'Incredible little personalities': why so many are hooked on chooks

Burlesque artist and interior designer Adele Scott, with Spike, a Frizzle. Picture: Ilana Rose

Burlesque artist and interior designer Adele Scott, with Spike, a Frizzle. Picture: Ilana Rose

Fiona Scott-Norman knew she was truly an inner-city hipster when she started noticing heritage chickens around the place and realised she really wanted one.

Or maybe she became an inner-city hipster once she got the chickens.

Either way, at some point she found herself grasping the zeitgeist with both hands, and falling right into what we will, one day, call a moment.

A chicken moment, to be precise.

"I went, oh my god, heritage chickens are adorable, and they're everywhere, and I need to have some," she says.

Once she acquired her first flock, she was hooked - hooked on the chicken life.

"The inner-city backyard movement is massive, and I just kind of got caught up in it," she says.

"After having them for a while, I just sort of realised that chickens aren't just chickens, they're actually incredible little personalities and they have lots of charisma, they're hilarious, they're like nature's little clowns, they're very entertaining but also they're very sweet, they also die a lot."

To mark her entry in chicken life, she has published a book, This Chicken Life, with her friend, photographer Ilana Rose, celebrating chooks and their owners throughout Australia.

Through stories about chickens and the people who love them, from a burlesque dancer with chicken tattoos to a celebrity gardener, an animal liberationist to a 12-year old with autism, there's a lot to unpick in the chicken world.

The book is lavishly illustrated and filled with tips, from which breeds to choose, and how to name your flock - a vital conversation - as well as a history of chickens in Australia, and a manifesto against eating chicken.

Not surprisingly, you'll likely find it several different parts of the bookstore, from gardening and permaculture, to self-help and even lifestyle and design.

Cassie Mulkerin, from Adelaide, pictured with Pepsi, a crossbreed. Picture: Ilana Rose

Cassie Mulkerin, from Adelaide, pictured with Pepsi, a crossbreed. Picture: Ilana Rose

Scott-Norman, a writer, performer, cabaret director, teacher and broadcaster, realised early on that chicken lovers - be they farmers or fanciers - are far from a rare breed, and almost all of them love to talk about chickens.

"I've done a little bit of radio at the ABC, there's a Sunday morning segment, a gardening-slash-wellbeing segment that Libby Gore does, and she's had me on three times now just to talk chickens," she says.

"The station can't stop people ringing, it just absolutely goes bananas, because everyone wants to talk about their chooks."

She has also had cause to give talks to chicken societies, and found herself at the odd poultry auction. She's spoken to mental health professionals and gardeners, high-end breeders determined to save entire breeds, and parents who want their kids off screens.

She's also done a fair bit of reading about chooks.

"The whole thing about my book is that it's a next generation in terms of conversation around chickens," she says.

"There are heaps of books around husbandry, how to look after chickens, which chickens to buy - there's stacks of them. They've all got great information in them. I can't write that book and nor would I be interested in writing that book. Nor would there be any reason for me to write that book."

But there are, it must be said, a great many beautiful chickens that, if you can just get them to sit still, come up beautifully in portrait photography.

When she and Rose set out to compile this book, they realised soon that there was a lot to learn about how people interacted with their chooks. Mental health came up a lot, as did animal cruelty, and human behaviour.

Horticulturalist and poultry breeder Ian Nash with his Phoenix rooster. Picture: Ilana Rose

Horticulturalist and poultry breeder Ian Nash with his Phoenix rooster. Picture: Ilana Rose

"In terms of just talking to people about their relationship with their chickens, it just hasn't been done, and there is this perception, I think, that chicken people are weirdos. It's very easy, because why would you be interested in chickens?" she says.

"But oh man, the first time one of my chooks died, one of my first flock, Marilyn, I was so sad because she was my favourite chicken from my first flock. A little Australorp bantam, she was adorable, and she was all white, she absolutely was Marilyn.

"I posted about it on social media and heaps of people just started making comments like, "Oh, you could cremate her in the oven at 400 degrees. All these kinds of jokes. And I thought, shut up, she was my pet, would you say that if it was my dog?"

There was a time, of course, when everyone had chooks, and they were a way of life, until chicken and eggs became easy and cheap to buy ready to eat, and there was less of a need to breed them in the backyard.

But now that there's a swing back to seeing chickens as part of household life, part of a home and part of the family, it's easy to see how so many people get hooked.

"You initially get them thinking oh, some eggs will be nice, and then before you know where you are you're just captivated," she says.

"They're so curious, they're social animals, and they include you in their flock. And I think you just realise that you thought they were one thing and they're something else entirely.

"I think the book is a real celebration of that, and an acknowledgement. I kind of wanted to shift the conversation a bit around how we see chickens, because the way, actually, we treat them industrially is disgusting. It's hidden away, for a reason, but we've become so disconnected from the animal because the chicken has become the cheap meat, it just turns up under plastic, we don't associate it with the actual critter."

She says many, including Rose, are surprised at how sociable and engaging chooks can be, both as individuals and as a flock, which is why naming them properly is so important.

"Punny or themed? A classic farmyard name that conjures up bales of hay and chicks scratching for worms, or a witty pop culture reference?" she writes.

"This is legitimate world-building, right at your fingertips."

Her own six, for the record, are Phyllis (looks like Phyllis Diller), Priscilla (flamboyant like the Queen of the Desert), Violet (after the colour of her earlobes), Val, Dora and Blondie. They are part of the family.

"They follow you around, and they quite like affection," she says.

"Because they're a social group, what you end up with is basically a soap opera, because there's always power struggles going on, it's just all of this stuff. They're very fascinating, and whenever you step in, there's always another new chapter."

  • This Chicken Life, by Fiona Scott-Norman and Ilana Rose. Plum, $32.99.
This story 'Incredible little personalities': why so many are hooked on chooks first appeared on The Canberra Times.