“Chicken in the backyard!” Anthony blurted as he blurred by.
It was not the first time this alert has been sounded, but it still took me by surprise. After all, we live in the city and do not maintain poultry. I recalled a line from an E.B. White essay, which I believe appears as both an introduction to A Basic Chicken Guide for the Small Flock Owner by Roy E. Jones and as “The Hen” in White’s own collection The Second Tree from the Corner: “Chickens do not always enjoy an honorable position among city-bred people, although the egg, I notice, goes on and on.”
My train of thought was interrupted by a shout for help. “You were practically raised on a farm,” I yelled supportively from the couch, “you can handle it!” My better half grew up in Kansas; I presumed contact with poultry was routine. Then it registered that his urgency was due less to the chicken’s presence than to the fact that Wyatt was also in the backyard.
Wyatt, as regular readers may recall, is a stone cold killer. And he had indeed given chase to the hen.
When White wrote “The Hen” in the early 1940s, backyard chickens were all the rage. “Right now the hen is in favor,” White observes. “The war has deified her and she is the darling of the home front, feted at conference tables, praised in every smoking car, her girlish ways and curious habits the topic of many an excited husbandryman to whom yesterday she was a stranger without honor or allure.”
Metropolitan poultry are, for better and worse, in vogue again, and our neighbors are in on the trend (they even have an illicit rooster that thankfully only crows at the inexplicable hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.). One of the fowl creatures—a Chantecler, perhaps?—has apparently seen Chicken Run and has twice flown the coop.
By the time I arrived on scene, Wyatt was in hot pursuit of the discombobulated bird while Anthony tried to intercept it and vault it over the fence. Wyatt soon cornered the chicken, and I held him back as Anthony moved in to grab the hen, which clucked and flapped boisterously.
“Put its head in your mouth to calm it,” I suggested. If looks could kill…
Though White was a lifelong devotee to the chicken, he acknowledged the animal’s difficulties in a letter to fellow writer (and cohort at The New Yorker) James Thurber: “I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.”
The bird burst through the bushes before Anthony could grab it and darted across the yard. I had no idea chickens were so fleet. Wyatt again gave chase, and though his motivation was curiosity not murder, the flustered fowl was not mutually inquisitive. “A common charge made against the hen is that she is a silly creature,” White notes. “It is a false charge. A hen is an alarmist but she is not silly. She has a strong sense of disaster…”
This Houdini-like hen proved a tough egg to crack, but after another comically erratic pursuit Wyatt again cornered the bird. I restrained the dog, and Anthony approached on eggshells. This time he successfully plucked up the protesting poultry and hoisted it over the fence.
As vegetarians, neither of us shares White’s (or Wyatt’s) affection for chickens. Still, it’s hard not to admire the egg.
White, in his essay, quotes author and “city man” Clarence Day:
“Oh who that ever lived and loved
“Can look upon an egg unmoved?”