Week 45: Chickens
Fiona, a chicken enthusiast, opens the door to her backyard chicken coop. Eight chickens run out into the 9 a.m. sunlight, while one stays behind. Princess rests on the top rung, eyeing the ground precariously. She’s six years old — quite elderly for a chicken — and, as the leader, is the first in pecking order. (Yes! The original meaning of pecking order!)
But Princess is too arthritic to hop down, rung by rung, and strut out the coop door. Fiona says that, because of this, she tends to make a grand entrance from the coop into the rest of the backyard by flying down to the ground in one fell motion.
And indeed, after contemplating it for a while, she swoops down and explodes through the coop door.
Fiona and I go inside the now-empty coop. She leafs through a huge flower pot filled with shavings. This, she explains, is called a nesting box, even though this one is, indeed, a pot.
She produces two eggs and, to my surprise, cracks one hard against the pot. It’s loud and doesn’t sound hollow-ish. Nothing happens.
“They’re ceramic,” she explains. “Don’t they look real? Fools the chickens too.”
Placing a few ceramic eggs in a nesting box signifies to a laying hen that another chicken has scouted out all the places, and of all the possible spots to lay an egg, this is the one she chose.
Sugar and Pepper, both two-year-olds, are the only two laying chickens of the nine that Fiona has. There are no eggs today, though. Sugar is going through a shedding phase that consumes her energy, while Pepper isn’t an every-day-layer.
Six-year-old Princess is too old to lay, and the other six are babies. Two months ago, Fiona brought them home as day-old chicks and kept them safe inside until two weeks ago. These six girls are still too young for egg production, although they’ll be reaching sexual maturity within their first year.
Fiona got the babies in pairs — three different breeds, two birds each — from a local hatchery. To hatch her own eggs, she would need them to be fertilised, which would necessitate the involvement of a rooster, which in turn would bring up a whole slew of other considerations — whether to keep males and females separate, what to do with so many fertilised eggs if they’re not separate, etc.
Roosters also tend to be noisy neighbors, which makes them illegal in many cities, and Fiona tells me it is a general consensus among the chicken community that most act like grumpy old men. (In the defense of roosters, though, I have one as a next-door-neighbor here in Los Angeles and prefer his vocalisations over an alarm clock.)
Instead of keeping a rooster around, people who want baby chicks can use a hatchery. Hatcheries have experts who can, in a humane way, tell day-old male and female chicks apart and then send over the sex a customer prefers. Fiona describes the ability to distinguish between the sexes of day-old chicks as a magical art.
I’m not sure what politics — if any — govern breeding for chickens as pets. Obviously, the meat and egg industries are different matters altogether, although there may be some crossover if people are raising pet chickens for those purposes.
But other than that, I wonder if chickens enthusiasts face the same ‘adopting vs. buying from a breeder’ issue that, say, dog owners face. I don’t encounter many chickens up for adoption, though, so maybe most chicken-moms-and-dads have to get them from hatcheries or hatch them themselves.
I mean to ask Fiona, but forget as I watch the chickens peck at their breakfast.
I am not sure if I’m a future-chicken-mom. So why am I here in the first place?
I’m brought to Fiona’s less by a chicken-specific-love than by a general interest in farm animals, which is in turn born of a desire to one day live a life on a ranch, close to nature. I value the ability to travel more than most rancherinas do, so it won’t happen anytime soon, but hey — a girl can plan. Even if it takes time…if you crave it, then you can create it.
In last week’s post, I wrote about how I participated in a coding boot camp because I am interested in tech. Chickens, farm life, nature…and tech. They don’t really go together, right?
Right, but…the creativity and problem-solving skills that a good engineer possesses are more interesting to me than the kind of problem-solving that matchmaking, or anything else I currently do on a computer, offers.
Healing modalities, coaching, education — these areas have nothing to do with tech, but tech can be harnessed to reach people in beneficial, large-scale, wildfire-fast ways.
I’m not not not a techie, though. At heart, I think there is nothing better than a simple life spent far away from WiFi waves. A life spent connecting with those in our presence — people, animals, even trees.
This blue-light culture, these EMFs permeating our tissues, this obsession with browsing, our tendency to spend hours with our noses in the phone — this is all taming us. We are living like zoo animals, becoming so bland, forgetting our wild natures.
Maybe that’s why the plains of Mongolia seem so attractive to me. Maybe that’s why I love spending most of my mornings in Los Angeles on a signal-free ranch in the mountains bordering the city. Maybe that’s why — my cell phone useless — this time spent just connecting with the other riders, the horses, the goats, and my own self feels so precious.
Maybe that’s why nomadic life, an existence based off the land, and the ways of native Americans seem so intriguing…in a way the life of a Google employee does not.
And chickens fit somewhere into this picture, I think. I don’t have experience with them aside from one month — November ‘17 — I spent in the fields of France. All I did with them was open the coop in the morning, feed them, collect eggs, and shut their coop at night. But there’s something quite pleasant and simple about them.
So I found someone who teaches people how to raise chickens as pets.
Fiona says that she started keeping chickens as pets six years ago, after her daughter’s preschool class hatched eggs. The teacher, with her young students, raised the baby chicks in an incubator, and Fiona offered to care for three of those chickens thereafter. Princess is one of those original three.
