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Marking a significant day

Let us  pause for a moment, May 4th, International Chicken Appreciation Day, and give thanks to chickens.

I, for one, definitely appreciate chickens. In fact, I love them. Chickens are the most comical, cost-efficient,  and entertaining of all the barnyard animals -- not that I know other barnyard animals very well, but I do know chickens.

From 1999 until 2002 we had three free range chickens in our urban backyard in Victoria: Penny, Rita and Lucy. The gals - as we called them - were a nattering, clucking, fussbudgetting hoot.  I could watch them for hours as they bustle-wagged about our yard munching on everything. And Keith and I often did sit and just watch, sometimes with a cup of tea sitting on a lawnchair in the sun, sometimes on a summer evening with a cool tall G&T.Penny, Rita and Lucy eating spaghetti

They were handsome hens. Penny was a lovely salt and pepper Barred Rock. Rita was a deep ginger Rhode Island Red. And Lucy was a coal black ( with blue green shimmers in the light) hydrid, we think with strains of Andalusian. We often asked people to guess: "What is the common link in their names?" And the sharpest would answer in seconds: "Beatles Songs!"

Victoria bylaws, from time immemorial, allow backyard chickens even in the heart of the city,  maximum six, no rooster. In our downtown community of Fairfield small coops are common. Our neighbors down the street, who had a fantastic organic vegetable garden, had a clutch of six and I covetted them for years, especially the daily treasure of warm, freshly laid eggs. 

I was writing from home, obsessed with my organic vegetable garden and I began to feel I must have chickens, too,  as part of the complete organic cycle: hens eat weeds and garden pests, poop in soil, guano fertilizes soil, soil produces healthy rich veggies ( and weeds),  hens eat weeds, etc.

I designed a tiny coop, with laying box, and a chicken run to occupy an unused, shady side of our house ( about three feet from our west wall and about 9 feet from the next house, the placement of which turned out to be a mistake.) We researched what kit we needed ( heat lamp, watering dish,Designer coop feed tray) and bought the items at farm supplier Borden Mercantile and set up a lovely little home. And then on a spring day in 1999 my two daughters and I went out to the Saanich Christmas Tree farm ( and chicken hatchery)  to get three chicks. We were told we could buy day old, un-sexed chicks for something like $5 each. But if we waited two days for them to be sexed, it was a few dollars more. On account of the rooster ban, I didn't think I would have the heart, or stomach, to kill and eat any males so we paid extra. I never did learn how one could sex those teensy-weensy chicks, but I guess it was simply turning them upside down, peering between their legs to look for something even more teensy-weensy.

We brought home the three cheeping yellow fluffy feather balls in a cardboard box, with towels and a hot water bottle and set them up below a heat lamp in a corner of our dining room and they rapidly grew and took on their distiinctive plummage. Kate, then about 10, and one of those kids who speaks animal, never left the box. Like a mini-Konrad Lorenz, Kate became their imprint and they would stick their little heads in both her armpits and elbow crooks for warmth for hours on end. When they were older, they would follow her around the yard, right at her heels, altering their direction with her moves like wind shifts over a field of grain. It was a highly entertaining show, particularly on a summer night with that G&T. Also amusing was feeding them spaghetti ( they loved all left over pasta.) Two chickens would each pick up an end of a strand and eat towards each other, oblivious, until they knocked beaks in startled surprise. Sidesplitting every time.

Kate aka Konrad cuddling chickensAt three weeks of age we moved them out to the coop with the heat lamp and sometime around the mid summer, when the gals were about 4 months old, the first egg was laid. It was a tiny misshapen, soft, thin-shelled thing -- and we are not sure which one was the first to lay. But the three of them were all so excited and proud of their accomplishment ( and so were we) that it was like we had opened the laying box to discover the Mona Lisa. That marked the beginning of their prolific laying career.  

From then on, almost ever single day, three perfect brown eggs would be awaiting us somewhere around mid-morning. We could always tell when, because the gals would, one after another, make a series of laying screams each one more intense: Bawk, BAWK, BAAAWK! (From the sound I am convinced it hurts a chicken to lay an egg.) And then, when the deed was done, she would chatter so excitedly to the others as if to say: Look what I've done! Look what I've done! Oh my, LOOK WHAT I'Ve Done! She would get out of the box and the next would go for it.

