Illustration by Neve O'Brien

This piece received third place in the nonfiction category of the 2024 Wallace Prize.

Before you see the birds at Tardif Poultry Farm and Feed in Coventry, Connecticut, you hear them: a cacophony of clucks, chirps, crows, gobbles, and squeaks. And before you hear them, you smell it. Shit. Chicken shit and duck shit and goose shit and dog shit and cat shit and bunny shit and chukar shit and pheasant shit—phosphoric and pungent and earthy and undeniably shitty. When I pulled up to Tardif wearing cherry red cowboy boots—my best salt-of-the-earth cosplay—Joshua Beebe, the farm’s owner, gave me a translucent plastic shoe-condom. He wore shit-brown sandal Crocs. Open-toe. 

Across from the Tardif general store, a cageful of Oreo-colored kittens mewed. Their mother slinked by, dropping off a billet-doux in the form of a feather-shedding songbird corpse. “Looks like they brought a present,” Joshua said, collecting it with his bare hand. 

Blue-tinted sport sunglasses wrapped around Joshua’s baby face. He’s twenty-six. Younger than his Eeyorish baritone sounded over the phone, expounding the importance of prestige poultry preservation. His spotless shirt telegraphs business owner – invoice-tracker, client manager, avian geneticist – rather than farmhand. As do his efficient answers. He’s helpful, but not warm. Open, but not friendly. He seemed more comfortable when I was a disembodied voice; face-to-face, he’s flighty. He answered most questions looking not at me, but at a bird. 

We plodded past cages of zebra-winged Chukars down a hill to a huge fly pen. “People bitch about the Mallards being out,” Joshua said. “Well, they’re literally wild.” Mallards flowed towards Ernie, bringer of feed, in an undulating wave of duck. But come empty-handed, and they dart away. There’s no sit, stay, come. These birds are specimens, products, investments—not pets. 

His polarized glasses reflecting the teeming waterfowl mass, Joshua told me he worried I might be an animal rights activist, scoping out his farm in order to publish some scathing exposé. What? Me? Exposé? Joshua, I wanted to scream, I’m a cool girl! I didn’t bat an eye at the chukar I witnessed post-mortem, belly-up atop the cage of his executioners. I get it—birds meet their Maker for all sorts of reasons. Some get sliced up for state autopsy after testing positive for Bumblefoot. Some get butchered by their besties—if a hen sees even a drop of blood, she’ll kill the wounded to boost her social rank. Like Mean Girls, but with more lethal pecking. 

“If someone sees something dead, they freak out,” Joshua said. “If I got sad over every dead bird, I probably would have killed myself years ago.” 

Tardiff sits on rolling hills along Route 31, past a sign hawking “99 cent coffee – any size.” Logs clutter the gravelly lot, as do fugitive flighted birds, who, despite their infinite freedom, loiter atop the very cages they jailbroke. Loyalty. Or hunger. Joshua’s farmhouse overlooks stilted pheasant pens and plastic pools of Peking ducks. A commercial chicken coop flanks the general store, as does a roomier enclosure of floofy white menaces I’m politely informed are classified as “domestic Sebastopol geese” and not “spurned swiffer-dusters back for revenge,” as their appearance implies. Maple trees frame the pastoral scene. Rusty farm implements abound. I’m not too proud to admit I was charmed. 

☼ ☼ ☼ 

The Tardif family settled here in the 1800s: four brothers, a hundred acres each. Josh’s great-grandfather had six daughters, whose progeny still dominate Route 31. He also had one son, childless—the last to bear the Tardif name. In 1931, the family lost the land. Ninety years later, Joshua shelved at Staples and dealt tractors and ran a construction company until, at 21, he bought the wooded acres back. He cleared the land, turned the timber into coops, and founded Tardif Poultry Farm and Feed.

