Life with Chickens

I had always thought chickens were the true sign of country-living. I discovered after we actually owned some that chickens are really the mark of truly rich city-living, as evidenced by the fact all of my wealthy city-friends who decorated "country" graced their walls with chickens and geese. I could only afford the real ones.

We had just moved to a house in the country, leaving our city neighbors to reclaim the city-air we had polluted with the organic vegetable garden project. (See My First Organic Garden for the morbid details on that adventure.) Even I had to admit in the end that car exhaust would have been a welcomed break from horse manure, fish heads, rotting compost and stale beer.

Since we were going rural, chickens seemed like a natural thing to have, especially since a flock came with the house. These were wild banties, small birds that belonged to no one, and foraged from yard to yard scratching up bugs. We never got eggs from them because we never could find where they had laid them, but we never had to feed them either. They were decorative yard-accessories, a sign we were now officially in the country.

For the first few months, I was enamored with the chickens. They would cluck and coo their way to my door each morning, I would toss them left-over vegetable scraps, and they would peck and fuss over them and then be on their way. It was a morning ritual I looked forward to with my coffee. Life with chickens was pleasant.

And then we got dogs. Golden retrievers. It turns out that a retriever's absolute, all-time favorite pastime is retrieving. And their favorite all-time snack in the world is chicken. Yummy, raw, bloody chicken. They were such passionate retrievers that only our oldest could walk them. The rest of the children were sport-sailed through the air at the first sniff of chicken.

Dogs require fences, so a fence went to the top of our to-do list. We decided on white-picket, and Bill and the children worked for weeks to finish. It was gorgeous. We finally had a large yard where children and dogs could play inside and chickens could safely scratch outside.

Then dusk came on Day One, and we all the heard the undeniable sounds of a retriever retrieving. We raced outside to find Max prancing back and forth inside the fence, tail wagging wildly, a squawking chicken in his mouth. "Max!" I yelled, and he wagged all the harder and looked at me to say, "Look what I caught, Mommy! Yummy chicken! And I was a good doggie and didn't even leave the yard!" On the other side of the fence were the rest of the banties, watching Max with that one-eyed side vision chickens do, cool as cucumbers in regard to their sister's demise.

Bill quickly began a footrace with Max (No Max! Drop it!), while our dog dashed circles around him with his prize. The rest of us watched in horror as each chicken then flap-flew over the fence, some landing in the yard, and at least one landing in the other retriever's open and grinning mouth. The chickens that followed began their own foot-race to the cedar tree where they flap-jumped into it to roost. It seemed these birds were creatures of habit, and had decided they were not giving up their roosting tree for love nor money, even though it was now guarded by dogs and protected by a fence. Our dogs called this new game, "Bark dinner over the fence."

Considering the size of a chicken's head, and taking into account the room needed for eyes, ears and beak-moving mechanisms, we realized there really isn't much room left for brain. One eye must have been processing, "Dog in fence," while the other eye, looking in the other direction and seeing no dog and no fence, processed, "No dog here," thereby overloading their small brains with too much information. We had to create a "Chicken Alert" so that whenever a child noticed a chicken inside the yard they called out, "CHICKEN ALERT! CHICKEN IN THE YAAAARD!" Everyone then dropped whatever they were doing to either bring dogs in, shoo chickens out, or chase a dog around the yard until he dropped it. Twelve chickens had over an acre in which they could dine on an unlimited assortment of bugs, in addition to all of our neighbors' fields, but they repeated this ritual every night. What was more unbelievable was that each chicken looked completely shocked to find a dog once they landed on the other side of the fence, even though both dogs had been barking and drooling non-stop from two feet away before they jumped.

