June 14, 2011 by wcobserver
By Steve “Rooster” Winkler
It’s hard to describe what she does. Some have called her a “chicken whisperer” while others might see her as a chicken-behavior expert. Still others might refer to her as an unfunded poultry geneticist. Regardless of the label, it’s safe to say Alice McKee has a knack for understanding chickens and their owners.
Alice operates in that ambiguous region of enterprise that is neither business nor simply pastime that she describes as a “hobby gone wild.”
She sells young hens and pullets to city folks mostly then makes herself available to answer the questions that will surely arise from first-time chicken owners. She doesn’t advertise; people hear by word-of-mouth from past customers about her quality hens and sound advice.
For many residents who came to south Washington County and embraced the rural life in the ’70s the backyard flock was a staple of the back-to-the-land lifestyle. Newcomers wanting to start their own homestead flocks soon found Alice and her hens.
“My hens are generally very friendly because I hand-raise them and take time to be around them,” Alice said. “So they’re not as skittish as those raised in large batches. And with only a few chickens you really want to have them be friendly.”
Animal whispering has long been recognized as a particular gift, talent or some say skill for which, whether considered folklore or not, the consequences are apparent: some people are better than others at communicating with animals. Dog, cat, and horse whisperers are the ones we hear about most.
“I’ve had animals all my life. My mother had a horse farm; I’ve had horses, llamas, chickens … for a period of time I raised cats as a business,” relates Alice.
Alice looks at the world from the chicken’s point of view. People tend to anthropomorphize chickens, that is, give them human traits. They think they see the chicken as being sad or happy, or if it attacks you it must be angry. “Chickens are coming from a different place. They’re not dumb; they’re being chickens,” she explains.
A number of Alice’s customers/clients lack knowledge of what she calls basic animal husbandry. For example, novice chicken owners may not know that flocks need to turn over regularly. Chickens stop laying suddenly after two years, then lay only sporadically.
“If you have a flock of 20 that doesn’t affect you, but if you only have three chickens and two are 2 years old … what are you going to do with this pet … how do you introduce a new one?” Alice has a solution. “When you need to retire an older hen … I’ll take them back … it’s like a retirement home for chickens out here,” adding, “I don’t slaughter … it’s just one of my things.”
In earlier years, Alice said she sold hens mostly to people in the country but more recently the interest in small flocks has come from city folks. A new city ordinance in Fayetteville allows residents to keep a few hens (no roosters) in their backyards. “People call and tell me chickens have changed their lives,” Alice said, and that the chickens are more fun to watch than TV.
Getting a chicken for a pet or small backyard flock from Alice is much like adopting an animal from the shelter. She will ask you about the coop or “tractor” (a moveable on- ground coop), your plans for dealing with food and water and most importantly she will want to know what you expect from your new chicken(s). Alice explains that the answer to this question will help in determining which breed is best for you. There is a wide range of breeds and, like dogs, different breeds have different characteristics and temperaments. Some are skittish; some are calm and steady. Some breeds produce an egg a day and some don’t. Some are stunningly beautiful, others plain. “Chickens are wonderful pets,” said Alice,” but you need to figure out what chickens are best for your situation.”
Alice has the ability to make people who are new to chickens comfortable with them. New chicken owners tend to get bogged down in small things, Alice said, noting that they worry about things that aren’t important to the chickens.
A New Breed
While she insists she’s not a poultry expert her knowledge of the science of genetics shines through. “I’m actually trying my hand at a new breed, like a science-fair project,” said Alice. Working with the Blue Laced Wyandotte breed she is working to create a new breed called “Alice Blues,” a blue chicken that lays blue eggs, she explains with a chuckle, but she’s serious.
Her practical experience in animal husbandry and commercial cat breeding gives her the needed scientific familiarity with selective breeding techniques necessary to develop a new breed. The Araucana breed, she points out, produces eggs of differing colors but she is striving for a blue hen that consistently lays blue eggs. Why would anyone want to pursue the tedious job of selectively breeding chickens to lay blue eggs?
The answer seems to inform much of what drives Alice’s approach to life. “Just for fun … because I can … because why not … it’s something to talk about at a party.”
The Chicken/Human Interface
While the primary concern of the commercial poultry industry is focused on the economic considerations of the mass production of meat and eggs, the concern for small-flock and pet-chicken fanciers is centered on the people who own and care for the chickens. It is in this corner of the poultry world where Alice stands out. Buying a chicken from her opens the door to encyclopedic knowledge of chickens that she readily shares. Whether it’s helping customers/clients get started with chickens and solving the practical problems of housing, watering and feeding, or introducing school children to the wonders of seeing fertilized eggs hatch into baby chicks … Alice is the expert.
Her energy and enthusiasm for a “hobby gone wild” doesn’t seem to have peaked. There’s more to come. “I’ve got a couple of ideas for children’s books … maybe a radio show or advice column would be fun.”
“I very much enjoy talking to people about chickens.”