It’s not an egg factory. It’s not a backyard hatchery. Tardif is a bastion of rare and heritage poultry: a place where people understand that a Leghorn and a Buff Orpington are both chickens, but only in the way that a Toyota Corolla and a ‘62 Ferrari 250 GTO are both cars. Joshua procures elite specialty breeds in all of their “recognized colors”—recognized, that is, by the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection.

In the 1850s there was a speciality chicken frenzy, because the parties involved had the misfortune of existing before TikTok and psilocybin and recreational Pickleball. America caught “Hen Fever.” Patient zero was Dr. John C. Bennett, who wrote in 1849 to the editor of The Boston Cultivator decrying that “many persons have been imposed upon and deceived into the purchase of spurious fowls, supposing them to be pure bloods.” To ameliorate this grave injustice, Bennett called for an exhibition of exemplary American breeds – Plymouth Rocks, Yankee Games, and Wild Indians. He also solicited delegates from abroad: Cochin Chinas, Great Malays, Pearl White Dorkings, Bavarians, and English Ravens. It was like the United Nations. But with more shit. Ten years ahead of dog shows and a century prior to the induction of dinosaur nuggets into the kitchen table canon, Boston’s Quincy Market hosted America’s first poultry show. 

“Everybody was there,” an eyewitness testified, like a high school girl recounting a party. “The cock crowed lustily, the hens cackled musically, the ducks quacked sweetly, the geese hissed beautifully… the uninitiated gaped marvelously…” 

More than 1400 feathered hopefuls showed up for judging, only to be turned away on account of no one had any idea what made a good bird. Bedlam. Ignorance prevailed until, in 1874, the newly-formed American Poultry Association gathered in Buffalo to ratify the Standard of Perfection: a 104-page, 46-breed bird bible. 

“The Standard of Perfection has everything from head width to leg length and feather color to beak color to temperament to how many points are on their comb to how many toes they have, the color of their skin to feather under-color,” Joshua explained. Thirty-three parts of a bird can, apparently, be hot or not. A good comb, a bad wattle; a marvelous lesser sickle, a middling stern & fluff. Beauty standards rival Victoria’s Secret: the ideal “Shape of Female” includes hackles that are “abundant,” ear lobes “small, oval, fine in texture,” and eyes “large, bold, expressive.” An “underdeveloped or thin breast” is a defect, and “rumplessness” is disqualifying. 

Joshua took care to show me the variegated polychrome plumage of a Golden Pheasant. But we kept our distance from the dishwater-brown ducks. Tardif is the only Northeast farm that supplies game birds for field trials (“fake hunting,” Joshua calls it). These drab birds are vital to business. Nevertheless, human interaction is minimal. 

“You come and you feed ‘em and then you leave,” Joshua explained. “You don’t want ‘em to like people, you want ‘em to run from people…”

Stoic geese eat out of Joshua’s hand; Bobwhite quail retreat at his every advance. But only one bird came onto me: minding my business, I found myself face-to-face with a tiny cock. He scuttled to my feet, crowing defensively. 

“Don’t be a pain in the ass,” Joshua chastised. To me, matter-of-fact: “He’s not going to attack you.” Not to delegitimize Alektorophobia, but it was hard to imagine how this banty little bird could hurt me. What could he do, ignore my texts? 

“They get a little aggressive?” I asked. 

“He does,” Joshua said. 

“Does he have a name?” 


“You don’t name them?” 

“No. If I had to name him, I’d name him ‘Asshole.’”

☼ ☼ ☼ 

Some are born poultry farmers, some achieve poultry farming, and some have poultry farming thrust upon them when the house they buy as a young barrister in Cootamundra, Australia, comes with ten “chooks.” The latter category includes my father. When I was eight, this story made me want to be a chicken mom. Bad. In a campaign my father characterizes as “manipulative,” I performatively devoured books on sexing chicks and mending talons and treating salmonellosis, gushing about what a valuable learning experience rearing cute little chickabiddies would be. My father relented, allowing me to adopt a peep of six jerky, skinny pullets. 