As Fiona tells me of her history with chickens, one of the babies, Edelweiss, strays from the other young chickens. Fiona swoops her up. Edelweiss squawks about, clearly unhappy with this turn of events. As Fiona soothes her, she finally settles. She is a Blue Splash Maran, and she’ll eventually lay chocolate-colored eggs.
Fiona asks if I want to hold her. I’ve never held a chicken! I say yes, though — I’m here to learn about them, after all. She tells me that the most important thing is to support the chicken from underneath.
Nothing like an unsupported chicken.
In the transfer of arms, Edelweiss gets clucky. But Fiona helps me fold her wings comfortably and position my arms in a chicken-friendly way. Edelweiss settles. After holding her for a while, I realise that chickens can actually be cuddly.
As I’m bonding with Edelweiss, Sugar struts by. She looks a mess. Because she’s molting, which means shedding, she leaves a trail of white feathers in her wake. Parts of her body are featherless, which makes it look like she’s been attacked by the family dog.
And although she’s not hurt, Fiona tells me that she has been attacked in the past. She’s the one the dog, who is a different kind of chicken enthusiast, goes after the most. Maybe because she’s the brightest (feather-wise, not intelligence-wise…as much as I like chickens, none of them seem particularly smart). The chickens are usually secure in the coop when the dog is out, but once Sugar had a near-fatal encounter.
“But it’s amazing what they can come back from,” Fiona says.
Dogs are not the bird’s only predators: racoons, possums, snakes, hawks, and coyotes will happily seek them out. Once, when Fiona’s family went out of town, she hired two separate caregivers: one to let the chickens out in the morning, and one to shut them in at night. The evening sitter didn’t come one day, and a coyote hopped two six-foot fences overnight to get in the backyard. She lost two of her chickens.
I let Edelweiss down, and after socialising with the chickens a little more, Fiona and I sit down at a garden table. She then answers all my chicken-related questions. Here are five tidbits (I almost used ‘nuggets’ — WRONG WORD!) of tantalising information:
Chickens won’t roam far, so it’s fine to keep them in a fenceless area, but a fenced chicken run will keep predators out
When looking for a chicken, top considerations include: heat-resistance, cold-tolerance, and egg-laying frequency
When a chicken has laid enough legs, she’ll lay down on them until they hatch — when she adopts this behavior she is called a ‘broody hen’
Wild chickens normally roost in a tree for the night, which is why a good coop has tiered rungs
If a rooster is around, consider all eggs fertilised
After talking for a while, it’s time for another chicken encounter. Fiona goes inside the house to grab a bag of tiny dried worms. The catnip of chicken food, the holy grail for chickens.
With a shake of the bag, Sugar comes running over. She arrives before the dried worms even hit the ground. She has been tricked, though: after several pecks, Fiona picks her up and hands her hands her to me.
Sugar squawks like no other. Her naked patches look quite unbecoming from a closer perspective. There is a breed of chickens called Naked Necks — this type of chicken has no feathers on its neck — and Sugar looks like she’s morphing into one of that breed. But what she lacks in feathers (for now), she makes up in spunk.
Besides having a spicy personality, she has such a huge come (the floppy thing on top of the head) and waddle (the floppy thing on the bottom of the head), that Fiona thought she was a rooster at first.
Sugar lays white eggs. Different breeds lay different-colored eggs — the two baby Salmon Faverolles will lay greenish eggs when their time comes. On her show, Martha Stewart popularised the bright blue eggs of the Ameraucana chickens, which are reportedly now very rare and expensive.
While I’m holding Sugar, we watch the babies peck around together. Fiona tells me the names of two others she’s named in the past few weeks. One pair doesn’t yet have names, and I make a put in a lot of effort to bite my tongue in suggesting Gretchen and Greta.
They look like such a Gretchen and Greta. But alas, these can be the names of my own chickens, one day.
I let Sugar down and she makes a dash for it, neglecting the rest of the dried worms on the ground. Not worth it.
She returns to Princess and Pepper, her friends. I’ve noticed that the six babies and three elders ignore each other, each sticking to their own clan. Even though chickens may not like — and may kill — other chickens, especially if they’re weaker or wounded, they tend to stick to at least one or two others. Like us.
Ten minutes later, I leave feeling chicken-educated.
I go home and start looking up things that Fiona told me about, especially breeds, coops, and if adopting a chicken is a thing.
It seems that people get intense about chicken breeds: Silkies, a fluffy breed, look to me like the Pomeranians of chickens, while elegant Sumatra chickens have long, long tails. Some breeds are known for their friendliness and cuddle-ability, like the Brahma chicken. Others are sought after for their frequent egg-laying.
People also get intense about building coops: castles, cottages, and UFOs are all inspirations for the creative of the chicken-folk. These coops have equally fancy names: Cluckingham Palace, Coop Mahal, and Waldorf Eggstoria are such examples.
And adoption: yes, there are chickens up for adoption.
Maybe being a chicken mom is in my cards. There are pieces of my life that already make settling look more attractive than it once was, and now chickens minorly add to this sentiment. In the meantime, my mom is moving to rural Utah in early 2019, and, for selfish reasons, I am trying to convince her that a chicken coop is a good idea.
I know that having chickens isn’t necessarily synonymous with a simple life — as with any animal, they can feel like an added responsibility and can bring stress. However, there is still something about being near (most) animals that softens the burden of living in this world.
They’re so present, so fully there — even if they’re stupid — that their very being offers a reminder to slow down and find meaning in the smaller joys of life...like the sound of a cluck. Or in Sugar’s case, a squawk.