Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Free Range Life

This is part of an essay called Free Range Life that I wrote last summer. It’s just for fun, but if you’re considering chickens of your own, it’s another data point.

I knew we’d crossed some kind of line when my daughter brought a chicken to soccer practice. A real chicken. On a leash. She was rehearsing “Thing Two” (one of our most cooperative hens) for her turn in the Pet Parade the following weekend. A year ago chickens were just pictures in children’s stories at the library. Now, our property is cluttered with them.

Our chicken adventure began innocently enough we just wanted some cheap organic eggs. After talking with other chicken keepers in our area, factoring the foxes, hawks, and our own dog (who killed many of our neighbor’s free range chickens when they ranged in to her invisible fence area) and allowing for this expected attrition, we determined that we needed 10-12 chicks to end up with the right number of eggs for our family. Just like shopping at Target, when I went to the feed store to order the peeps, I came home with much more than was on my list. We ordered our “peeps” (one day old chicks) sexed - which means that they would all grow up to be hens. A few months later, we learned that sexing new chicks is an imprecise science as three out of eighteen of our peeps turned out to be roosters.

After hearing the story of how a neighbor lost 22 chickens in one night to a mink, my husband, engineer that he is, took it upon himself to build the most heavily fortified chicken coop in the county. Nothing is getting in to our hen house (unless someone forgets to go shut the door each night!)

Our herd of 18 chickens was slowly thinned (not due to any foxes in the hen house you can be sure!). We lost one chick early on when we first moved them outside. We’re not sure what the culprit was, but the dangers of life outside our mudroom heightened our attachment to our girls. We willingly gave away two roosters keeping the nicest one – Snowball – and ridding ourselves of the mean ones – Rocky and Brutus. Our children were much relieved when the roosters found homes with some local 4-Hers, rather than on someone’s dinner table. We did propose eating them ourselves, however, I’m afraid it would have put my children off chicken forever and the process itself seemed extremely feather-filled. As my fellow chicken keeper friend says, “I don’t eat anyone I know.”

We were happily down to 15 chickens when a real tragedy struck. Snowball disappeared. After looking for clues, making desperate phone calls, and conducting a search, it was determined that Snowball was taken by a hawk. I thought chicken hawks were Looney Tunes cartoon characters, but I was wrong. The very next day, my husband caught another hawk making an attempt on one of our hens. The commotion and a faster than expected hen, foiled the hawk’s plan, but now the threat was real. If we want to free range our chickens, there is not much we can do to defend them from hawks. For now, I keep one ear cocked for the telltale sound of a hawk (it sounds just like the eery squawking at the beginning of a scary movie) and sprint outside screaming and waving my arms at the first alarm. So far, I’ve definitely worried my cats and confused my chickens, but have yet to frighten off a hawk.

The loss of our rooster, Snowball, has had some other odd effects. The first morning without Snowball, the hens would not come out of the hen house. They just couldn’t figure out what to do if Snowball wasn’t there to lead them. I have to say, as a strong independent woman, I was disappointed. Do these girls really need a guy around to lead them? Apparently they need someone, and as it turns out that someone became me. They began following me. They even follow me back to the house and hang around on the porch waiting for me. Eventually they are lured away by the prospect of bugs and tomatoes in my garden, but as soon as I appear outside they come running to me. If you’ve never seen 14 chickens running top speed towards you, you’re really missing out. It is the funniest sight and completely endears me to them even though I’m sick of cleaning up chicken poop from my front stoop. When chickens run there is a side to side lurch much like you might imagine Fat Albert would have if Fat Albert ever ran. They pick up their feet extra high so as not to trip over them, kind of like walking in snow boots. It is comical to watch. Sometimes they even flap their wings like they might become airborne if they just could trip along faster. I’m a runner myself and some days when I’m jogging down the road before dawn and no one is watching, I try out their style and it makes me grin.

The training session on the soccer field was a bit of disaster. Much to my daughter’s frustration, the chicken would only go backwards on the leash. But she was undeterred and simply enlisted another more cooperative hen, Sunny. After a few more outings, Sunny did make it to the Pet Parade and she and my daughter won an award for originality. Sunny has resumed her normal life again amongst the girls. The egg production is still stuck at three a day, but I’ve been told the day is coming when we will have 14 eggs a day. I’m a little concerned about that so I’m hording egg cartons and making a mental list of all the people who will appreciate some fresh, organic, free-ranged-on-my-porch eggs.

1 comment:

  1. Cara,

    I'm laughing inside at the vision of you running down a country road doing the chicken-two-step. I feel the same sense of endearment when I go down to let the ladies out in the AM. As soon as they see me, Numbskull repeatedly jumps up against the hardware cloth wire of their coop. (Yet she never lets me pet her. Only the Buff Orpington "Rosie", and the Silver Laced Wyandotte "Poppy" seek affection. I attribute that human trait to their listening to NPR in my garage as chicks.) The poop has been a bartered commodity with our neighbors. I think Nick & I are living parallel lives 3000 miles apart. Keep the prose coming.