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Crystal Dunn loves her chickens (and they love her)

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On raising a brood of hens in her backyard

2020 SheBelieves Cup - United States v Japan Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Crystal Dunn has a nice backyard. She’s been showcasing the verdant space on her instagram stories, sometimes showing her husband, Pierre Soubrier, meticulously mowing the lawn. And sometimes, she shows a brood of hens jaunting about, often watched over at a distance by her cat, Zara. Roughly three weeks ago, Dunn and her husband received five chickens from a local farmer, and now Toulouse, Juke, Rocky, Quinn, and Chelsea are living it large in a World Cup winner’s backyard.

“After SheBelieves when we were told basically hey sit tight, we don’t know what to expect, we were like this is the perfect time to get these chickens. We can’t really leave, it’ll be a good transition period where I can maintain them and always check in on them,” Dunn says on a phone call. They had already sourced chickens through a local farm supplier, but that fell through as many farmers put sales on hold in anticipation of COVID-19-related changes. But the coop was already built, and Dunn and her husband had their hearts set on those chickens. So they called around, found another farmer close by, and he drove the birds out to them, delivering five hens all just shy of three months old.

Now she has a daily routine that involves waking up, rolling out to the coop around 10 AM, and letting the chickens out for the day. “When we open the coop in the morning they come out with so much excitement,” she says. “I feel like when we were first opening the coop they were taking so long to get out, they thought we were going to harm them. But now it’s just nice in the morning.”

It wasn’t her idea initially to get the chickens. Soubrier is French, and as Dunn tells it, he grew up much closer to his local farms. “He grew up in the south of France so to him he grew up on a lot of land and a lot of animals,” Dunn says. “He basically was like yeah, let’s get some chickens. They’re easy to maintain, they don’t need a lot of space, and we just moved into a new house and our backyard is a really good-sized yard. I was like all right, let’s get some chickens.”

All five of the chickens are different breeds. Rocky is a big girl, who Dunn says looked almost like a full-grown hen already when she arrived. “With her stature she is shoved out of the way, I feel like,” says Dunn. “All the other chickens cuddle next to each other and she’s always last to get her spot and I’m like awww, bless her, she’s just a big girl. She is just trying to fit in and fit with everybody, but she always gets the end of their cuddle sessions.” Toulouse is nearly blonde in coloration and named for the region of France from whence Soubrier hails. Dunn says she’s the calmest of the hens and the one with whom she bonded the quickest. Juke is all black and named for the car her husband used to drive, a black Nissan Juke. “I called it the Frenchmobile,” Dunn says. Juke might be her favorite, she confided, with her curious nature and the way she runs to Dunn and (Dunn theorizes) seems happy to see her.

All the chickens are growing rapidly, though, which Dunn can tell when she picks them up. “I’m like okay, you have some girth to you now girl. You’ve been eating,” she says. They’re supposed to start laying between three and five months old, so she and Soubrier are eagerly awaiting their first fresh eggs. If you’ve never had a fresh egg, there is a noticeable difference from an egg that has traveled a long ways before it gets eaten. The yolks are usually richer and brighter, and the whites tend to be nicely firm. Dunn says after she has an egg scrambled or in a breakfast sandwich, to enjoy the taste on its own, she wants to make a quiche as her first big eggy recipe. “I’m super excited. I have a lot of respect for farmers, especially in this time with everything going on, they are literally working double overtime,” she says as we mused a little bit about how many people are re-establishing connections with their local farmers as supermarkets become an increasingly risky proposition. “It’s really incredible what they’re able to do. Obviously I’m not a farmer just because I have chickens, but at least I feel like I’m taking part in the idea of really having a relationship with these animals, and it’s incredible what they’re able to produce for the world, for society.”

She is already incredibly protective of her chickens. Her first concern was how Zara would get along with the birds, but that ended up being a non-concern; in their first encounter, Zara stared at the chickens, the chickens stared back. Zara turned around and walked away. “My cat wants to act tough, but ultimately she’s a house cat. She’s not used to fending for herself,” Dunn says. “Of course initially she sees these chickens and she thinks, oh I’ve been chasing birds, but these guys are not normal size birds. And of course they always roll together. There’s five of them at a time all the time.”

Then there’s the neighbor cat, a fluffy grey outdoorsy type who has hopped the fence a couple of times. Dunn says she first ran into the interloper when she was watching TV, then saw that all five hens had fled their pen and went to investigate. “I kid you not, mother hen jumped all the way out of me and I chased this cat,” Dunn says. “I’m like screaming at this cat, threatening it, and eventually it turns and leaps over the fence again.” There are rumors of coyotes in their neighborhood too, so Dunn’s next project is predator-proofing the hens’ enclosure.

This is not a twist Dunn could have predicted for herself as someone hailing from just outside New York City, who didn’t see wild deer until college, when she attended UNC. In a way, the chickens are symbolic of her relationship with her husband and how he shares his culture and history with her. “I think that’s really great when you find someone who really is complete opposite of you,” she says - city girl and country boy. Although Dunn also says that her husband, perhaps, underestimates her from time to time. “He’s like ‘listen, any sort of dirt or chicken poop, you’re going to run away. Chickens are not the cleanest animals’.” After a few days of adjusting to the chickens “pooping everywhere,” Dunn says she surprised herself with how patient she is with them, and how protective. “I don’t think I would be able to fight off a coyote, but I would try,” she says.

“I’m so happy they’re here. It gives me a purpose. Obviously in this day and age, there’s a lot of boredom that’s lurking around every single day. It fills some of my day. I get to take care of something. I get to watch out and care for something new and add something different to my day.” Dunn says with the weather turning nicer in Portland, where she and her husband live, she’s outside six hours a day, reading books and keeping an eye on the chickens. They’re part of her family now. “I could talk about these chickens all the time,” she says.