Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Impractical Chicken Keeping part 2

Our first dozen chickens were the beginning of a sixteen-year habit that only ended by mischance instead of choice. During that time we moved once, selling the flock with the house to like-minded people, who later even bought the same kind of dog we had. At the new house, we built a coop and attached run as quickly as possible, becoming oddities in this upscale neighborhood. To us, the oddity would have been life without chickens (and dogs).

There’s something about chickens. It’s hard to frown when you’re saying chicken a couple of times quickly. They have become fashionable in small city yards where the coop is as much a necessity as the garden. For children, the egg hunt is like having the Easter bunny visit daily. Then there’s the look of them, the rounded, fluffy bodies with big feet and tiny heads. The amazing thing about those heads is how fierce the beaks look. They’re curved and pointed especially for picking up bugs too small for us to see and they move quickly. The eyes can look really serious when coupled with the beaks or just glassy and silly, being perfectly round and fixed in their expression. The iris ranges from gold to pumpkin orange to nearly black. Like most animals, chickens express themselves with their whole bodies, not just their faces.

Even a novice chicken keeper, like Kaye in Portland, Oregon, perceives different personalities and expressions among her small flock. She got into chickens almost by accident. A gardener, she was picking up straw for sheet mulching from an acquaintance when she made an admiring comment about the person’s chickens. The acquaintance had just built a better coop and needed to get rid of the old one. Kaye took it home along with the straw. “My partner and I decided we’d better get some chickens to go in the coop,” she said, so they went to Pistil’s Nursery in north Portland where in the spring customers can find chicks being brooded at the front of the store and the banty hen mascots keeping bugs in order out back with the pots of plants. They picked out three pullets.

The first was a Black Australorp, an excellent laying breed. Kaye describes her as dim, even for a chicken, but sweet-tempered. “If she goes a certain distance from the coop, she can’t find the door to get back in.” The distance is not very far, since this is a city lot. Big Red, a Rhode Island Red, is easygoing and playful, though not likely to initiate the play. The leader of the flock is a bantam Silver Leghorn named Chipmunk. “She’s always the first to get out of the coop or get into something, like flying over the fence into the vegetable garden.”

People get hooked on chickens and the habit is spreading. In urban settings where the rule is three hens or less, they become pets even though they are honestly not interested in or attached to us, not in the way of a dog or even a guinea pig that recognizes familiar people. Lorna found another benefit. She lives with five other people in a rented house. Since some of the residents have severe allergies to fur-bearing animals, but they still wanted some animals around, they bought a selection of chicks. While brooding the chicks indoors until they grew their adult feathers and could go outside, Lorna and her housemates discovered a common bond. “We sat around and adored them!”

Although they found the chickens to be fairly low-maintenance once established in the coop, the people had to organize themselves to make sure the work was done. “Otherwise, with six people, you tend to think someone else’ll do it and nothing gets done.” They made up a schedule and divided the work. They have a sign by the back door like Lucy’s in the Peanuts cartoons: the chickens are in/out. The chickens eat all leftover food scraps from the kitchen. While bug-hunting, they break up the piles of straw mulch and fertilize the garden, getting it ready for spring planting. “It’s a closed loop,” Lorna says. “We feed them; they feed us. They help with the garden. They home us into the ecology of where we’re living.”

I still have the first Murray McMurray catalog that came with our first batch of chickens. Anyone who has ever looked at a seed catalog understands the pleasure of looking through it and dreaming of all the different kinds of flowers and vegetables, or chickens, they would like to grow. My catalog has reached an iconic status, representing the life I had and never thought I would have to give up. I’m headed that way again, though. Once you start visiting other people’s chickens clucking and humming in the back yard, your own yard looks bare without them, bereft of the daily dose of serious silliness. Excuse me, people; I must see about some chickens

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