Chicken feed

ceramic hen
Glazed look from ceramic hen

Martin Gurdon Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance:
reflections on raising chickens
The Lyons Press 2005 (2004)

Having travelled from the west coast of Britain all the way to the west coast of the United States, it seemed a little odd to have picked up this arresting title in Seattle’s University Book Store only to find it was written by a fellow Brit. But that’s not the only coincidence surrounding our acquisition of this book, a witty parody of a famous work on tinkering with motorcycles, and this review therefore is split into two unequal halves, the first a gentle appreciation, the second a mild rant.

Decaying henhouse in the mist

After moving to a Welsh farmhouse with a little bit of land we decided to give it a year before getting chickens. We acquired a hen house along with a handful of hens and — horrors! — proceeded to give them names (including the predictable ‘Henrietta’). In return they gave us a few eggs and a lot of humour before succumbing one by one to the ills that fowl are prey to and being replaced one by one. By the time we bought Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance we were familiar with many of the situations that the author so wittily relates.

As you might expect Gurdon’s book concentrates more on the art than the science and technique of raising these egg producers. Almost a How-Not-To than an user-friendly manual, this is really a personal account of one townie’s experience of trying to live the Good Life in southeast England. Yes, they give their fowl names, but these are more along the lines of Wimpy, Psycho and Satan than Henrietta and Daisy, and more behaviour-appropriate. Yes, there are a few words of advice but largely this is a collection of anecdotes divided into twelve chapters (‘Eggs and a Potted History’ is the only chapter laden with overt tips). Typical of his approach is this description of Zorro’s reaction to being caught and held:

As I tickled him under the chin, round the back of his jawbone and between his shoulder blades (bliss for tamer birds) you could almost see the inner struggle going on in his small, testerone-crazed head, along the lines of “You bastard! I hate you! I really hate you! Oooo, this is quite nice. Bastard! Bastard! Yes, that’s better. Touch my birds and you’re dead! Keep going under the wings, particularly the left one. Bastard!”

This raised more than a flicker of recognition when we read this.

hen-yangAnd now for the tepid tirade. It’s quite clear that this is not a manual on raising chickens: there’s no index, no diagrams, no list of breeds; the illustrations are designed to raise a small smile, not help you build a coop or distinguish a fancy fowl from a brown hybrid farm bird. This is more a How-did-we-do-that than a Do-it-Yourself handbook; above all, it’s a typical example of insular British, culture-specific, self-deprecating humour. So why do the American publishers have to spell things out for their readership? We helpfully informed that “all conversions to $ are approximate” but what’s the problem with “I handed over 20 pence” instead of, as here, “I handed over 30 cents”? Are US readers incapable of realising that (a) 20 pence is a small amount and (b) the UK is a different country and therefore has a different currency? In any case, with rising inflation and changing currency rates such approximations are always going to be unrealistic, even more so to anyone reading a few years after its 2005 US publication (let alone a decade later).

Not only that, but does everything have to be translated? British publishers don’t feel the need to re-spell ‘neighbor’ as ‘neighbour’ in a work by an American author, so why reverse-engineer it here? I’m sure “Fred the rooster” must have originally appeared as “Fred the cockerel” so why the re-configuration? The book is sprinkled with four-letter words and expletives so I’m certain ‘cockerel’ or even ‘cock’ is not going to embarrass someone who’s just been told how to sex a chicken. And why in the name of all that’s holy does ‘bookshop’ have to re-christened ‘bookstore’? Which Americans can’t suss that a bookshop is a shop that sells, well, books? Or are there no shops in the US?

Enough of riding this hobby horse. Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance is a very funny, easy-to-digest read which comes in manageable chunks, and is as likely to amuse avian flu hypochondriacs as much as your average bird-fancier. This transatlantic edition has a Further Reading section of US chicken books (many — surprise, surprise — published by The Lyons Press) and lists of stateside poultry organisations and hatcheries which, I’m guessing, weren’t in the original edition. But just in case you weren’t in on the yolk (sorry about that) the back cover includes the disclaimer Nature/Humor…

Incidentally, we liked our egg-layers to be free-range. And Mr Fox liked his take-away meals. After I spotted him loping away through the long grass in our field with the penultimate hen in his jaws we agreed that the Great Egg Production Project would be formally and finally wound up.

Hens in the snow, yet to meet fang-tastic Mr Fox…

4 thoughts on “Chicken feed

  1. I love this—first, I’ve always had an affinity for chickens—not sure as to why that is as I was raised big city, but most of my adult life has been spent in the more rural confines of our state. We live out from town on a large piece of property and raising chickens has always appealed to me. My husband however has always objected. Last year I picked up a great little book, Chicken and Egg / A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading by Janice Cole. A wonderful book on the author’s trials and tribulation along with some wonderful egg / chicken based recipes. After reading the book I had thought that perhaps the raising of chickens may be more than I want or need—that is until this Christmas. My husband surprised me by telling me as part of my Christmas gift this year, he’s having a coop made for me to house 4 to 5 chickens. So…it looks like come spring, I will try my hand at a Henrietta or two. I only want them for the eggs and will have to keep them in the enclosure as we have many a fox , hawk and coyote–
    And now for your ire over the publishers and the correcting of the spelling between the American and the Great Britain version of the English Language….I myself have not problem between the woven spellings, pronunciation and exchanged words—actually preferring the British version of our lives–colour vs color. . .
    And as far as monies are concerned— many of my fellow Americans tend to be quite egocentric and just can’t grasp that the world does not gravitate around our own currency—I do the best I can with this lot of my fellow kinsmen 🙂


    1. Congratulations on your impending acquisitions! They really are entertaining as well as an eggcellent investment. Oddly enough you learn a lot about human nature from watching them — pecking order, nervous tics and devil-may-care attitudes!

      I really don’t mind US spelling as English spelling is extremely inconsistent anyway — just in the right place! As for ignorance about other cultures, that’s a failing not confined to some of your compatriots sadly.


  2. I suppose it is fairly obvious, so I should stop feeling complacent that my immediate reaction to the title was the substitution of ‘Zen’ and the rest.
    Seems like a fun book.
    Unlikely as it may seem, considering the brief times I have spent in UK, I do have personal experience of chicken maintenance there, and of the importance of the free-ranging birds being in their foxproof quarters overnight. With a sheepdog as aide, I became skilled at chicken-herding.


    1. Most birds either took themselves off to the henhouse at dusk or were herded there by a cockerel (‘Come along, ladies, time to turn in’) — apart from the occasional dozy one who took their chances up a tree. No sheepdog needed!


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