We sometimes left the back door open at night to cool the house. This meant that Max, sleeping inside, could detect the faint sounds of delicious chickens swooping and crashing out of the cedar tree each morning. I was abruptly awakened at 5:00 a.m. one morning by the indescribable sound of a half-dead chicken squawking under our bed. This is where my dog had brought it once he retrieved it. I found it covered in dog slobber and paralyzed with fright, while Max pranced and panted next to me in a way that said, "Look, Mommy! Aren't you proud of me?? May I keep it? May, I, huh??" A chicken squawking for its life under a king-size bed on wood floors, by the way, sounds like it has its own microphone and high-powered sound system. The adrenalin powered me all the way to lunch.

A few weeks after this, I rounded the corner into our eight-foot hall to witness both dogs in hot pursuit of a child who was running with my new Igloo cooler. He had placed a sickly chicken in it as a triage unit (with the lid up, I am pleased to note), and tried to bring it inside the house for care. But, he didn't realize that retrievers can smell a live chicken that is hiding in a cooler just above their heads. At least I don't think he realized it. He was able to stay one step ahead of the dogs until he reached the living room, at which point the bird experienced instant healing, and shrieked-squawked (a term you would understand if you ever saw a chicken spring from a cooler in front of two golden retrievers) up and over the couch, jettisoning excess weight as it flew. This means that another life-skill I acquired was how to remove a long stream of chicken poo from upholstery.

All of our children rotated household jobs, and when Stephen's tour of chicken-duty arrived one December, he decided to throw his heart into it. He learned that chickens need at least ten hours of light for best egg-production, so he strung 100' of extension cord to the coop for a night light. He also had a theory that chickens would produce more eggs if they were exposed to soothing music, so he locked them all in the coop for two weeks with a boom-box set to a classical music station. Imagine me greeting a neighbor in the driveway early one morning and noticing that Carl Castle is broadcasting Morning Edition on NPR from the coop. When I peeked in, all the hens were contentedly cocking their heads as though they were listening to each news story with genuine interest. As James pointed out over dinner that night, the chickens heard about Martha Stewart's insider-trading conviction before we did.

Needless to say, all my warm-and-fuzzy country-living notions about chickens fizzled into a divorce when I finally got to know them. Here are a few things I wish I had known before we bought chickens for the first time. It took us only six years to discover that:

· Baby yellow chicks that grow spurs and large red combs will never produce eggs.

· Feed Stores which guarantee 100% female chicks at three days-old will not take three month-old roosters back on refund. Even if you beg.

· If baby chicks do not turn into hens, they can be used for Rooster Parmesan, Rooster Pot Pie and Rooster Divan.

· Six roosters in a coop with six hens makes for 24-hour mating and fighting, greatly disrupting egg-production.

· Chickens will eat anything, including nasty-looking grubs, Florida cockroaches that are so big they cannot get them down in one gulp, and left-over strawberry Jell-O.Children will not eat a fresh egg within 24 hours of watching a chicken eat a cockroach.

· A chicken's two main social disorders seem to be peer dependence and being creatures of habit. These disorders lead to suicide.

· If your child tosses a chicken over the fence to get it safely out of the dogs' reach, it will flap-fly its way to the ground on the other side. If your child discovers that a chicken has fallen into the pool and tosses it over the fence while it is still wet, it will plummet to the earth like a rock. Wet chickens do not flap-fly.

· Expensive registered dogs are drawn to highways with speeding flatbeds. However, free-ranging banties and 75-cent roosters can dash in and out of speeding traffic and never get hit.

· A rooster can provide cheap family-values-safe entertainment if it flap-jumps into a 5-gallon bucket of fence paint.

· It takes about three months for a rooster to shed its paint.

· Chickens provide good exercise (which some mothers might try to document as P.E. for the children who chase them).

· If the grocery store is selling eggs for under $3.50 per dozen, it is cheaper to buy eggs than chicken feed.

· Chickens are expensive. If you coop them, you have to buy feed, and if they roam, they eat all your blueberries, blackberries, figs, and everything out of the vegetable garden. Then, they jump into your dogs' mouth and have to be replaced.

· If you have a dog that is obsessed with chewing, it is not a good idea to string 100' of extension cord through the yard to put a night light in the chicken coop, even if you think it will increase egg production.

