A Conspiracy of Chickens, A memoir by David Waltner-Toews

My friend Beth lives in an idyllic peninsular getaway neighbourhood on the Sunshine Coast. On her property between the rocky crop and forest is her nearly two-year-old chicken coop with a cast of strong-willed characters, not unlike those we meet in David Waltner-Toews memoir about his post-retirement adventure in the world of poultry hobby farming. It was interesting and timely to read this book after also recently visiting Beth, who allowed me to pet one of her darling hens before she served us a delicious bowl of chicken vegetable soup. As far as I know, none of her coop’s residents were contributors to that lunch. In any case, a number of her headaches, challenges, and delights in raising chickens from chicks to hens (or roosters) paralleled Toews’ experiences, and I think it’s kismet in a way. If ever a self-help or commiseration hobby farming community was needed, this memoir could serve as the highly recommended starting point.

“If ever a self-help or commiseration hobby farming community was needed, this memoir could serve as the highly recommended starting point.”

With a blend of irreverent humour and anatomically correct perspicacity, Toews’ weaves his knowledge as a veterinarian with his caution-to-the-wind plunge into raising chickens for egg production. The timing of his decision to do this preceded the covid pandemic by a hair. The funny thing is that when you raise chickens, the world could be very well falling apart but who has time to pay attention to such things when your main worry is how to keep these creatures alive and thriving under many variable conditions. A situation does occur where Toews’ must temporarily leave “the girls” to attend to his human daughter in the US, and you can’t help but worry along with him.

Not only is this memoir an educational and eye-opening read into how eggs are made, but we also spend time understanding the sentient nature of these chicks that morph into teens within a matter of months. They each have distinct personalities. There is indeed a “pecking order” and that term makes even more sense in the context of parsing out their motivations. Many questions are answered: What materials do you need to build an outdoor coop? What sorts of feed do they need? What are the ideal hatching conditions? What happens when the weather runs below zero? Who are their main predators? Why do we sometimes see blue or grey eggs when we purchase our cartons direct from a local or hobby farm? How do other cultures celebrate the chicken or rooster? And lastly, my god, what is that smell? How can something so small emit so much waste?

To Toews’ and to anyone who raises a pet or hobby farm animal, they surely do not “own” that life. That creature “owns” them, their wallet, their minds, and their hearts. It’s an all-consuming hobby. Even if you’re a simple connoisseur of chicken byproducts, chicken meat, or a vegetarian, there is a lot to enjoy in this page-turning avian conspiracy. Chicken and pig jokes as well as poems are included. You’ll have to read the book to find such easter eggs.

David Waltner-Toews is a veterinary epidemiologist and university professor emeritus at the University of Guelph. He was founding president of Veterinarians without Borders / Vétérinaires sans Frontières – Canada and a founding member of Communities of Practice for Ecosystem Approaches to Health in Canada. In 2010 the International Association for Ecology and Health presented him with the inaugural award for contributions to ecosystem approaches to health, and in 2019 he received an award from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association recognizing “veterinarians who have exhibited exceptional acts of valour and commitment in the face of adversity to service the community.”

Besides being an author of many scholarly books and articles, he has published six books of poetry, a collection of recipes and dramatic monologues, a collection of short stories, two novels and various books of popular science including On Pandemics: Deadly Diseases from Bubonic Plague to CoronavirusThe Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology and a Sustainable SocietyEat the Beetles: An Exploration into our Conflicted Relationship with Insects and Food, Sex and Salmonella: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick. His nonfiction books have won awards in the US and Canada, and have been published in Japanese, French, Chinese and Arabic.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Wolsak & Wynn (Nov. 22 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 250 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 198949661X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1989496619

Mala Rai is a poet, drummer, psychology student, and technical writing hired gun on the West Coast. Her most recent poems have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, High Shelf Press, and Anti-Heroin Chic. You can follow her on Instagram @malaraipoetry