My Chicken Family: An Interview with Melissa Caughey
Storey project editor Lisa Hiley and chicken expert Melissa Caughey discuss the mother-hen instincts that led to Melissa’s life long love of chickens and the many books she’s authored as a result.
LISA: Tell me why you love chickens so much. What are some of your favorite things about them?
MELISSA: Truth be told, I didn’t realize how much I truly loved chickens until they invited me into their world. I’ve been fascinated with chickens since I was a young adult, but I had never had a flock of my own. Instead, I collected chicken paraphernalia, featuring them in household decorations and such. Once I moved to Cape Cod, I was able to keep a flock of my own and that is when I realized how much I enjoyed them. It was love at first sight with those day-old chicks. Holding them in my hands and realizing how tiny, delicate, and vulnerable they were brought out my mother-hen instincts. I cared for them as one cares for a new puppy.
I love getting to know my flock as individual chickens. I love hearing and recognizing their unique voices, learning their calls, and discovering their personalities. Each one is a unique individual. They are funny, smart, and empathetic. Over the years, I have bonded with them and they’ve bonded with me. Our adventures have been filled with good times and sad times, and so many memories. They have a way of wiggling their way into my heart. I can’t imagine my life without them.
LISA: When and how did you start writing your blog Tilly’s Nest?
MELISSA: I started writing Tilly’s Nest in 2010. My children were little and as we all learned about the joys of keeping chickens, I was witnessing tiny miracles all around me. So many life lessons were being gleaned from these little chickens. I felt such an urge to keep a diary for my kids. I didn’t want them to forget these adventures. For the first year or so, I wrote an entry every single day! I had that much to talk about, from recording memories to learning about the proper way to care for them.
Back in 2010, there was little to no information about keeping chickens online, and when issues arose, the only information that I could find was from commercial poultry farmers, such as medication dose for a flock of 1,000 hens! I had a hunch that other chicken keepers were probably experiencing something similar. Coming from a background in medicine, I could understand medications, calculate dosages for single chickens, and interpret the data that was available, and I was happy to bridge the gap.
LISA: Your first book with Storey was A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens. What were some life lessons your family learned from raising chicks and having a flock?
MELISSA: Gosh, there are so many! We’ve learned about caring for and looking out for one another, developing trust, respecting animals, forming friendships, how to compromise, how to be empathetic to others, how to work together, getting along in a group of different personalities, how to share, dealing with bullies—I could just keep going.
LISA: When did you start thinking you could “speak chicken?”
MELISSA: Oh, that story is kind of funny! I didn’t even realize it, actually, until one day, I was opening the chicken coop with our first flock. The chickens were still little, and they had just recently transitioned to their new coop outside. I had opened up the chicken door to the run and they didn’t want to come out. So, I decided, in my best chicken voice, to mimic their “happy” calls to try and coax them out. It dawned on me that I might just be crazy. But seriously, it worked!
When I think back, it turns out I had been listening and communicating to them with their own little chicken clucks and coos from the time they had been in the brooder. Wow, I thought, have I been speaking chicken all along? So then I really started to focus and listen to them, recording things on my phone that I heard and trying to decipher. I immersed myself in their world, including their vocalizations. Finally, one day I tested the predator call on a friend’s flock. As I let out a low-pitched rumbling growl, every one of her free-ranging chickens paused and looked up to the sky. That was when I realized not only that I could communicate—but also that chicken language is universal.
LISA: You and I had a lot of fun working on How to Speak Chicken. The response to that book has been tremendous (and now it’s a Workman calendar, too!). What do people tell you about talking to their own chickens?
MELISSA: I think the most common thing that people share with me is discovering the name that their chickens have given them. I love to hear people figure it out. I also love hearing people speak chicken to me during my presentations and talks. It’s wonderful to be able to share these things that deepen our relationship with our flock. People share that they have been so happy to understand their flock better and enjoy observing them so much more. They also thank me for helping to be the voice of chickens. It makes me so happy to think that I’ve been able to help bridge the gap between our worlds.
LISA: Your latest book, My Chicken Family, was a whole new endeavor for both you and Storey – a sort of baby book for chicken lovers. It was a fun collaboration as we went back and forth to get the format and the text, and the art just right. What did you think when that idea was first floated?
MELISSA: It immediately made me think of Tilly’s Nest. It reminded me exactly of why I started keeping that blog. I wanted a place to store things, a place to capture experiences, to write it all down, and also a way to reminisce. I was immediately on board, and it was like a walk down memory lane, figuring out just what and how I wanted to include to make it both fun and useful. And beautiful!
LISA: Are you enjoying filling your copy out?
MELISSA: Oh, yes, I am still filling it out, and I love that I can jump around and don’t need to go in any particular order. I find that as I remember one thing, another memory will pop into my head that I have to add. I love seeing things come full circle to create a keepsake book that is both interactive and beautiful. It is just how I envisioned it to be, a book for all ages to store dreams, remember, commemorate, and take your time to go back to the simpler days of writing things down and creating a keepsake that the entire family can enjoy.
Backyard chicken keepers have a deep affection for their animals and interact with them like any pet, as Melissa Caughey, best-selling author of How to Speak Chicken, knows well from her decades of chicken friendships. With My Chicken Family, Caughey has created a unique keepsake album that invites chicken owners to create a lasting record of their chicken adventures, with spots for adding photos of their favorite flock members and write-in prompts customized to every phrase of the the chicken-keeping experience. Featuring charming chicken-themed art borders, every page invite users to chronicle an aspect of their chickens’ lives, beginning with chicks and progressing to laying hen or rooster, to flock elder. Spaces are allocated for recording amusing anecdotes along with practical information about the selected breeds, health care, flock dynamics, and individual chicken names and personalities. The hardcover format features an egg-shaped die-cut cover that every owner can customize with a portrait of one of their own feathered friends, making it a perfect gift for any backyard chicken enthusiast.