experience in raising and caring for a growing number of birds, the author then adopts a couple of rescue hens – caged farm birds that would otherwise have been slaughtered. The hard start to life these poor creatures endured means they are unlikely to survive a healthy hen’s potential lifespan. Observing them enjoying even a short period of natural behaviour is reward enough.
Although hen keepers take measures to ensure their birds are warm and safe, hens can survive in the wild. The author visits several towns where such chickens are part of the attraction for tourists. Locals are not always so enamoured.
Having kept a small flock of hens in my back garden for the past fifteen years or so, including a few rescue birds, much of what is covered in this book was not news. It was refreshing, however, to have some of the more negative aspects of hen keeping covered alongside the many benefits. As well as providing delicious eggs, each bird comes with its own personality that adds to the entertainment watching a small flock provides.
The book is not a guide to keeping chickens but rather a window into why those who do so often become enthusiastic advocates. The author writes with warmth and candour, sharing her obvious love for her feathered pets. However commonplace and tasty, hens deserve considerate treatment, responding endearingly to kindness and attention.
Any Cop?: This is a worthwhile read for any with an interest in small scale hen keeping. An informative and engaging introduction to a hobby that, while problematic in its support of certain aspects, offers many rewards to both hens and keepers.