Golden Eggs from Rented Chickens

If I ever get chickens again, I’ll definitely rent them. I did own chickens once – they were secondhand from my brother who was moving off-Island to find a wife. Evidently a whole flock of hens wasn’t enough female companionship for him.
The chickens I inherited lived next door at my brother’s house in a little chicken shack he had built. It had an outdoor fenced-in yard where they could take their air. Unfortunately, the chicken yard fencing was not sufficient to keep vermin out, because one summer night I was woken by terrible animal noises coming from the direction of the shack. When I reached the chicken yard, it looked like a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with half-dead chickens lying here and there. My friend Peter appeared, having also heard the shrieking, and said it looked like the work of a raccoon. He went home for his ax and we did some mercy killing by moonlight that night.
However, if you rent chickens, they come with their own raccoon-proof coop, and if something does happen to them, well, they’re not your chickens – you can just call the owner. In the case of Pull-It-Pens, that would be Rebecca Gilbert and Randy Ben David of Native Earth Teaching Farm. Rental chickens are the latest venture in the farm’s effort to develop small-scale farming practices and technologies that non-farmers can make use of without too great an investment in time, money, or space. Rebecca and Randy opened their farm on North Road in Chilmark to the public three years ago to give people a chance to experience a more personal relationship with the land and some of the plants and animals we eat. Everything that grows on the farm is meant to feed people and educate them.
While Rebecca and Randy were still developing their Pull-It-Pen idea and experimenting with coops, they had a chance to test one with a family in Aquinnah who had acquired two Rhode Island Red chicks this past Easter as pets for seven-year-old Claire Phillips. The family had never had pets before, but when Claire’s mother, Jane Lancellotti, found Claire “cherishing a ladybug,” they decided it was time to get one. They hadn’t planned to raise chickens, but Claire loved to collect the eggs at Native Earth. Jane says, “It was like a scene from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Claire would reach under the chicken for the eggs, saying, ‘Dear one, I mean you no harm.’”
The chicks soon became like family members – Cutie Pie and Sarah – and as Jane says, “They have personalities! We can tell them apart: Sarah is much more cuddly. Claire holds them for hours in the hammock, rocking and singing to them. She can put them into a zone.” Claire says, “When they were babies, I’d put them in my dad’s bandannas [as diapers] and it’d be up to their necks. They were little brown fuzz balls when we got them.”
The chickens were getting too big to continue living in the house, so Claire’s family contacted Randy, whom they knew from visits to the farm. He suggested they try out the new coops, so they set one up in their yard – which just happens to be located in the raccoon center of the universe. The raccoons must have felt they were being handed two chicken dinners, if only they could figure out how to get at them. These were persistent raccoons, and although the coop is raccoon-proof, the bottom is left open to allow the hens to peck at the ground. The raccoons would try to tunnel in, which they couldn’t do in just one night. The family moved the coop each day, but they felt the considerable weight of responsibility for the well-being of the two chickens. “They are Cutie Pie and Sarah. We didn’t want them terrorized!” says Jane.
Randy, who makes house calls, came and set up a solar-powered electric fence around the coop so the chickens could get a decent night’s sleep. With all the fencing around it, the family started calling the chicken compound the Henitentiary.
With the chickens’ lives assured – for the moment – Jane says, “We are the happiest chicken people. By August we should be getting eggs. We feel they’ll be laying golden eggs.”
It’s easy to get attached to your chickens. My brother, who now has a wife and a flock of chickens, comes to his house on the Island for vacations. He says, only half-joking, “When we come down, everything is perfect except for not having our chickens. We’re thinking of getting an SUV and making some coops to put in the back of the car so we can bring different ones down when we come – to give them a little treat.”
But chickens don’t keep laying forever: commercial farmers slaughter their egg layers after a year of production. A chicken may lay eggs for about four years, but they can live five to seven years. Most people on the wait list for rental chickens are egg customers. One wonders what will happen to the chickens when egg production falls below desired consumption levels. The chickens, which can be rented for a week or a month or longer, will probably be returned to the farm. Randy and Rebecca, like all farmers, can’t afford to be sentimental about the animals they raise, yet they may find themselves saddled with a flock of chicken pets, visited often by the families who cared for them. Perhaps they haven’t thought of this yet, but for their Pull-It-Pens project to succeed, their next enterprise may have to be a Home for Aged Hens, staffed by volunteers like Claire who find joy in singing to chickens.