Not chicks. Pullets. The teenagers of chickens, in the “I hate you, mom!” portion of their lives—a sentiment they voiced in honky, squeaky, voice-changey clucks.

If you raise chicks, they might imprint on you. But my pullets were adopted in the sullen springtime of their adolescence. When I opened their coop, they bounded into the yard without so much as a glance. And it was fear of becoming coyote lunch, not homesickness, that brought them back at dusk, nature’s curfew.

My geriatric labrador begged for attention with big puppy eyes. Even the demon cat we kept for a month occasionally nuzzled me. But the chickens? At best, they’d cluck appreciatively as I laid out grain. I loved them. They loved my utility. 

Unfortunately for my pullets, my love language is physical touch. So I became a skilled bird catcher. Cornering my chickens, or descending from above, I’d freeze them in a squatted posture of submission. Then, for a moment, I could hold them. 

The more my hens evaded me, the more I sought their affection. I named them after beloved celebs, teachers, and friends. I chased Birdie Sanders; I cried when Mr. Nolte drowned in a pool like a faded movie star. It was painful to tell my friend (Gina Gillis) that my Ameraucana (Gina Gillis) was assassinated by a coyote (name unknown). When one was bumped off by my fluffy Aussiedoodle pup—who wailed if we so much as played Bananagrams without him—my parents determined it must have been an accident. Manslaughter at worst. 

Joshua didn’t grow up with chickens. Until he was fifteen, when someone’s idea of an Easter gift was six tractor-supply chicks. 

“And then it all kind of spiraled from there,” he said. He directed his gaze to the game fowl scuttling around their grower pen. “I didn’t really have any friends in high school.” As a kid, I regaled classmates with facts about Arancanas (blue-green eggs!) and Silkies (sold as a cross between birds and bunnies!) and Ayam Cemanis (black to the bone, the Prada of the barnyard!). Because I had soooo many friends. 

☼ ☼ ☼ 

The farm’s office-slash-store has one sign praising God and approximately seven thousand signs praising Chickens: poultry show ribbons, United Orpington Club trophies, a red rooster silhouetted against corrugated metal, and an impressionist composition depicting a biddy and her offspring perched on the words “Chicks Rule.” On a table was the 2006 Standard issued by the American Bantam Association, which asserts that “No scaly-legged bantam shall be given a first prize.” Curated local goods include “Chicken Shit” seasoning and plush bags stuffed with Angora Rabbit fur and edibles and candles scented “Butt Naked.” 

“The chicken shit is really good,” promised Samantha, the twenty-something behind the counter. She wore corn-feed-blonde hair down to her shirt’s Champion logo and white shoes which had become brown shoes. I looked on as her Apple Watch-clad, baby-blue square-tipped manicured hands sorted through frozen bags of chicken feet, which perched beside loaves of bread. She moved sourdough to unearth another sack of interlaced claws – this batch scalier, greyer, and much, much larger. “Oh my goodness!” I said, nonchalantly. “What!? What?!” 

“That was probably a Leghorn.” 

Joshua hired Samantha six years ago, when she was fourteen. Their grandparents were friends. Their great-grandparents were friends. Her childhood home is visible from the store. A few months ago, they started dating. But in front of me, at least, they were professional, impersonal, if not awkward. The only evidence of their affection was the pen of cream-and-gray bunnies Joshua keeps for Samantha beside their shared home. 

Joshua’s mother helps with bookkeeping. Joshua’s brother Justin is less involved – “he could go three weeks without looking at a bird and be happy,” Joshua says. The tedious farm labor is managed by Ernie, a bushy gray beard of a man whose youthful eyes belie his quinquagenarian status. Ernie does the daily feeding and watering—which takes an hour in summer and twice as long when the hoses freeze. When he starts the tractor, he whispers to himself, blastoff. He moved in with Joshua and Samantha after his house burned down. 

