Sunday, October 1, 2017

At Casa Malpollos: Chickens, of course

When I was a child, my father bought several unusual chickens, among them Turkens (Naked Necks) and Frizzles. There were others, but these are the ones I remember the most because they were so unusual,  so unlike the white Leghorns that my dad's mother, Margaret Cole Dugat, raised for meat and for eggs. Daddy wanted us to experience these unusual chicken breeds, and I credit, to some extent, a tendency to delight in the exotic and different to that early childhood experience of watching these chickens peck around the yard on our 8 acres of family land in Old River, Texas. Our home place had been carved out of woodland that was passed down through several generations and was situated on a hill across an oyster shell-covered road from my dad's parents' home and his birthplace. I and my siblings ran around barefoot all summer long, and as sharp as oyster shells can be, they did not penetrate the tough soles of our hardened feet.

These days, though I walk around bare-footed or sock-footed in my house all day when I am home, I can't walk barefoot onto the gravel-covered backyard that we now own without wincing and pussy-footing just as my cats do. The cats are smarter; they walk on the gravel for the minimal amount of time it takes to get to a smoother surface, such as the railroad ties that border the gravel surface or the larger rocks in the faux stream bed that winds through the back yard. 

As soon as Tom and I had a big enough place on which to raise chickens, I ordered a full run of chicks, choosing a mix of Silver-laced Wyandottes and Ameraucanas. This was the  late 1980s and early 1990s when we rented a small house on a large ranch in Bryan, Texas. The chickens, when grown, roosted in a small wooden henhouse that Tom built on posts. They ran free on the ranch during the day. Because I had ordered a straight run of twenty-one chicks, we had no way of knowing the ratio of hens to roosters until the chickens got old enough to begin demonstrating male or female behavior. There were eleven roosters in that run, and they gave the hens hell until we put all but one rooster in the freezer.

When we moved from Bryan, Texas, to Cloquet, Minnesota, we gave the remaining chickens to the young couple who rented the house after we did. We didn't have chickens again--Ameraucanas--until after we moved to Georgia in 1996. Of that batch of chickens, I chose to keep the prettiest rooster, who also turned out to be the meanest. Our daughter hated that rooster. It met an untimely death when it attacked Tom one day as he was carrying a large flat of tomato seedlings to the garden to be planted. 
the mean rooster in our backyard in Georgia
These days, however, Tom is a quasi-vegetarian (avoids meat except fish and crawfish and eats dairy products such as milk, eggs, and cheese) and I am a flexitarian in that I occasionally eat meat, so we are most interested in having laying hens. We had inherited some chickens from the previous owners of this house: one met death by hawk, two died of illnesses, and the roosters ended up being stewed with dumplings. Nine hens now roost in the henhouse: three from the previous flock and six Silver-Laced Wyandottes that we purchased as days-old chicks from a local feed store. The three old hens are a white Leghorn, a black hen that may be an Australorpe, and a red hen that could be a Rhode Island Red. They are almost past their laying years, with the red hen and the white Leghorn still laying eggs but the black hen not.

After a little bantam hen of the original flock was killed by a hawk one evening last fall, we hadn't let the hens out to free forage for almost a year. To make sure they don't become supper for some predator, we have to remain outside to watch them if we let them out of their covered chicken run. However, I like for chickens to have some freedom of the yard, and I was just waiting for the Wyandottes to get older and for me to find the time to sit in the yard to watch while they roamed. I found that time one day last week.

I placed a patio chair under a large juniper tree in the backyard and opened the chicken yard gate. No sooner had I returned to the chair to sit than a small hawk flew into the tree, landing on a branch right over my head. "Oh, no you don't," I screamed and startled the hawk. It flew away, and I moved my chair next to the chicken yard to keep a closer watch on the hens as they ventured out. 

A closer encounter between hens and possible predator occurred later when our cat Persephone (Persey) approached me, mewing for her evening meal. But neither of our cats seems interested in the chickens for food. Cassie is so cautious around them as to seem fearful at times. Persey's first encounter with the young hens outside the hen yard was almost anti-climactic, with the hens showing more interest in her than she in them. 
One of the Wyandottes checks out Persey
Persey seems to be avoiding a direct encounter with the hen.
More hens wander over to investigate.
Some kind of confab seems to be going on.
Eye contact is made and perhaps some secret deal struck between them all.
The meeting is over. Persey is outnumbered and outweighed.
Cassie watches more cautiously from a place in hiding.
I don't really view my chickens as pets, but I am fond of them. I feed them seeds that I have gathered from the stalks of cowpen daisies that bloomed wildly in the back yard in late summer, vegetable matter left over from chopping veggies for dinner, and greens that are going to seed in my kitchen garden. The hens hear my shoes grating on the gravel as I walk to the pen, and they come running, suspecting that I am bringing them something tastier than the gray laying pellets that fill their feeders. I have seen too many chickens slaughtered, have plucked feathers still warm from the hot water into which the limp, dead bodies have been plunged, to be any more than an enemy at truce. 

But even enemies can develop a cautious affection in the right circumstances. I watch these birds that are distantly related to dinosaurs and realize we are all evolving.

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