Friends come in many shapes and sizes, and mine don feathers, scales, and rosy mohawks.
My first experience with chickens came to me in a story my mother often told about having a small flock when I was an infant, and coming within inches of the sharp spurs of a baby-hating leghorn rooster. Ever since hearing this story, I felt obligated to cultivate feathery friendship — rooster talons and all.
I began reading up on chicken health a few years ago, and outfitted a small outbuilding in our backyard as a chicken coop. This required some time and sweat because you really have to ensure their home is predator-proof. Part of this entailed digging down a trench to pound posts into, and submerging wire fence about six inches below the ground to deter wild animals with a penchant for digging up a Chicken McSandwich. I filled in the trenches with dirt and a layer of gravel for extra support. On the inside of the coop, I lay hay and pine shavings down on the floor, and my husband built and hung up a long roosting perch and a row of laying boxes. Our coop was a veritable chickie Taj Mahal, complete with a “Home is Where the Heart is” needlepoint with hens on it I scored at a yard sale. Little did they know they were moving into the hippest block in town.
We had put our order in for hens with a local farm in the fall, and in late spring, got a call that they were ready for pickup. We rolled up to the farm with a big dog crate in the back seat of my Toyota. The farmer greeted us with a mumble and we walked into a long dusty coop with pine shavings and feathers flying. He selected four gals, picked them up by their legs in one felt swoop, and popped them into the crate, commotion-free. He gave us a hand-written receipt, a semi-toothed grin, said “good luck,” and we drove off with four hens, feeling proud and agricultural (we could tell our hens felt the same way — how could they not?)
We set our four Rhode Island Reds in their new, pristine home, and watched them take in their surroundings. They stood frozen in place, but after a few minutes, signaled their appreciation by pooping everywhere. As dusk fell, they intuitively moseyed into their home, flew up on their perch, and began to coo themselves to sleep (a true sound phenomenon — like robots computing underwater). We closed the door, and said goodnight.
The next day, we opened the door and let them check out the yard, scratch around in the grass, and look for bugs. Satisfied with their contentedness, we headed out for a bike ride, then on to do our Sunday shopping. We got back around dusk and discovered that there were only two hens on the perch. We waited until it got completely dark, but still no sign of the others. “Uh oh,” we said, realizing we had just been given our first farm death lesson.
Turns out, aside from land predators, chickens are also viewed as tasty snacks from the sky! Feeling bad for our lonely gals, we trolled Craigslist for replacement pals and the following day, united them with 12 ladies of varying breeds, as well as a gigantic Rhode Island Rooster named Ben with four-inch spurs which the nice fellow we met gave us for free! I beamed at him on the car ride home, sending him this mental message: You and me, buddy, we will be best friends — BEST FRIENDS!!!!!!
I got my wish. Not only did we become best friends, he became the iconic hero of our backyard. Turns out, roosters are excellent guards against predators, and make a specific trill to alert the hens when danger is near. When we let them out to roam the yard the next day, Ben made the trilling sound and all the hens ran for cover, hiding under the bushes. Sure enough, we looked up and saw a huge hawk coasting over the trees, looking down with tasty snacks on his mind. This is not even half of the reason why roosters (and Ben in particular) are heroes! They will also fight a predator, risking their own life, for the sake of the flock! A few times, we witnessed Ben fight hawks mid-attack, jabbing at them with his giant spikes! Another time, we saw him and a fox re-enact the famous knife fight scene in Michael Jackson’s hit song Beat It! The fox ran off, and Ben got away, un-scathed!
Beat it, street predator!
Though Ben was the champ by far, the more I spent time with my hens, the more I got to see their personalities come out — and they really all do have unique personalities. Because of this, I’ve given up eating chicken, and every hen we have has a name. I help them find bugs and worms under logs, and they in turn lay delicious, healthy, nutritious eggs (some of which they keep, and hatch into chicks!)
Hens lay regularly for the first few years of their life. As they get older, they lay less frequently. The time of year also determines their laying frequency, and they lay the most in spring and summertime, and lay very few eggs in the wintertime (which makes sense as you need warmer conditions for chicks if they were to hatch so they’d keep warm).
When it is chick-hatching season, hens will start to collect a “clutch” of eggs (a quantity of eggs — sometimes as many as 15!), which they’ll then begin to sit on for 21 days. Hens keep the eggs at a constant temperature (98-100 degrees) and humidity (45-65 percent), and use their beaks and feet to turn over their eggs a few times a day. After a mere 21-days, fuzzy, cutsie, peeper cheepers are born!
Why are chickens awesome?
1. They provide food, friendship, and create adorable fuzzballs offspring.
2. They turn your food scraps into more food! (Jimmy, if you don’t want to finish your Brussels sprouts, it’s not a big deal anymore!)
3. They are easy to keep, and require little more than food, water, a space to roam, and a clean space to roost and next.
4. They are miniature dinosaurs.
5. This Guy:
Less hawk, more mohawk.