“We were like…” Samantha lowered her voice. “‘I don’t want you to be homeless.’” So, the household is: Joshua, Justin, Samantha, and Ernie. Which makes them the New Girl of Coventry, Connecticut. Ernie stays behind when Joshua exhibits his Cochins, or drives five hours for a Canadian border bird deal, or spends time with Samantha. 

Three minutes into our first conversation, Ernie told me he dated Joshua’s mom when they were in high school. “And I was a kid, you know, and she was, she was thinking about marriage and kids and I was thinking about freedom and, you know, living the rest of my life,” he explained. He said he likes working for Joshua. “It’s funny. His mother and I will joke about, ‘could have been your son!’” Then he laughed. A little too hard. 

Samantha led me behind the store, where a greenhouse cast gauzy light over empty egg incubators and other farm paraphernalia I’m too suburban to identify. A hulking metal brooder heated the season’s last few chicks. Samantha wrangled one to show me the delicate dappling of marigold on the down of her tiny wing. Good news: it’s not a Rhode Island Red or a Brahma or a Buckeye. It’s a baby Buff Orpington, Josh’s favorite bird. 

The first Orpington hatched in 1886 in Kent, England. It wasn’t natural selection that brought her into this world, but William Cook, an Englishman who dedicated his life to mating Spanish Minorcas, Chinese Langshans, and American Plymouth Rocks. Today’s Orpingtons also come in blue (gray), buff (strawberry blonde), and white (white). But the first Orpington was jet black—apocryphally, to hide London’s soot. She was a good layer. Made good meat. And most importantly, she was gorgeous. Cook traveled from Tasmania to South America to Austria to proselytize his Orpingtons. By the 1890s, they were – and this is the scientific term – hot shit. 

Today’s Orpingtons are hardy. Heavy. Bodacious. Good for chicken pot pie; just as good for cuddling. And they’re productive: 200 eggs a year (they once popped out 340, but casual breeders prioritized vibes over oviduct efficiency). Weaknesses include a tendency to overeat, a tendency to overheat, and a tendency to go broody. 

Broody is chicken-speak for “obsessed with motherhood.” A hen stops laying. Builds a nest with her own ripped-out feathers. Throw her off. She’ll come back. Take her eggs. She’ll burglarize her neighbors’ clutch. She’ll brood and brood and brood brood even if you patiently explain that the women’s rights movement has opened up a variety of possibilities beyond motherhood. The only way to “break” this is by locking her in a cage until she gives up on her dreams. 

Despite their occasional lapses into Yellow Wallpaper-ness, Buff Orpingtons are so popular that in 2016, they graduated from the heritage conservancy list. They’re backyard-chicken basic. But Joshua’s Orpingtons are special. So special they bunk not with the riffraff but in their own rustic-glam bungalow, a freestanding structure with unvarnished wood, a sawdust-coated floor, and translucent roof diffusing golden sun onto three apartments housing carefully matched couples. 

“Oh, wow!” I stammered, racking my brain for an incisive gallinaceous insight. “These are… big!” 

Joshua apologized for their appearance. Bald spots revealed spindles popping out of pasty pink flesh—they looked like stuffed animals, cuddled to the point of destruction. It’s molting season. Nature knows no one has to look pretty. Come spring, it’ll be time to fulfill Joshua’s punnett-square prophecies. He’ll ply breeders with high-protein grain to “give ‘em some more energy to be… vigorous.” And if they still don’t wanna…? 

“Artificial insemination,” Joshua mumbled. “If you flip them upside down and pretty much touch it the right way it’ll come out.” After Joshua jacks off the cock, he turkey-basters semen into the female. Then he hopes the resulting egg will hatch a little closer to the Standard. He’s playing the long game: birds are valued by genetic potential. Mallards are $25 apiece. The best Buff Orpingtons are worth $500,000. That’s like having six Lamborginis parked in your back yard, except the Lamborghinis squawk and lay eggs and are generally much less Italian. How does one prevent a poultry heist? “Most people don’t want to steal them,” Joshua said with a wry smile. 

