One afternoon in late May 2017, my family and I pulled our Ford Escape into the driveway — we’d just gotten back from a short Memorial Day weekend trip — to find a small, red chicken coop sitting on our lawn.
I dashed over and lifted up the roof of the coop, exposing two anxiously clucking, rust-colored hens cowering in the sawdust-covered nesting box. The birds were afraid to let me touch them, but I released them from their pen and spent the rest of the afternoon watching them explore our small backyard, scratching at fallen leaves and nibbling on crabgrass. My parents, brother and I named the smaller, more nervous hen Egglantine, after a character in the “Guardians of Ga’hoole,” and the more robust one Yolklanda, a cringe-worthy egg pun.
The hens were a surprise for my 19th birthday, a gift for which I’d begged my parents after hearing of other chicken owners in greater Boston. The idea of raising farm animals in a suburban area was appealing, and quite honestly, the chickens served as a welcome distraction. I’d just returned home from an exhausting first year at the University of Michigan. It had been a long, lonely two semesters — I’d found it nearly impossible to branch out and make friends, and had struggled with anxiety and low self-esteem. That spring, I’d come home feeling depleted, unclear on who I was or what I wanted.
Pouring my energy into the chickens helped me to feel grounded in a way I hadn’t during my first year of school. I turned the chickens into my personal project, building new additions to their pen, ordering bulk quantities of feed and treats off the internet, noticing and researching every new sound or behavior. Driven to own the happiest suburban chickens ever, I’d rush home from work each afternoon to release the hens for their free-range time. I worried constantly about the chickens’ well-being and picked up the slightest signs of discomfort. On hot days, Egglantine and Yolklanda were pampered with frozen treats and ice-cold water, changed every few hours.
Not only did the chickens give me purpose, but I found them incredibly calming. Each morning before work, I’d collect their eggs, change their water, clean the cage and then sit on my porch with a cup of tea and a crossword puzzle, watching the hens scratch around the yard. I loved the routine, and the chickens looked so focused and peaceful foraging for their breakfast that it was hard to not feel relaxed.
As I settled in to the summer and slowly processed my freshman year, the chickens transitioned in their own way. Yolklanda quickly became comfortable with her new home and owners, but Egglantine adjusted a bit more gradually. For the first few weeks after her move, she refused to lay eggs — a sign of stress — and was skittish around people. Eventually, Egglantine began laying, and by the end of the summer she was confident enough to run up to me and accept treats from my hand.
It wasn’t easy for me to part with my chickens that August, because they’d come to represent the comfort and routine of home. For the first semester of sophomore year, each time I called home, I’d ask for details about Egglantine and Yolklanda — did they seem healthy? Had they done anything funny or cute?
I pushed myself to find my place at the University that fall, joining student organizations and connecting with new people in my classes and clubs. Even as my schedule filled up and I slowly started to recognize more faces on campus, the chickens remained an important piece of my identity. They were my go-to fun fact, a dependable conversation starter. Owning chickens didn’t help me make friends, but did make it easier to introduce myself and give others a glimpse of my personality.
By second semester sophomore year, I was finally feeling adjusted. I’d developed close friendships with my roommates and a few classmates, forming a small but closely-knit social network. I still had moments of anxiety and loneliness, but I was paying much more attention to my mental health, and overall felt more centered and confident.
I thought of the chickens occasionally, asking my family for updates and stories, but as the University became home, they gradually faded into the periphery of my mind. I was busy, immersed in my friends, clubs and classes, fully present. No longer was the fact that I raised chickens my default “about me” — I had new ways to connect with people, friends in common, shared clubs and extracurricular interests. My social circle expanded more over the summer, as I stayed in Ann Arbor for an internship at a local tech company.
One morning in August, I was running along Washtenaw Avenue, engrossed in my thoughts about the day ahead. I was happy, looking forward to an afternoon swim in the Huron River followed by a game night with friends. When my brother called and told me he had bad news, I wasn’t surprised by the words that came next: Egglantine, sickly as ever, had died. Her sister was headed back to the farm where she’d been born, because hens don’t like living alone.
The news hurt to hear, but I didn’t feel sad, only reflective. I kept running, lost in the rhythm of my steps on the pavement, contemplating my one year and three months as a chicken owner. The hens had given me structure when I felt untethered, a sense of self when I needed one. For one-pound birds, Egglantine and Yolklanda had carried a lot of weight.