Chickens Are Keeping Me Sane
Updated: May 14
By Lynn Barlow
The first shortage I experienced during the panic-buying that accompanied mounting concerns about COVID-19 wasn’t toilet paper. Or cheese. Or hand sanitizer.
The first shortage I encountered was eggs, in the form of a simple pile of brown paper bags next to a sign limiting purchases to a half-dozen per customer. I shrugged and selected six eggs. Into the paper bag, they went, and just like that, I experienced a quota imposed as a response to panic-buying.
As I cooked “family dinner” with my close-knit group of friends, we laughed about the eggs in the paper bag. State-wide shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and overfilled hospitals seemed like a distant possibility from the comfort of my friend’s kitchen in Big Sky, Montana.
Two days later, on March 16, Big Sky Resort abruptly closed for the season, nearly six weeks before the scheduled closing day. With the closure of the resort, I became unemployed. The next day all of the bars and restaurants in Gallatin County, Montana were ordered to close. Suddenly state-wide shutdowns and stay-at-home orders started to feel like real possibilities. I thought about putting six eggs into a brown paper bag and wondered if this would be the new normal, or if I would even be able to buy eggs in the coming months.
I thought about putting six eggs into a brown paper bag and wondered if this would be the new normal, or if I would even be able to buy eggs in the coming months.
An eggless pandemic would be bleak indeed, especially for a self-described dirtbag like myself. A dirtbag is an individual that prioritizes their chosen outdoor sport above everything else. There are several traits common to the dirtbag subculture, including working seasonal jobs, living in a van down by the river, and spending all of one’s funds on gear and trips instead of other essentials, like showers and food.
Eggs, believe it or not, are a key component to living the dirtbag dream. Meat is expensive and spoils quickly. Eggs are cheap and can survive several days (ok, maybe a week or two) out of the fridge. I spend nearly every waking moment skiing, whitewater kayaking, or thinking about skiing and kayaking. Turns out maintaining such a deranged and obsessive schedule can take a physical toll. The solution? Protein from the cheapest and most convenient source--eggs. Eggs for breakfast, and poached eggs in ramen for dinner.
With the ski resort shuttered and the local rivers choked with ice, I decided to make my annual migration from Big Sky, Montana to Ocoee, Tennessee, where the water is bathtub warm and ice-free. If ski season was over, I might as well go kayaking. Road trip completed, I went grocery shopping and surveyed the empty toilet paper shelves with a knot of dread growing in my stomach. Would the shelves of eggs be empty too? Luckily, they were not, but a large yellow sign informed me that there was again, a quota--one dozen eggs per customer, please.
I put one dozen eggs in my cart and again wondered if I was staring down the barrel of a desolate eggless future. I needed a solution.
Last summer, my boyfriend was given four chickens. Between the two of us, we couldn’t eat eggs fast enough. On numerous occasions, we dealt with our surplus by drunkenly making late-night omelettes to feed our equally intoxicated friends. That summer of almost too many eggs seemed like heaven in comparison to a grocery store quota of a paltry dozen, but alas, his chickens had found new owners and I couldn’t get them back.
The longer I was back in Ocoee, the more I found myself missing the chickens, and not just for their eggs. Chickens, believe it or not, are great listeners. Also, if you’re the one that feeds them, they’re always excited to see you. Taking care of animals adds a comfortable rhythm to otherwise uncertain days.
I decided to take the plunge. “I would like ten chicks, please,” I said to the lady at Tractor Supply, a local livestock chain. For reasons I still can’t explain I started happy-crying when she handed me a flimsy cardboard box with ten baby chicks inside. I spent the whole ride home alternating between eagerly peeking in the box and reading snippets of How to Speak Chicken out loud while my long-suffering boyfriend drove.
For reasons I still can’t explain I started happy-crying when she handed me a flimsy cardboard box with ten baby chicks inside.
A friend had built an outdoor kennel for my dog which we repurposed for my chicks, and soon they were exploring their new home. They spent the first hour huddled in a sunny corner, peeping gently as I sat next to them. As they adjusted, they grew bolder and I soon learned that a Border Collie-proof kennel is not necessarily chick-proof. One chick was quickly named Christopher Columbus as she took it upon herself to explore every escape route. We scrambled to bolster the security of their new home, but it took nearly three hours before Christopher Columbus was considered contained.
In those early days of social distancing and state-wide stay at home orders, I spent much of my time paralysed--stuck in the endless scroll of social media, which fueled my anxiety and increased my feelings of helplessness. I felt displaced, simultaneously trapped by circumstance, and adrift on an ocean of uncertainty.
After that first day with the chicks, I felt something shift inside of me. When my social media-fueled anxiety became too much to handle, I put down my phone and sat down in the chicken coop. I soon lost myself in their antics. Baby chicks have an incredibly endearing habit of falling asleep as soon as they get tired, no matter where they are. I watched one chick struggle to stay awake before finally giving up and taking a nap in the middle of their food bowl.
Gradually their baby fluff has been replaced by their adolescent feathers. Now they look like pre-teens trying very hard to look grown-up, but giving themselves away by their fuzzy heads and the occasional out-of-place feather. Instead of falling asleep where they stand, they like to take group naps in sunny corners or on top of their nesting box. They’ve also started to fly, as much as chickens can fly. When I enter their enclosure I make sure to wear jeans so when they awkwardly flutter up to perch on my knees they have something to grab with their talons. They still haven’t figured out that my freckles aren’t edible, so the long pants are also a form of self-defense. The pandemic may make me feel helpless, but at least I’m able to prevent myself from getting pecked by hungry chicks.
Shahram Heshmat writes in Psychology Today that panic buying occurs because “people want to find a way of staying in control of the situation.” Within two weeks, I went from normalcy--teaching skiing in Montana--to a strange world filled with quotas on toilet paper and eggs, a world filled with uncertainty and fear.
My chicks provide a sense of food security and a small feeling of control, but perhaps more importantly, they provide a sense of agency. In an uncomfortable new world dominated by words like “lockdown,” “quarantine” and “death-toll,” I know that every morning my chicks will peep with excitement when they see me. I know this because every morning I feed them freeze-dried mealworms, which are apparently a delicacy. Regardless of the reason for their excitement, this simple routine brings me joy and a sense of security.
One thing, however, is certain. In four to five months, I am going to have entirely too many eggs.
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