When all the ruckess had settled, there in the box,  still beautifully warm and flawlessly smooth, would be three biological gems of nature. Nothing beats taking it right into the kitchen, craddled in the palm of your hand, for a breakfast omelette or french toast. The yolks were brilliant orange because the gals had the roam of our yard throughout the day, eating grubs, buttercup and chicory and grass and weeds ( and anything, really, that was green and succulent or bug-like.)  At first our daughters refused to eat bright orange french toast and bright orange omelettes but the taste, even to an 8-year-old, was out of this world and worth the startling colour.

Each night, as the sun was setting, the three of them, moving together like synchronized swimmers, would head back to the coop. If we forgot to open the door, we would find them huddled on the roof in the dark, almost purring like cats, waiting to be let in. I found it fascinating that in winter the light-sensitive photo cell of their tiny little brains was set to exactly the same lux as the photo cell in the automatic timer for the Christmas lights. Just as the lights turned on they would be at the coop - the reproduceable precision of xmas lights on/chickens home to roost was scientifically fascinating.

We had to ensure they were locked in at night because the resident racoons would have made short work of them. Dogs were their enemies too. One day, in mid summer, our friend's boisterous golden retreiver, Lewis, came bounding into our yard when the gals were out roaming. Our backdoor was open and in a flash he had chased them up into the house. Kate and Maddy and Chya (Lewis's 8-year-old owner) were screaming. I came into our kitchen to see a blind blur of Lewis chasing Rita and Lucy round and round our main floor kitchen, dining room and living room, feathers flying. Penny was up on the window sill in the front hall squawking her head off and flapping her wings. When we final caught Lewis by the collar and locked him outside on the front porch, we gathered up the chickens in our arms. Their tiny hearts were beating so frantically I feared they might die of fright. But we carried them back gently to the safety of their coop. They survived but didn't lay for a few days. I will never forget, however, the insane sight of the dog and chickens roaring round and round my house. My life, it seemed, had become something out of an Erma Brombeck column.

Make no mistake, chickens are work. We had to clean the coop at least weekly, lay in fresh straw,  feed and water them daily, make sure they were safe at night. But the feeling of self-sufficiency, the closeness to nature, was empowering. We could have gone on happily like this for years except for two things. Lucy was a flyer and she would regularly fly the coop, learning by the third year to exceed our six foot fence. We would have to go around the neighborhood searching for her, asking, "Anyone seen a black chicken?"  Once she got a street over. Kate would have to carry her or lead her home. She regularly did a bee-line for our next-door neighbor's prize garden, eating once a whole swath of his succulent plants. He was not amused and even some lovely fresh eggs did not help. And on the other side, right beside the coop, the noise of their daily cluckings and egg laying screams grated on a new tenant ( the previous one had been raised on a farm and she told us she loved the sounds.) And when rats moved into that big old house, the exterminator pointed across the fence at our coop  and told them: "There's your problem: chickens attract rats because the grain give them a free food source."

We got a note that night in our mail box kindly requesting, for neighbourly relations, the removal of our lovely gals. We didn't want to start a fight and I couldn't imagine eating them for dinner. We arranged a lovely home for them on Salt Spring Island. We tearfully said good bye one day as they were hauled away in cage in a truck. Kate was almost inconsolable. Maddy, a french toast fanatic, mourned not only the loss of her feathered friends but of her favourite breakfast.

We never called to see how they were doing as time went by lest the new owners told us, when the gals no longer layed, that they had been boiled up for some chicken stew. I like to believe they lived out their life in the idyllic surroundings of the rolling farm and died of old age.

One of these days, I swear, I will have chickens again. I loved their simplicity and functionality. They made me very happy. So have a toast to chicken appreciation day. I think I may go home and raise a G&T to Penny, Rita and Lucy and fry an egg.


Posted on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 06:00PM by Registered CommenterAnne | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for this post!
July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterD'Almert

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