Monday, August 9, 2010

Chickens, Vicariously

Gerty of the gimlet eye.
We are taking care of a friend's daughter's poultry operation for a few days this week. That is, four hens. Plus a few fish, a tankful of walking-stick insects, and a hermit crab. I learned only this morning that the supposedly sedate hermit crab is a trickster in disguise. Apparently, in the past, a gang of hermit crabs escaped their tank and managed to scrabble to all corners of the house; one got into the washing machine, another turned up in the dining room, and just one lily-livered hermit crab scuttled under a bed in the same room as the tank.

But I digress. Fortunately, the chickens did not escape their pen while on our watch. They were, on the whole, most cooperative, save for one stubborn gal who would not join her sisters in being gently herded into the coop for the night. She couldn't be allowed to wander her pen after dusk because raccoons as big as VW Beetles roam the neighborhood at night and would be quick to make a meal of her. After the other three hens had already settled in for the evening with gentle, satisfied clucks, this bird would flit to the farthest corner of a pen that was accessible to humans only by way of a gap under a guillotine-type wooden door that was about 2 feet high.

You can imagine my delight at having, finally, to creep through this gap like a commando through a layer of hay and chicken muck to grab the stubborn thing.

Fortunately, we didn't have to repeat this maneuver the next night because we knew the way to a chicken's heart is through its stomach. Or gizzard. Or whatever. A piece of bread crumbled into a corner lured the three cooperative hens immediately and eventually won over Miss Suspicious, too.

A very, very, very small part of me would like to keep hens. I do love the sound of a contented chicken's cheerful prattle, not to mention the glorious, fresh, warm eggs containing plump, carrot-orange yolks. Actually, very much of me would like to keep hens, but nothing in me wants to clean chicken coops.

When I was little, I spent one glorious day anticipating the arrival of a pet chicken. I was playing with my toys when my mom wandered through the room and I idly asked, "Where's Dad?" She replied, "He went to get a chicken."

I didn't say anything, but this news certainly brightened my day. A chicken! How nice. Being only four years old and safely believing that adults, unlike children, lived in a world where they just did whatever they pleased without rhyme or reason whenever they wanted, I didn't even think to ask "Why?" or "Since when?" If my parents had suddenly decided to procure a chicken, well, OK then. It was no stranger than their suddenly deciding to, say, buy a new living room chair, or a sink, or baking soda.

By evening, however, no poultry was in evidence except for the one being prepared for dinner. I had to ask my mom "Where's the chicken?" a few times before she figured out that I'd misunderstood her and explained that she'd meant Dad had gone to the grocery store.

What else could I say but "Oh"? I was slightly dismayed that we weren't getting a new pet. But chicken was my favorite dinner. So there really wasn't anything to complain about.

Foghorn Quackhorn and either Henny or Penny
Before chicken-keeping became so popular in my city, we did get to dabble in all the fun of poultry without any of the work each summer for a few years, when we'd pack up the car and head for central Washington to spend a week or two in the little town of Manson, near Chelan. The owners of the cabin we rented had a glorious chicken yard: a large area where a flock of 20 or so birds wandered freely, scratching in the dust, snapping up insects, and dozing in the shade of a tree. At night, they tucked themselves into a decades-old coop.

Every morning and evening, we'd visit the chickens--a big thrill for my then two-year-old daughter. We tossed corn to them and sometimes fresh fruit, which drove them into a frenzy of feeding. Their passion for fresh fruit caused them to rain pecks on my daughter's red-painted toenails peeking out from her sandals. Fortunately, she thought this was pretty funny and not cause for panic, though we took care to put her in sneakers for future visits.

These chickens had great lives--even the young roosters, despite the fact that only one of them was slated to rule the roost and the others were all named "Fajita." The winner of this lottery was the rooster who proved himself to be a wise and noble leader who wasn't rude to the hens and who was also capable of refraining from attacking human visitors. The hens roamed all day and dreamed feathery dreams at night in the safety of their nest boxes.

The only two casualties we knew of were two hens who flew the coop: little Broody Hen, always picked on by the other birds and who, we like to think, went on to better things after she left, and a big Barred Rock hen with beautiful black-and-white zigzagging on her plumage who didn't make it more than 20 feet from the chicken yard before being eaten by a coyote, leaving only a small oval of feathers.

This little band we're minding consists of Henny and Penny, a pair of Barred Rock (I think) hens--one of these twins is the aforementioned suspicious bird, and the other isn't exactly in love with us; a big brawny Buff Orpington named Foghorn Quackhorn; and a clever Rhode Island Red (I think) named Gerty. Gerty follows us around telling us what to do and to do it quickly.

I think that Gerty is the only one able to read the inside of the coop door, which is covered with henny pennings.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant - I love the henny pennings. Cleaning out the chickens isn't that bad. Well, on a day to day just removing the droppings basis it isn't. A full clean is altogether more of an operation.