Squeamish readers may want to read no further than this sentence, but it’s no horror story either.  Some friends asked about our daughter and husband who lived about a 15-minute drive from us, before we left Austin for a life in the desert. Among the news updates on them, I mentioned that Luke has long wanted backyard chickens and that he and Joy were involved in building a chicken coop, actually a covered shed with enclosed walls and a fenced-in area for chickens to run around along the back side of Luke’s workshop.

Rhode Island Red chickens.

Rhode Island Red chickens. We raised a lot of these when I was a boy.

Interestingly, Austin’s City Council passed an ordinance a few years earlier that allows residents to raise chickens. The consequent cackles announcing an egg has just been laid have spread around the city. Anyone can have their own flock now, unless homeowners’ associations prohibit it. Since I had nearly two decades of experience with thousands of chickens on our Tennessee farm, somehow a desire for backyard chickens has not yet risen in my bosom.

But I thought it was great that Luke and Joy were on the verge of chicken raising and egg-gathering experiences. To move things along, a neighbor gave Luke two dozen fertilized eggs and he focused on incubating them in anticipation of baby chicks breaking out of their shells before their eyes. The egg donor estimated that fifteen chicks would emerge from the twenty-four eggs, that half of them would be roosters, and that Luke and Joy might become the proud owners of 7-8 laying hens. Ominously, Joy had said that Luke was having difficulty with keeping the incubator at the proper temperature, so an aura of extra uncertainty had entered their lives. But pretty much on schedule, we were invited over to see the second chick hatch as soon as the first one unsteadily stepped out among the shell fragments into the world.

Our friend recalled that I had told him about the chickens on our farm as I was growing up, then asked, “Did varmints ever get in your chicken house?” I responded that they surely did—sometimes foxes ate the chickens, sometimes possums ate the eggs, but the most troublesome animals were rats that invaded the feed rooms in our chicken houses. They came in droves and ate holes in the large burlap bags of chicken feed, spilling it on the concrete floor. Then the rats gathered for a feast on the piles of spilled feed. Not only was this unsanitary, it was very costly. There was no market for extra-fat rats that were not only raising the cost of raising chickens, they were stealing from our chickens. 

Traditional methods of rat control—poisoning and trapping— helped contain the numbers of them, but we sometimes had to resort to firepower to control them. I forgot to mention this in my earlier post, “Firearms on the Farm: DIY Law Enforcement,” where Daddy used guns to drive away would-be thieves, or worse. At times of particular desperation with rats wasting our chicken feed, Daddy formed a swat team with my older brother Nolen Robert and me. Well after dark when the chickens were asleep, Daddy on occasion told us to get our .22 rifles and go with him to shoot some rats.

The feed room was walled off from where the chickens slept in this one particular chicken house. About 2,000 chickens lived in the long, rectangular building. During the day they roamed freely on a floor covered with about six inches of wood shavings, and during the day we let them out into a large, fenced-in grassy area. This was in an era before the term “free range” chickens was coined, because chickens in cages had not become part of the chicken business. When cages were introduced, Daddy scoffed at the idea. He said, “Chickens don’t belong in cages, they belong on the ground.” He never changed his mind about that.

Our rat-killing procedure, without all the gory details, was to enter the dark feed room quietly through a slightly cracked door, raise our guns, and turn on the light. Invariably, rats began to run for cover as we stood side-by-side and started firing. The rear wall of the feed room backed up to a hog pasture with dense woodland beyond that. Hogs didn’t hang out there at night, so it was safe to fire through the wall while shooting rats.

The favorite escape route of the rats was to run to the right-rear corner and run up it until they reached a timber that supported the metal roof. When they reached that junction, they paused to change directions. At the moment they paused, they briefly made a good target. Over time, we shot enough rats at that point that we had shot a hole through the roof that was as large as a baseball.

My brain is a patchwork of free associations, and always has been. Our friends ask about Luke and Joy, the conversation involved chickens, the guy asked about varmints, and varmints around chickens remind me of the rats.

That’s how we got to this.