Chickens and governors and members of the Illinois General Assembly; it’s terribly tempting to put them in the same sentence.
But I’ll resist, because this post is about actual chickens, as in nine hens—no roosters, more on that later—who lived, during the last year of Pat Quinn’s tenure, in a donated white hen house on the ample grounds of the executive mansion in downtown Springfield.
Alas, no more. Under Bruce Rauner they’ve been banished—I’m told since March—and I’ve yet to learn the location of their new home; assuming that they’re all still alive and clucking. I’m waiting to talk to someone who knows—a mansion employee—but he’s waiting to get permission from his supervisor.
It’s a sensitive subject, it seems.
We do know how the Springfield nine happened to take up residence at the stately if decaying Italianate mansion which has housed our state’s governors since 1855. The Quad-City Times’ Kurt Erickson reported in May 2014 that the hens “were rescued from a woman in a nearby small town who could no longer take care of her flock” and that “the former owner calls about once a week to check on the year-old birds.”
On Tuesday, I emailed Rauner’s press secretary, Catherine Kelly, to inquire after the chickens, but, as of press time, no response.
Rumor has it that the hens and the governor’s labs, Pumpkin and Stella, were at odds. One of Quinn’s top-level aides told me that Rauner’s dogs didn’t like the chickens. Capital FAX’s Rich Miller reported that his impression on visiting the mansion was that “Quinn’s chickens were driving Gov. Rauner’s bird dogs a bit batty.” (Apparently the hens did OK with Rosie, Pat Quinn’s Yorkie mix rescue dog.)
My attempt to reach Pat Quinn was unsuccessful. I was told by a former close aide that Quinn is out of town with his sons.
My new-found interest in chickens was sparked by a story that ran last Sunday in the Washington Post. It featured the new governor of Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who keeps four hens in a “handsome forest-green hen house “ in the backyard of the governor’s mansion in Richmond. The hens and the two McAuliffe family dogs must coexist.
"The only other governor’s flock that local food experts were aware of was in Illinois,” Post reporter Laura Vozzella wrote. “At some point, the birds made a quiet exit under his successor, Bruce Rauner.” She described calling Gov. Rauner’s office to ask after the chickens. The Rauner staffer to whom Vozzella spoke told her, “They’re in a loving home, and it’s all good.” But the staffer refused to give her name or title, asking that she be identified as “the Rauner administration.”
So it’s still a sensitive subject.
I called Eric Heineman who had been Quinn’s environmental sustainability director and the person taxed with making the leaky mansion as green as possible. Heineman, an enthusiastic proponent of the hens-in-residence idea, also worked to establish a community vegetable garden, a donated electric car charging station, LED lights, donated solar roof panels, outdoor buckets to collect water for reuse in the gardens. (And, no, Heineman says, he did not place buckets indoors to collect water from the leaky roof.) Had Quinn won the election, Heineman adds, he planned to keep bees at the mansion.
Pat Quinn ate breakfast in the mansion when he was in Springfield during the legislative session, and he loved the eggs. Not surprisingly, given his well-known frugality, he also loved the idea that the bankrupt state was getting those eggs gratis from the hens.
I asked Heineman, who now works as a energy and transportation consultant, if the chickens had names. “I think they did,” he replied, promising to do some research and let me know.
I asked because the Virginia hens have names. McAuliffe’s two youngest children named them—my favorites are Hillary, after Hillary Clinton, a close family friend, and Dolley, after Dolley Madison.
Heineman couldn’t come up with names, so I spent the early hours of this morning, sleepless, thinking of what I might have named the Quinn hens had I had the chance: Madigan—after Mike and his daughter, Lisa; Blago, for sure, given similarities in living situations; Mary Todd. Well, you get the idea, and the names didn’t seem so clever in the light of day. (Bernard Schoenburg, political columnist for Springfield’s State Journal-Register, told me that if I asked Rauner why he got rid of the chickens he would blame the decision on Mike Madigan.)
Keeping backyard chickens is legal in Springfield, and, says Heineman, it’s also legal in Chicago. He said he’d keep chickens if he had a bigger yard in his Rogers Park home, but he gets eggs anyway from a neighbor who keeps them.
What’s not legal in many cities and towns, Heineman adds, is keeping roosters. First of all, he explains, they’d wake the neighbors at dawn, and, second, a rooster would fertilize the egg and instead of that egg landing in a lovely breakfast omelet, it might become a baby chicken.
The absence of hens and their eggs is certainly not Gov. Rauner’s most pressing problem. But, as every single person I talked to mentioned, for school children dragged on tours of the mansion, their favorite part is now just history.
Update: The executive mansion employee who actually took care of the hens—and was eager to talk to me—emailed me Friday morning and referred me to Lance Trover, Gov. Rauner’s communications director. I emailed Trover to set a time to talk about the chickens; no answer as yet.