There are milestones in all lives: births, deaths, graduations, marriage, love. As much as this statement may sound like the prologue to a soap, these are the events that shape our lives. I’ve experienced all of the above and have to include another: chickens. I’m going to wait a few seconds while you take that in, get whatever comments you feel you have to make out of your system.
Everybody okay? May we move on?
Now I’ll say it again. As much as any other event in my life, chickens have helped to make me who I am, here and now. And, man, did I fight it.
It was Anne’s idea to get chickens, Anne’s and Rowan’s. I had … reservations. Many of them. They smell, right? They’re mean. They’re stupid. They’re noisy. They attract pests. The list was longer, but I’ve forgotten most of it. All of it was true in my head at the time and all of it, as it turns out, was wrong.
They came in a little box, delivered via USPS by our local mail carrier, Dorothy. There were sixteen of them. We had ordered fifteen, but somebody counted wrong or it’s the practice of the hatchery we ordered them from to throw in an extra. At any rate, there were sixteen Hubbard Golden Comet chicks in a little container that was half the size of a shoebox. We set them up in a storage tub in the house, dedicating a room to their safekeeping. They were tiny and yellow and fuzzy and cute and busy in their dedication to growing. I found myself fascinated and spent hours watching them, holding them, talking to them. We called them all Priscilla, each and every last one of them, and, yes, there’s a story there, but not one for the telling here, now. I discovered that all of the preconceived notions I had about chickens were, for the most part, wrong. Do chickens smell? Only because their living quarters aren’t properly maintained. If you keep their coop clean, smell isn’t an issue. Are they mean? They give what they get. If you treat them like property, like machines, and take, but never give, then yes, probably. I wouldn’t know for sure. The chickens here are friendly. Are they stupid? Well, they’re not going to be doing calculus any time soon, but, then, neither am I.
They presented us with no problems, no surprises, and eventually we moved them outside to a coop. I was still fascinated, spending hours with them, watching them live their lives. I discovered that, for me, they were more than fascinating, more than simply interesting observable phenomena. They brought me a degree of peace I’ve rarely experienced. They calmed me down. They made me think. They inspired me.
And now there are even more than there were to begin with. Big Girl, an Ameraucana, came to us through Nature’s Nursery. So did Audrey and Miss Kitty. Barbara, Karen, Nancy, Jeff, Ralph, Bernie and Sid all came to us from people looking to find a new home for birds they found they couldn’t handle. Most of these birds are still with us, ranging across the property and perching in the trees. Others haven’t fared as well.
Audrey was found wandering along Interstate 75 somewhere south of Toledo. She was so docile when I picked her up from the people that had found her that I honestly believe she’d have been content sitting in my lap for the hour-long drive home (she didn’t; I transported her in a dog kennel). She’d been debeaked. Most hatcheries offer this “service.” A hot wire is used to slice a chicken’s beak from its head. This is done while they are chicks. The idea is that irritable chickens that have been debeaked will do less damage to other nearby chickens and, I suspect, to the hands that feed them. On the downside, this practice can also lead to feeding difficulties and respiratory issues. Even so, Audrey was one of the most benign animals it has ever been my good fortune to meet. She was nearly always the first one to greet us in the morning and would come and sit in our laps. She established a relationship with Buddy, a miniature donkey that lives here, and would spend a part of her day riding around on his back. She lived with us for just over a year before she died.
Miss Kitty died yesterday, much to our sorrow. He (and, yes, Miss Kitty was a rooster, though we didn’t know that when we named him) was, we assume, a meat production bird. Initially we believed that he was a Catalana hen (hence Miss Kitty). It wasn’t until he started crowing that we suspected the truth. He grew extremely large extremely fast and, as a consequence, developed a host of physical issues. He was less than a year old when his body simply and finally failed. Over the last few days of his life, all of the hens cared for him. He was never alone, one of the girls was always nearby. They were warm days and dry, and he spent his time lying in the shade of a crabapple tree or under the branches of an elderberry.
And then there are the successes. Big Girl came from a pretty rough neighborhood near downtown Toledo. How she got there is anybody’s guess, but we know how she came to be here. She was rescued by an elderly man who drove off a group boys. They were menacing her with sticks and stones. He called Nature’s Nursery and Nature’s Nursery called us. She was nervous, at first, and maintained her distance. If you took a step toward her, she took a step away. She stayed that way for months. Now she’ll shift out of the way if it pleases her, otherwise we have to step around.
Bernie and Barbara and Karen were part of a flock that kept dwindling, their coop mates the victims of an undetermined predator. Ralph and Jeff were abandoned (Jeff because he crows twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and Ralph, I suspect, because he’s cock of the walk and not afraid to let you know it). While these two do lock horns, so to speak, they spend the bulk of their time pointedly ignoring one another. Sid was simply unwanted.
I suspect that our flock will grow again this year. I sincerely hope so, at any rate. I look forward to it. I gain far more from them than I give.
And I’m not just talking about eggs.
The Quarry Farm Musicians: Audrey, Buddy and S’More