Joshua spends more time thinking about his birds than many people spend thinking about their own human children. Still, they’re farm animals. No cooing, no hugging, and absolutely no letting them inside. Except Pipsqueak, the only chicken Joshua has ever named. 

A Blue Orpington, Pipsqueak fell ill in winter, so Joshua took her inside to convalesce. She became a house hen. When he came home, Pipsqueak recognized Joshua’s voice and bounded to the door. She was part of the family, sitting on his lap, following him around, and hanging out perched on furniture (with a bucket behind her, to catch the shit). 

“She loved watching TV,” Joshua said wistfully. 

“She’s out there?” I asked.

“No, she died a while ago.” 

“Did Pipsqueak… pass away from her illness?” 

“No. She actually got murdered by a duck.” 

Pipsqueak was a broody adoptive mother, raising ducklings as her own. One day one of her adult children attempted to mate with her, “because it thought it was a chicken or thought she was a duck or whatever.” He ripped her to shreds. A bloody Oedipal conquest: she took a boy under her wing. In exchange, he fucked her to death. 

“So, yeah! It was sad.” 

We dissociated in the direction of the big bird hutch, beholding their frenetic flightless dance. 

“I have my peacocks down there. I like my peacocks.” 

☼ ☼ ☼ 

Hen Fever broke in the early 20th century, which is why today TikTok is dominated by gyrating tweens and not Ring-necked Pheasants. During the Great Depression, people became less interested in niche feather aesthetics and more interested in not starving to death. Focus shifted from chickens’ beauty to their prolific ovaries. Breakfast: fried eggs. Dinner: deviled eggs. Supper: salad eggs. Dessert: egg custard, or maybe, I’m good, thanks! No one ate much poultry until World War II, when red meat was strictly rationed. Uncle Sam implored patriots to add flocks to their Victory Gardens; homegrown meat helped Americans survive. But after D-day, everyone gleefully returned to hamburgers and pork chops. Chicken demand dropped. 

The chicken did what every sensible girl does after getting dumped: try to win the breakup. Determined to get consumers back, the USDA organized a “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest. The dream? Bigger breasts, thicker thighs, swifter growth: “One bird chunky enough for the whole family,” as a 1947 Saturday Evening Post article put it. Farmers fought to make the fattest bird fastest. Seventy years later, it takes only 48 days for a hen to reach slaughtering weight. A Chick-fil-a sandwich is $5, and no one cares whether it was a Leghorn or a Buff Orpington, or whether it loved watching TV. 

☼ ☼ ☼

The chicken is rational. It eats what it can peck. It moves on. Joshua could feed them, Ernie could feed them, I could feed them. All they care is they’re getting fed. There was a German Shepard in Argentina that traced his owner’s scent 18 miles to his grave, where he sat awaiting his return for twelve years. Were I to be zapped by lightning, my chickens would wait maybe twelve minutes, and even then, they’d be searching for worms.

The DSM might classify a chicken as a subclinical psychopath. An adorable subclinical psychopath. Not sadists. Not like cats. Chooks don’t kill for fun, they just don’t care whether you live or die. Diminished sensitivity to disgust. Low emotional capability. Chase and they run. Draw blood and they kill.

I didn’t haul my chickens to college. I haven’t named a hen since high school. But I have a habit of finding chicken people. Chicken People: quirky, funny, easily spooked. Precious, skittish, strange. Beautiful. Better loved at a distance.

☼ ☼ ☼ 

After my first visit, Joshua ignored my emails. And my follow-ups. Was it something I said? Had I driven him away? Would he like me better if I were a single-combed, medium-wattled, three-toed Buff Orpington? 

Eventually, he picked up. Despite his resigned tone, I felt a flood of serotonin. And resented myself for wanting this so bad. 

