Farm Animal Companions

They nourish the land as well as our lives.

One afternoon I walked into my house and there was a chicken in the kitchen. The side door had blown open, and Dark Beak had come inside, presumably to check on the spider population. She has a passion for spiders, and she knows what kind of housecleaners we are – it wasn’t the first time she’d been inside.

That first time when the Barred Rock sisters, Dark Beak and Light Beak, stepped over the doorsill, I felt as if I were breaking some unspoken taboo about animal-human relations. For weeks I’d resisted my urge to let a chicken in the house, but finally I succumbed and invited them inside. It didn’t take long to get used to having a chicken or two underfoot. They can be helpful picking up those bits of accidentally dropped food and they hardly ever have “accidents.” They’re smart too. It didn’t take me long at all to teach Light Beak to jump up and catch a piece of tofu in midair.

Except for the bugs and worms they snack on, chickens enjoy a vegetarian diet, as do the other inhabitants of this one-and-a-half-acre plot on Chappaquiddick (at least the domesticated ones: me, my husband, Sidney, my son, Elliot, and two goats). Sidney and I started talking about farm animals a few years ago. We’d both lived on farms as kids, and we liked the idea of farm animals. We’d had dogs, but we wanted working animals. The trouble is, we don’t eat meat or eggs, don’t seem to have time to milk, and don’t have anything to haul around. The answer to the question of what exactly our relationship would be with these farm animals has been revealed to us over time.

Domestic animals like our company. When we visit them in the pen, the goats rear up and butt heads, and then nuzzle noses with amazing gentleness. The chickens get very relaxed when we’re around, and start plucking at their feathers to groom themselves or scratching industriously under the dead leaves looking for bugs. They especially like gardening and practically stand on my hands in order to snatch any worms or bugs I uncover. When I’m with the chickens, they don’t worry about hawks or dogs, and sometimes when I feel overwhelmed by the world, I think of becoming a chicken herder.

Dark Beak and Light Beak used to walk me to the car, and then run out to meet me when I came home, just like our old dog used to do. I often eat in my car and, if I let them, the chickens would hop inside and look for crumbs. I did let them – despite the obvious risks – just because I wanted to see what a chicken looks like inside a car. Chickens are much smarter than people think. The first time I heard a bunch of crows cawing and noticed the chickens rush for cover into the bushes, I couldn’t figure out what they were afraid of – crows wouldn’t hurt them. Finally I got it: Crows are the early warning system for hawks, their sworn enemies. We’ve lost several chickens to hawks and others to passing dogs. Ms. Red, Henny Penny, and Light Beak are all buried in the pet cemetery on a nearby hillside. It’s sad to lose a chicken friend, but I remind myself they’ve had a good life with us, and a longer one than they might have had. And there are always new chickens in need of a retirement home, new chickens to get to know.

The goats and chickens have even made the wild animals in the yard seem more tame. On the lawn under the bird feeder, a mixed flock now eats the sunflower seeds: sparrows, juncos, cardinals, mourning doves, and beautifully striped Barred Rocks. The wild birds, in turn, hang around the chicken house and help themselves to the bowl of laying pellets. Last spring, there was an unbelievable number of rabbits in the yard. I’d never seen so many, and they were completely unafraid, almost domestic. The chickens actually made a bunny friend who ate grass with them and followed them everywhere. One time I called the chickens to the back steps for a treat, and they came around the corner and up the steps right to my feet – one, two, three chickens, and the fourth was their pet bunny. Even the rats have acted like pets. Rat youngsters will hang around the feed bowl at the chicken house, and they practically run across my feet if I am in their pathway between food and burrow. I’d never seen such fecundity. Finally this land, which is essentially a big sand box, feels productive.

In 1973 at age twenty-three, I first came to live on this land in a tent. I was like a conquering pioneer: cutting brush to clear a spot for the house; beating back the poison ivy and prickers enough to make a little yard; pulling up the sassafras, cat brier, and honeysuckle roots to dig a vegetable garden. A few arthritic apple trees left over from the last settlers produced small wormy fruit. Despite all the compost and seaweed I added over the years, most anything I ever planted looked undernourished. I didn’t realize then the importance of the domestic animals that were missing from the cycles of life, death, decay, and growth on this land.

When I met Sidney in 1974, he was making a goat puppet as a wedding present for friends. He had always wanted goats, and when we married four years later, someone gave us a goat gift certificate, but we never cashed it in. In 2009, after nearly thirty years as a teacher, Sidney became education director at the FARM Institute in Katama and started hanging out with farm animals. That fall some goats needed a new home, so we took them in. My brother had brought his flock of chickens to vacation with him next door, which made me realize how much I liked their clucking noises and the way they make a place feel homey. When he took his flock home in the fall, we kept four of his older Barred Rocks, which were scheduled to be retired to the soup pot because they’d stopped laying as many eggs. Any eggs they did lay, we gave to friends.

We set the chickens up in my brother’s first chicken house, a small box elevated on cinder blocks. They were free to roam during the day, and they went everywhere, scratching for worms and bugs and eating grass, all the while making dirt from dead leaves, fertilizing the land, and making it feel cozy around the house. At night, we shut them in for protection against raccoons.

Sidney built the goats a shed on wheels, because goats need a shelter and a portable shed could be dragged to fresh “pasture” – any place in need of brush clearing. We started the “brush hogs” in the former vegetable garden, overgrown with grape and bittersweet vines, which are high on the list of goats’ favorite food. Within a month everything was pretty well eaten except for some woody skeletons. We composted the manure, straw, and sawdust from the goat shed and the chicken house, and the next spring used it to enrich the soil in the old garden where we planted six fruit trees – something I’d been planning to do for more than thirty-five years.

The goats and chickens have become our friends and companions. We take the goats for walks along a trail down to Cape Pogue Pond. They stop to browse on the way, but mostly they stick right next to us because the world is big and scary outside the pen. Inside the pen, it’s a different story – they’re always on the lookout for ways to escape. It’s just in the nature of goats.

Our farm animals have connected us more with the world of the outdoors. Now I always look out when I hear the crows caw, and several times I’ve been able to chase away a lurking hawk. When the chickens approach the house, I go out to visit them or invite them inside. Sidney and I get up early and go out to take care of the goats and chickens, and in return, they nourish us with their animal presence. We work for them; they work for us. They turn certain materials (grain, hay, grass, brush) into other materials (manure, compost, mulch) that nourish vegetables and flowers for us humans. Sidney puts it simply: The goats and chickens turn money into dirt. But they’ve enriched our lives as well as our land, and in the end, they’ve made us more domestic. We even decided we were ready for milking and bred one of the goats. We expect a kid or two by late spring – and lots of milk by summer.