This week's Chicagoan: Jennifer Murtoff, chicken consultant | Chicagoans | Chicago Reader

This week's Chicagoan: Jennifer Murtoff, chicken consultant 

"You're not supposed to pick them out, but I said, 'I'm gonna pick this little one out.' She was so tiny, about the same size as a quarter. She thought I was her mom.'

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A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

"I was raised in the country, and I had chickens from age ten till I was in college. I had chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, quail, golden pheasants, peafowl. I hand-raised a pigeon. My dad often said, 'We're not taking birds to the vet. These are farm animals.' So if anyone was sick, I had to figure out how to take care of it.

"My favorite chicken's name was Blackie. My great-uncle had given me a whole bunch of eggs; the hen had gotten off the nest and decided to just give up on motherhood. I put the eggs in the incubator, and one by one they stopped peeping, which meant they were going to die.

"Finally there was one left. You're not supposed to pick them out, but I said, 'I'm gonna pick this little one out.' She was so tiny, about the same size as a quarter. She thought I was her mom. She and I would go in the neighbor's field and look for corn after he had gone through and picked the field corn. She'd go off and find a piece of corn, and I'd take it from her and put it in the bag. Unfortunately I came home from school one day, and there was a pile of feathers. I think a hawk got her.

"I had to get rid of my chickens when I was in college. One day after I moved to Chicago, I went to my friend Stewart's house, and he said, 'I'd like to have chickens in my backyard.' I was giving him advice about that, and he looks at me and said, 'You could be a chicken consultant.' So I mocked up my business cards on Vistaprint. It was like throwing spaghetti at the wall. But sure enough, people started taking it seriously.

"I talk to people about the ins and outs of raising chickens, the kinds of diseases they can get, physiological problems that can arise from egg issues. And then occasionally I get the odd call like, 'Can you do a wing trim?'

"A guy called me one day and said, 'I found a chicken in the forest preserve. It doesn't have a comb, so I think it's a baby.' Well, even baby chickens have a comb. It turned out to be a Japanese quail. As I was walking in the house, I was holding her tightly to my chest, and she started cooing. OK, yeah, you've got a home. I did everything with her. I sat with her in the crook of my arm while I worked. I made her a dust bath. The guy at Ace Hardware—I had to go there to buy topsoil for the dust bath—said, 'That's the cutest thing I've ever heard.'

"One day I took her to an outdoor concert, and she's in the grass, and this guy comes up and says, 'What's that you got there?' I said, 'It's a quail.' He looks at me and goes, 'I had brain surgery.' He proceeded to tell me about it. A couple minutes later he looks at me and says, 'Did I tell you I had brain surgery?' He was a very sweet man, but I was like, 'OK, I think I'm asking for this, taking a quail to the park.'"

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