If you just want eggs you can get perfectly white, clean ones at HEB for $1.58 a dozen, $4.10 if you spring for the organic variety. So why did hundreds of people show up for Austin’s Funky Chicken Coop Tour on April 7? Why do otherwise rational people with good jobs at places like Dell and Samsung, people who have the money to buy organic eggs at the farmers’ market and make an arugula quiche every morning of the week if they want, why do they go to the trouble to raise hens in the backyard?
When asked, they always say, “We just want to know where our eggs come from.” But wanting to know the source of your eggs does not adequately explain the psychological motivation behind this apparently inconvenient hobby, so I am forced to come up with my own (totally unscientific) theory about the popularity of backyard chickens.
For prehistoric humans, hunting game was necessary for survival. Modern hunters, admitting that they don’t really need to hunt for food, describe their sport in spiritual terms. They talk about the need to hunt being encoded in our DNA. They rightfully claim that hunting nurtures virtues such as self-reliance, competence, discipline, and resolve. Hunters are proud to be conservationists. Killing game is so much more than just food, they say. It’s also about creating an honest relationship between predator and prey, and about maintaining a link with an honorable past in which humans provided their own sustenance or they went hungry.
Isn’t it possible that those of us who are a bit less bloodthirsty might experience those same primal urges to get down and dirty with nature? Just like our armed and camouflaged brethren, we pacifists also want to experience the food chain up close and personal. The processed, sterilized, and plastic-wrapped chemical conveniences that modern society calls “food” might prevent starvation, but are we truly nourished? Maybe convenience is not the most important attribute for nutrition. As Aldous Huxley said in Brave New World, “Being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune.” In spite of splinters and smashed thumbs, is not building your own chicken coop a thousand times more empowering than a PowerPoint presentation to a lethargic committee of under-the-table text-message-senders? Can scooping poop from the coop purify the soul as well as the henhouse? A hen-owner has an honest interspecies relationship with the hen: the human provides feed and shelter and the hen will reciprocate with an egg. The egg, collected from a nest and scrambled for breakfast, is not just calories, it’s an accomplishment.
In addition to providing a sense of achievement, raising your own eggs makes a social statement. It says, “I don’t want to support a commercial egg industry that confines chickens in cages so small they cannot even spread their wings. Chickens, as humble as they are, deserve to live a normal chicken life, wandering about with other chickens and pecking for bugs. Humans are big enough to extend ethical standards to animals.”
People of all persuasions, from liberals to libertarians, came together at the Funky Chicken Coop Tour in the quest for food realism. Many home tours have a lot of Wow factor. You look at something beautiful and you think, “Wow, that countertop must have cost a year of college tuition.” Not so with Funky Chicken Coops. Reduce, re-use, and recycle were the watchwords of funky chicken coop construction.
Although not the most functional of all possible coops, my favorite was Erik and Allegra Azulay’s creation, using a Disney castle to house their six chickens. “All our hens are princesses,” explained Erik. The Azulays were inspired after the Funky Chicken Tour in 2010 and fashioned their first coop out of a doghouse and some hardware cloth. Later they expanded into the castle. I asked Allegra if they had experienced any problems with predators in the inner city. She admitted that they had one possum attack, “but everybody survived.” What was her motivation for having chickens in the backyard? “We just wanted to know where our eggs come from.”