Last night, I had the most interesting phone call with my mom. A Wall Street executive, my mother lives in one of those New-Jersey-based bedroom communities located steps away from the bus line that takes commuters into Manhattan every morning. Her development is gated, with manicured lawns, fussily maintained landscaping, and a strong-armed Home Owners’ Association.
It’s a vast contrast to where I live, in rural Michigan, with plenty of yard and natural grassland backing to state forests. Here, the closest neighbor is acres away. We mow maybe once per month, our driveway is gravel and dirt, our house can really use a thorough power wash to rid it of years of insect residue. And, most importantly, our chickens roam free.
The last time my mother visited, she was so horrified by our comfy country home that she spent the entirety of her visit sweeping, vacuuming, dusting and scrubbing.
Yesterday, my mother told me that she was planning to come out to join us for Thanksgiving. The last time we spent Thanksgiving together, I was in college, but she informed me that this was the year she was going to make it a reality.
Of course, I calmly told her she was welcome while my mind raced, trying to determine how many days of straightening and cleaning we would need to set the house to her standards prior to her arrival. While this debate raged in the kitchen, I retired to my home office to think about another important facet of my mother’s visit.
How would she tolerate our animals for the week she planned to stay?
Despite having been born and raised on a farm, my mother shook off her humble origin story long ago. One belief she has held for years is that animals do not belong in the home and that raising chickens is something only the destitute do.
And now she will be staying with us for a week during the largest family holiday of the year.
I cannot be the only poultry owner with relatives who look down at chicken keeping or who are repulsed or frightened by the birds. Can I? Should you find yourself about to host guests who don’t prefer your chickens, here are a few tips that may reduce the stress for everyone involved: guest, host and anyone within a 100-yard radius of your house.
Clear the Air
Install plug-in air fresheners throughout the house, especially in the living room, dining room and guest room. These don’t have to be overpowering, especially if you have an asthmatic in the family (we do).
A clean scent, like Cotton, Ocean, Rainstorm, etc., is enough to add a slight, tony fragrance to your home’s interior. Do not opt for rustic scents like Apple, Meadow or Pumpkin. These will only compound the issue that your guests in staying at Old McDonald’s farm within spitting distance of chickens.
Keep Up with the Joneses
Now is not the time to allow your yard to revert to prairie. Mow your front, back and side yards a week before your guests arrive, then again a few days later. Be sure your chicken run is weed whacked, with the areas immediately around your coops neatly maintained.
If this is an autumn visit, rake up as much dead grass as possible and dispose of your piles of leaves. If this is a winter visit, have your driveway and walkway neatly plowed or shoveled and de-iced … and create a pathway between your house and your coops. The last thing you want is guests blabbing to everyone that you have to risk your life each day in the frigid winter just to feed and water your chickens.
Handle with Care
Even if your girls are the most affectionate, friendly chickens on earth, avoid handling them for two weeks prior to the arrival time for your guests. It takes just one impatient hen, one suddenly startled bird, one unforeseen instant to decorate your arms and face (and bare legs, if you have them) with scratches.
Believe me, a scratched-up arm or even one slight mark on your face is enough to launch your guests into a tirade about infection, gangrene, health risks, filthy chickens and so on. It’s best to simply steer clear of this area by avoiding cuddles for a little while.
Eggcentuate the Positive
Ply your guest with the most sumptuous Sunday brunch omelettes, the creamiest custards, utterly delicious deviled eggs and the heartiest of breakfast sandwiches. Invite them to help you make homemade pasta, and have them crack and whisk the eggs.
Never let on that the eggs they just handled come from your own chickens and not a sterile supermarket. Never let on that the only reason you are making pasta is to let them get up close and personal with farm-fresh eggs. Most importantly, let them deduce for themselves that the pasta, the omelettes, the custards, the breakfast sandwiches, etc. have one common denominator: your flocks’ eggs.