The second time I visited Tardif Poultry, the leaves were brown. All but one kitten had found its forever home. Gargantuan Dewlap Toulouse geese roamed freely around the yard, fleshy necks wobbling with every waddle. Joshua was hunched over a table in the general store, bouncing his leg during a phone call with a frustrated customer. Nervous? Annoyed? 

Nervous, maybe—next week, he’d drive his best birds in a trailer to the Ohio National Poultry Show—the 150th anniversary of the American Poultry Association. A century and a half after Dr. Bennett gathered government officials and bird devotees in downtown Boston, a 1000 competitors and 10,700 clucking, shitting entries filled up acres and acres of warehouses in the slightly-less-urban Columbus.

Exhibiting birds was once a lucrative business. Joshua’s about a century late. He schleps a trailer to random towns for a few hundred bucks, and the glory of a small blue ribbon. 

I asked him to show me a winner. He pointed out a Black Orpington hen, marked for Ohio with a chic coral anklet. Her onyx feathers glittered iridescent gold-green in the sun. Her rose-colored comb had a single row of seven fleshy nubs, smooth and serrated. Her beak curved to a svelte peak. Her long talons were finely manicured—with the right number of toes. I swear she squawked in Received Pronunciation. She was the Emily Ratajkowski of this prestige poultry community, and she knew it. 

Sans anklet, a nearby loser bird knew where she stood, too. Joshua flipped her over, lifted her tail feathers, and blew gently on her dirty cloaca—a chicken’s all-purpose orifice for egg-laying, copulating, and defecating. 

“She could be wormed, but she’s also molting, so…” Joshua said. Sick or shedding, she wasn’t fit to be shown. Her scraggly white feathers slicked into a dirty gray-brown against her rump. She had patchy, pale-yellow talons – an automatic disqualification, according to the Standard. Joshua would never take her to Ohio. And he certainly wouldn’t let her pollute his gene pool. Fall is the off-season, so Tardiff had only 2000 birds. Come springtime, they would have 10,000 tiny beaks to feed. The loser might get lucky, might get adopted by a sucker who doesn’t know that domestic fowl are supposed to aspire to greatness. Or she might get culled. 

Joshua sent Ernie to the commercial flock pen to retrieve a replacement for a customer who claimed his purchase had shuffled off this mortal coil. I followed him to a cage of wall-to-wall chicken. These weren’t the bougie Buff Orphingtons, cordoned off in their luxury condo. Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds and a few Thanksgiving turkeys formed huddled masses yearning to break free. Ernie waded into the coop, and I followed, sinking my boots into the muck and shit and mud. Sans shoe-condom. Because people can change. Ernie shot out his foot to detain a fleeing Australorp. 

“The funny thing is that they love getting out of the cage, and then they spend the whole day walking around it, ” Ernie said. We struggled mightily to wrangle one of the plebeians, the poultry-tariat. Finally, he grabbed a bird. Out of many, one. She was plain. Pedestrian. Of no discernable pedigree nor plumage nor hackle nor shanks nor tail. Beautiful, no. But chosen. In a few hours, she’d be in a coop somewhere within driving distance. Maybe Nashua. Springfield. Ontario. She’d have a new flock of sisters to cuddle through harsh winters. Maybe there’d be a kid to protect her from tabby cat sadists, to treat her fowlpox with Seinfeld, to water her, to hatch her eggs, to tolerate her callousness, to love it, her quiet contempt, to mistake it for stoicism, to deworm her wormed ass, to watch her peck, peck, peck, to clear the corpse, to spoil her with daylilies and oregano and fat juicy slugs. 

She twitched manically in a vain struggle to flap away – as though, if she were to wriggle free, she could do anything other than sprint home. She writhed and writhed until Ernie resorted to pinching her wings behind her tiny back, one-handed, as he dialed Joshua, who told him with a laugh, Never mind, you took too long, we found another. Her beak fell open, as in surprise.