· It IS a good idea to keep an eye on teens who might be tempted to throw the switch to the 'on' position when they notice a dog beginning to chew.

· A large electricity bill generated by forgetting to turn the lights off in the chicken coop for a month must be calculated into egg-production costs.

· It is smart to specifically ask a child, "Did you actually bury the dead rooster?" when he says he "took care of the dead rooster."

· Garbage men will not pick up a trash can that has week-old rooster carcasses that your child "took care of," and cannot be seen for flies. Even if you call City Hall.

· Dead rooster omits horrendous (and possibly litigious) odors which, on a particularly hot summer day, can reach neighbors as far as 1/4 mile.

· Lastly, it is much harder to bury a rooster that was stuffed into the trash can by a child who thought they could get away without burying it, than one that has been dead for an hour.

I will admit that I got at least one spiritual-goodie out of the chickens. One warm spring morning as the children and I worked in the garden, I walked over to the wood shed, turned over a stray log and found a big, white grub. Our baby chicks had just grown into adolescence and were ready to be let out of the coop during the day to peck for bugs on their own. I thought it would be fun for the children to watch chicks meet their very first grub. By the way, for a chicken, fat, juicy grubs are the equivalent of filet mignon with a loaded baked potato and a glass of cabernet sauvignon. Except that they swallow them whole and in about two seconds.

Together we watched that first chick catch sight of its first grub. It cocked its head sideways in the funny way that chickens do, eyed it for a few seconds, pushed it for a moment with its beak and then gobbled it down. Soon there was no pause whatsoever between sight of grub and swift gulp. We dug for more grubs and it wasn't long before word was out, and all the chicks had flocked to our grub spot.

When we ran out of grubs and the chicks became bored with us, they pecked their way from the woodshed to the fenced yard. Unbeknownst to this new flock, behind those white pickets lived their mortal enemies, two golden chicken-retrievers that had received from their ancestors all the bird-eating genes their breed had to offer. And then some. Retrievers that had been thrilled to note a few weeks before that we had restocked the coop with their fuzzy-yellow selves, and had wagged and pranced as we carried them past the fence. "Yummy new chicks for us! Oh, thank you thank you!" they had grinned and panted.

I had just locked the dogs inside the house before heading for the coop that morning, so I knew there was no immediate danger when the chicks entered the yard. The children, however, did not know the dogs had been put away, and as the chicks bobbed their way through the fence pickets, they began to panic.

"Mom! The chickens are walking through the pickets!"

Did I suddenly see a teachable moment?

"Yes, they are," I said. "But, let's look at the fence from their perspective."

I pulled my own chicks close and asked them to lay on the ground with me and describe from a chick's-eye-view what dangers they could possibly see. One by one, we knelt, then lay chins to ground, to capture our chicks' viewpoint.

"No danger in sight," one said.

"It looks exactly like this side of the fence - just more grass," said another.

"But," they insisted, "there is danger!" Perhaps the dogs were under the deck, or sleeping behind a tree, unseen to the chickens, and it was only a matter of time before they would destroy them. My lack of concern distrubed them as I continued asking them to think.

"But, the chicks can't see any danger, right? Perhaps they're thinking, 'Say, we have a right to peck for bugs in that grass, too. We're not going to worry about any fences. Besides, we're on the other side now and nothing's happened, see? No one can tell us what to do with our own lives and bodies. They belong to us. We can do what we want! We are free chicks!'" (This was a huge stretch for me as I didn't believe a chicken could process more than one thought per day, and ours seemed to be limited to, "No dog in fence.").

"If that's the case," said one of the children, "then they are very stupid."

"Why?" I asked. "Why should they be deprived of all those yummy bugs on the other side of the fence?"

"Because we've already given them everything they could possibly need on this side of the fence. The fence is there to save their lives, not to keep them from enjoying them."

Kudos to our Savior, who places wisdom in the mouths of babes and even became one to keep us on the safe side of the fence. May we all aspire to live higher, and with more brains, than the lowly chicken.