Summer 2012 I read Joel Salatin's Folks, This Ain't Normal and felt inspired to raise chickens. They lay eggs; I like free food. It would be nice to have a pet that contributed something for once. In the book he says, "...I advocate getting rid of the parakeet cage and replacing it with a couple of chickens. They are much quieter and far more industrious." Two years later I don't believe they are any quieter than parakeets, but he was on to something regardless.
The following Valentine's Day I found a coop with seven chickens on craigslist and took the plunge. I had never spent any time around birds, and as simple as it all is I found it a little confusing until I had the chance to see it in action. Roosting, nesting and laying were all words that didn't mean anything to me until I watched birds do it. Phrases I have heard my whole life began to have real meaning as well: "pecking order", "flying the coop", "coming home to roost", "ruffled feathers", "brooding over something", "ruling the roost", and of course, "mother hen". Raising chickens was once so common that our language is peppered with references to them and their behavior.
The eggs have been nice. The first egg was so exciting; no egg, egg. It amazed me. The yolks were dark, and each one made me want to cheer for my amazing girls. I love my cat, but he's never done anything this amazing. Chickens are charming. They scratch and squabble, roll in the dirt, and get excited when they think you're bringing them treats.
On the other hand, they also destroyed my garden no fewer than three times. Their run, which was once a lush paradise for chickens, now resembles a gulag. They can fly right up to the top of their coop and from there out into the yard where they wander around, stir up the chipped bark onto the lawn, and leave little presents for me to step in. Worse yet, three of our very social hens paid visits to neighborhood dogs and had to be brought home in garbage bags. Our backyard now attracts possums, skunks, raccoons, and coyotes, all of which eat chickens. When I go outside during the day I look overhead now for hawks. I guess it's a bird eat bird kind of world and I certainly sided with the losers.
Early this summer we brought home six baby chicks from the feed store. Baby chicks are one of the cutest things you will ever see. They are the sweetest little sleepy fluff balls. Of course, they grow incredibly rapidly and they do not make good house pets, no matter what Joel Salatin says.
At about the same time, one of my hens refused to leave the nest. A broody hen just wants to sit there and hatch some eggs. I understand there are ways to break a hen from being broody, but after all the hassle and stress of keeping chicks in my dining room it seemed wise to try it the natural way. My dad came over with eight fertile eggs and put them under her. The broody hen sat. And sat. She got up briefly for water a few times, but then raced back to sit some more. She became very quiet and pecked my dad every time he came to check on the eggs. Her entire body puffed up to an enormous size. (Nine, ten, a big fat hen!)
Exactly 20 days later, we picked up one of the fertile eggs and heard quiet pecking. One of the eggs had a tiny little hole, another a hairline crack. On day 21 they all hatched. Ridiculous as it sounds, this was one of my proudest moments. My broody hen had become a mother! We all huddled around her and whispered in hushed voices just like we do when we visit newborn babies at the hospital. She protected them well, but we'd see the occasional piece of fluff poke out from under her before she got a chance to gently tuck them back underneath her. She also began to make a soft, steady clucking noise we had never heard before.
Two days later she brought them out and began to show them what was good to eat. She would scratch vigorously, occasionally sending one of her five flying, and then show them what was good in the dirt. The chicks imitated their mother. When they got sleepy from the effort and ran to her, she sat down on them again. When Domina, our meanest hen, comes to pay a visit, the broody hen chases her off. When I get too close, she's right there. When a hawk came and tried to fly off with one of her babies, she made so much noise we all came running out of the house and the hawk had to make a run for it. I have witnessed Martha, a sweet hen I now sometimes refer to as Aunt Martha, give her precious nieces and nephews piggy-back rides.
My children have had a little taste of life and death. After the first five hatched, one fertile egg, a latecomer, got cold and the chick inside died. My son and my father decided to investigate once it was clear it was too late to save it. My son wanted to show me, and I asked if it was horrible and disgusting. "No, just a little sad." He was right.
Recently when I went outside to make sure all the birds had food and water I realized that the mommy hen had tucked her babies into bed early. I also realized that I had forgotten to check for eggs for a few days. I guess it's not about the eggs anymore, is it?
Tonight we heard the crying of one of the chicks as a floodlight went on outside the bedroom window. We flew outside in time to see a fox run off with one of the chicks that somehow had not gone into the coop with the mother hen. I bawled like a baby right there in the dark. But it turned out that the fox had dropped the chick, and my husband brought it back to the coop. We weren't sure if the chick was okay or not; at best it is traumatized like we are.
Thirty minutes later as we lay back down we remembered the saying, "like a fox in the henhouse." Ugh.
I am happy to report that today the chick is alive and well.
I love trying new foods, cooking, and gardening. I hope to share these experiences on this site. Thanks for taking a look!