Catherine C. Coombs, MD
How did you get started raising chickens?
I did my fellowship training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. I had the best mentors and the best training there, but I completely hated living in Manhattan. I’ve always been an outdoorsy person and I looked forward to moving out of the city. When I would fantasize about what my life would be like as an attending, I was determined to do the least New York thing possible and, somehow, I just got the idea that I wanted to get chickens. In 2016, I started at the University of North Carolina as an assistant professor and one day I overheard a graduating fellow mention that she got a position in a place where she couldn’t take her chickens and she needed to get rid of them. I saw it as a sign that it was time to take the leap.
What was it about chickens that attracted you?
I love all animals, but I travel a lot so I needed something that wouldn’t be too high maintenance or require too much space. It was never about the eggs for me. They made eggs, but I actually don’t eat a lot of eggs, so I ended up giving most of them away. To me, they were just a fun outdoor pet.
What did you need to get started?
I bought a coop and assembled it with help while my dad was in town. You also have to build a separate structure that contains the coop called a run, where the chickens can be safe from predators but have space to run around. I’m not a very handy person so there was a learning curve, but I got it done with a friend’s help.
What was life with your chickens like?
I always had different names for my chickens. So, I started off naming them for the Schuyler sisters in the musical “Hamilton.” I had Angelica and Peggy. Those were my favorite two chickens, actually. Then, I started naming them after female politicians. RBG was always at the top of the pecking order, which I thought was very funny. I had Nancy for Nancy Pelosi, Liz for Elizabeth Warren, and Hillary for Hillary Clinton.
Dr. Coombs feeds her chicken its favorite treat, mealworms.
I learned a lot more about chickens over time. They are totally hilarious. Chickens love free-ranging and so when I was home, I would let them free-range. They found one of my neighbors had a bird feeder, and they loved to go over to her yard and steal the seeds.
They love treats (dried meal worms especially), and they came to know me as the treat person. They’d come running to me with their two little legs and this look of adoration as I would spoil them with worms or other goodies.
There’s a lot of drama too. Chickens have a pecking order, so it was always funny to witness the dynamics among the flock.
All of my neighbors ended up loving my chickens. During the COVID pandemic they became the mascots of my neighborhood while everyone was in lockdown. I once caught Angelica laying eggs in my neighbor’s bush across the street, which was both bizarre and adorable.
What are the biggest challenges to raising chickens?
Some breeds are prone to go broody, which is when a chicken somehow thinks she’s supposed to hatch an egg and she’ll get fixated on sitting on her sisters’ eggs even though they are not fertilized. The bird will literally sit in the nesting box for a month and get mad if you try to distract her. Luckily, it eventually wears off.
They are also naturally vulnerable to predators. You must be prepared for this, and I did lose some to predators over the years. I always thought of them as pets, so I took it very personally and it was very hard emotionally.
During lockdown, Dr. Coombs and her chickens attended virtual
Chickens and eggs took center stage in 2022 with the egg shortage. What did you make of that?
I think the shortage was related to avian influenza, which took out a lot of chickens. As a chicken lover, I was definitely sad about that. Raising chickens is such a fulfilling activity, so hopefully it has caused more people to raise their own. Chickens are a lot happier when they can roam freely in someone’s yard.
I was never in the chicken business for the eggs, but I could have gotten a nice discount had I still owned them.
Do you see any parallels between your career in hematology and raising chickens?
Academic hematology, much like a lot of careers, involves managing people, and so I’d like to pretend I was an arbitrator of conflict with the flock and their pecking order. I can’t say I was ever successful with the chickens, but maybe my experience helps me coexist with conflicts that I can’t control.
Dr. Coombs gets ready for the holidays.
I think the bigger parallel is that you should never let loss be a reason to detract from something you love. After the first time I had a predator attack and I lost a chicken, I had to ask myself whether it was worth it to keep raising chickens because I took the loss hard. Similarly, as a malignant hematologist, I lose patients. But it shouldn’t be a reason for me to not continue taking care of them because medicine also brings so much joy and the motivation to continue to improve. With chickens, of course, this involves building better structures to protect them, but in malignant hematology, it’s developing new drugs that can improve safety and outcomes.
What are your goals when it comes to raising chickens?
I recently moved to California and, sadly, I could not take my chickens with me. I spent a lot of time researching how to drive cross-country with chickens, but when we moved, the housing prices were at an all-time high, so we ended up renting and I wasn’t allowed to have chickens.
I had to rehome my beloved seven chickens with two good friends, but I do have a goal of getting chickens again once we get a house, although I’ll probably keep a smaller flock since property prices are so high out here.