Should your guests notice the food tastes richer—or even better, that the yolks of your eggs are much more golden orange in color—don’t use that as an opening for a three-hour lecture on the merits of keeping chickens. A friendly “yes, it’s because our birds have access to nutritious feed/fresh forage, so their eggs are packed with nutrients” will suffice.
Do not mention that your chickens also have access to an unlimited amount of outdoor bugs. That will open up a whole other can of worms.
Add a few subtle accents to the public areas of your home. Absolutely do not go overboard and get chicken wallpaper borders, chicken kitchen towels, chicken cookie jars, chicken tea kettles, chicken throw pillows, chicken … you name it. This will be taken like a slap in the face.
Believe me, my first married home had a whimsical chicken wallpaper border, a chicken wall clock, and a chicken cookie jar. My mother was not amused. Subtlety is the name of the game here.
Have a hen-shaped egg timer on the kitchen counter. Place a framed photo of your smiling child hugging a hen on a living-room side table. Integrate one or two small rooster garden sculptures into your front landscaping. Add just enough decor so that, if any of it catches your guest’s eye, they’ll register these artistic touches as just part of your personality rather than your family’s inescapable conversion into the cast of Hee Haw.
If your guests include an older relative whose favorite pastime is finding something to complain about, provide them with that necessary distraction.
Leave a basket of unfolded laundry somewhere easily visible. Let one or two living-room picture frames hang askew. Neglect to put away a bag of shelf-stable groceries. Your guests will be so focused on this irritant that they won’t even remember you have a coop of chickens nearby.
Show Some Tender Loving Care
A display of concern for the creatures of this big blue marble is always in order. It shows that we are not self-centered humans who could care less about our environment. This philosophy is not so different from “I keep chickens, I love them, and they are absolutely wonderful,” which can come across as defensive.
It’s all a matter of application. Hold off on shows of affection for your chickens until a day or two before guests are due to depart. While they keep you company in the kitchen, prepare a bag or container of kitchen scraps (but don’t make a huge show of this). When your guest’s curiosity gets the better of them and they ask what you are doing, just respond, “Oh! I’m taking out these kitchen scraps/leftovers to our flock. It’s a special treat for them and it reduces the amount of biomass in our garbage can and in our landfill.”
That’s it. Don’t invite them to come out with you to feed the chickens, but absolutely accept if your guests ask to watch you feed them. If it’s the dead of winter, substitute a container of hot mash for the kitchen scraps and, if asked, inform guests it’s an easy and effective way to keep chickens warm and well fed during the cold months.
Guests tend to love new tidbits of information, and you will also demonstrate your compassion for your chickens and the environment.
A Gentle Introduction
Should your guest actually ask if they can see your chickens, tread lightly. They are not asking to hold your favorite hen, nor are they asking to collect eggs or help you clean out your coop. They’ve simply mustered up the courage to look at these animals from a closer vantage point than from the safety of your home.
Always bear in mind that your guest is either afraid of your birds or is considering they might not be as filthy as they originally thought. Either way, they just need to confirm their suspicions from themselves.
Should this happen, lead them out to your coop, making sure you don’t spend the entire walk talking about poultry. When you reach your coop, give your guest free rein. Let them just stand there, watching your birds interact. Allow them to walk around the run and pursue their own level of interactivity.
While your guest gets accustomed to their viewing spot, get a little handful of scratch grains out. If your guest seems comfortable, ask if they’d like to feed the chickens. Demonstrate how to toss in a little of the scratch, then hand them the grains. Don’t correct them if they do it wrong.
The fact that they are doing it at all is momentous. Be ready to return their smile with one of your own.
I have used these methods with friends visiting from the city who’d never seen a live chicken before, always with success. Come Thanksgiving, I’ll try the same with my mom. The rooster cookie jar is already out on the kitchen counter, and the framed photos of favorite chickens stand in our foyer. With luck, my mom will forget the chickens outside and will instead focus on the turkey roasting in the oven.