The Philadelphia Chicken Challenge, Continued

The chicks are home, my basement is clean. What's not to love?

Having chickens changes you. Immediately.

Last week, before the launch of the 14-Day Chicken Challenge, my family’s quest to raise some rented baby chicks in our Mount Airy basement, I was the same old me: mild-mannered journalist, stressed out about the work-family balance, too nearsighted to properly apply eyeliner. Today, it’s like I’m the same me, but better. Because my basement is clean.

The chickens are 100 percent responsible for my transformation. When we brought the fuzzy yellow chicks home in their small cardboard box, I realized we had nowhere to put them. Farmer Howe had given us a clear plastic Rubbermaid tub (the same tub you might use to store holiday decorations) filled with wood shavings, but the tub looked precarious balanced on the miscellaneous craft projects and sawdust and paint chips and broken toys and vintage sports equipment that filled my basement. So the first order of business in the Chicken Challenge: make room for the chicks. [SIGNUP]

The Chicken Challenge is a test of sorts. You know how some young couples get a kitten to prove to themselves that they’re ready for a baby? My family is at a similar turning point. If we can rise to the Chicken Challenge, it’ll prove that we’re ready to commit to a real family pet. A puppy, or maybe an iguana. If we fail the Challenge, it’ll be clear that we’re not meant to have anything more complex than 10-cent goldfish.

The clean basement is a step in the right direction. The layer of sawdust is gone; the cobwebs are gone. Now, the chicks are happily ensconced in their tub next to the basement door. Two fluffy Rhode Island Reds share the corner with a grow light and some tomato starts planted in egg cartons. Maybe that will inspire the chicks to fill the cartons with eggs when they get bigger?

The chicks don’t yet have names. We’ve been at a naming impasse since we picked up the chicks in a parking lot at the Presbyterian church in Glenside. Farmer Howe of Everich Farms was there, with a Rubbermaid tub full of chicks in the back of his minivan. We met the other chicken renters and hung out with the Bower family, who are involved with the Glenside Farmer’s Market. Mom Nancy sells jewelry there; dad Lawrence leads the children’s programs. The Bowers planned to exercise a lease-purchase option on the chicks. If the chicken rental worked out, said Nancy, they’d keep the chicks and build a coop in the backyard. If not, the chicks would go back to the farm. The Bower kids, 6-year-old Maddy and 3-year-old Sam, stood riveted as Farmer Howe taught “Chick School.” Lesson 1: how to hold a baby chick. In case you were wondering: cup it in your hands, loosely, and hold down the wings. Lesson 2: Don’t put the chick up to your face, no matter how cute it is, because it will probably peck you in the eye.

The eye-pecking issue is one of the many absurd realities that come along with basement rental chickens. Another one, slightly disappointing: the Easter basket surprise. I always imagined that waking up to baby chicks in my Easter basket would be the most adorable sight in the world. I considered putting a chick in a basket for my 4-year-old son to find on Easter morning. Then I realized that the chick would be hanging out in the Easter basket all night. She couldn’t go without food or water that long, and she definitely shouldn’t eat the Easter grass or peck the jellybeans. Had I thought to plant an Easter basket with real grass a few weeks ago, it would have been fine, but live animals don’t go with decorative shred and candy-filled vintage papier-mache eggs. Also: chickens, like babies, generate a lot more waste than you imagine. That is not the kind of gift anyone wants to find in an Easter basket.

Since the pickup, in between candy-eating binges, we’ve been spending a lot of time watching the chicks in the basement. We have a chicken observation station set up with a ring of folding chairs around the chicks, their heat lamp, and their space heater. For creatures born on Tuesday, they are surprisingly capable. They found their food within fifteen minutes of landing in their box, and found their water in about an hour. They practice flapping their wings (they don’t yet have wing-feathers), they peck each other (affectionately?), they snuggle up together and fall asleep at exactly the same time. Watching their fluffy yellow sides heave up and down is meditative. I can feel some of the knots leaving my shoulders as I watch them sleep. Is this why people go out in the woods to watch birds? Are my chickens going to make me a calmer person too?

The only wrinkle: I may soon be back in the same spot I began. Farmer Howe says that when he raises his 100+ chicks in the basement every year, it takes a week before the basement is covered in a layer of sawdust. The chicks scuffle through the wood chips in their lair, they kick up dust, and… well, I may not be transformed for long.

Meredith Broussard is a journalist in Philadelphia.