The Chicken Chronicles, Part 2

I caught my breath. “Oh, I didn’t actually order them–I was just asking.” Suddenly everything was happening too fast.

“I placed an order later that day and added a couple of Silkies, in case your eggs didn’t hatch. It’s okay if you don’t want them, someone else will.”

“Wait,” I said, suddenly all aflutter, “I do want them. I’ll be down in a couple of hours.”

My daughters, patiently expecting along with me all this time, were as happy as I was–we were finally going to get chicks! The week before I had shown them a picture of Silkies. They are not your average looking chicken. Originating from the Far East, they were first mentioned by the Italian explorer Marco Polo when he wrote about them during his travels to China in the thirteenth century. Silkies are chickens whose feathers look like fur. You’ve heard of big hair, they have big “fur.” A sister-in-law calls them hippie chickens, but they look more like glam rock to me, the Ziggy Stardusts of chickens. They look this way because normal feathers have barbules along the barbs (the individual branches off a feather) that hold the barbs together, sort of like velcro. Silkies lack these so their barbs go out in all directions, giving the fur effect. So they’re very fluffy, from their feet to their topknots, the feathers atop their heads. They come in black, white, and buff, have unique black-toned skin, and five toes, instead of the usual four. I thought they were very cool. Zora and Lily did not. When I asked if they’d like to have that type of chicken, they exclaimed in unison, “No! Those chickens look weird!” This burst my bubble, temporarily. Later, when I told my mom about their reaction, she said, “Don’t worry. When they see them, they’ll like them. Trust me.”

Once at the warehouse-sized feed store, we were directed to the back where a big stainless steel horse trough held a couple hundred active, peeping chicks. A cornucopia of fluff danced before us–black chicks, white chicks, black and white, black and yellow, yellow, yellow with brown markings. There were bantams, about the size of a fifty-cent piece, and regular sized chicks more than twice that big.

Baby chick acquisition greed swept over me. I quickly rationalized that since we were already there and the chicks cost less than three dollars apiece, it would be ridiculous to leave with just two. I asked the feed store lady if there were “extras.”

Zora, who always astonishes me with her innate sense of style that I know does not come from my side of the family, nor from her father’s as far as I can tell,  fell in love at once with two big yellow chicks with brown speckles and stripes. They were full-size Araucanas. Araucanas are a South American breed that used to be advertised in the backs of old issues of Organic Gardening as the “Layers of Colored Easter Eggs.” Martha Stewart raises them for their elegant turquoise blue- and green-shelled eggs. They are chic chicks. We were both disappointed to learn they were spoken for.

We decided to concentrate on bantams. The feed store owner scooped up my two white Silkies, who looked like fluffy white ordinary chicks except for their darker skin, and placed them in a small ventilated cardboard box. After some discussion, we settled on four more—two white and black chicks she called Golden Sebrights, a little black one with a yellow belly, and a yellow one that looked just like the kind you see in all the storybooks, except it had down-covered feet. With the latter two I forgot to ask the breed, and as bantams are too small to “sex” we didn’t know how many would turn out to be hens and how many cockalorums.

On the drive home I felt giddy. The girls were too and it came out in continual arguing over whose turn it was to hold the box. “Please be careful!” I pleaded repeatedly, my eyes darting to the rear view mirror. Amid the mania, I silently hoped that the mother hen would accept them so I wouldn’t have to take care of them.

At home again we went to the girl’s playroom, formerly a small sleeping porch on the back of the house. A cardboard box with a sixty watt light clamped onto one side for heat would be the chicks’ temporary home. We gave them food and water. Since I read it was best to wait until dusk to try to sneak them under the hen, we had a few more hours to enjoy them. Over this time we played hostesses to everyone we could find who might be interested in seeing them—our next door neighbors, the eleven-year-olds playing across the street, and a classmate of Zora’s and her mother who happened by walking their dog. I figured if the hen accepted them we wouldn’t be allowed close contact, so we indulged to the fullest.

At dusk I cuddled a Sebright chick next to me and took it into the hen house. The hen eyed me with her usual dislike. As I nervously slipped the fully alert chick under her she reacted immediately. But it was not with innate love towards a new life. Instead she turned and began pecking vigorously at the chick—at its head. I screamed in horror and grabbed him. She screamed. We screamed in unison. For several seconds, chaos reigned in the darkened coop. The whole scene would have been highly comical if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.

The next day Grandma Ruby told me I should have taken some of her eggs away first, but by then it was too late. There was no way I’d try again and risk getting one of the chicks killed. I’d already decided to raise them myself and she could hatch hers, if she had any, and we’d deal with it that way. After a few more days, though, I felt certain it wasn’t going to happen with the hen. After telling Ruby I thought it best to bring her back, that I was pretty sure the eggs were not going to hatch, she agreed and asked me to first put them into a pan full of water to make sure. If they floated there were no chicks. They all floated.

With a heavy heart I returned the hen to Ruby. She had wanted me to keep her, as a gift, as a sort of living bond between the two of us in our mutual hobby. She wanted to share with us the sight of a mother hen being trailed by a group of rowdy little peepers. “I don’t know why I like chickens so much,” she’d declared on several occasions. Once she confided that her husband, who passed away seventeen years earlier, didn’t share her fondness, and never wanted her to raise chickens. “After he died,” she said, a determined expression settling over her beautifully wizened face, “one of the first things I did was buy some chickens.”

* * *

The girls named the chicks within the first hour of their arrival–the Sebrights became Jessica and Suzie, the silkies Jane and Zelda, the little black one Julianna, and the yellow chick, Kayley. “Great names for roosters,” I said. We wouldn’t know their actual gender for about six weeks, when the males were supposed to begin their first attempts at cock-a-doodle-doo-ing.

I admit that at first I was just a teensy bit anxious taking care of the babies. The temperature in the box had to be regulated–about ninety-five degrees the first week, dropping about five degrees weekly for about a month until they feathered out. I monitored the temperature daily, and fussed with the position of the light each time I entered the room, which was often. I checked on them twice each night before I went to bed. I worried whether they’d have retina damage due to the constant illumination. I read about baby chick diseases and learned about something called “pasting up,” a condition in which runny droppings get stuck to their bottoms, causing elimination problems. So with a bit of tissue I pulled dried baby chick poop off their butts. I can’t believe I’m wiping chicken’s asses! I thought. I had metamorphosed into their mother.

Peeking into the room during the day, I continually spied Lily with little black Julianna in her small, chubby hands. “Put that chick down and go wash your hands!” I said over and over. They had a lot of leeway to play with them, but with no admonishments they would undoubtedly try to take them into the bath with them. Already I caught them putting them in the doll house cars (they said the chicks looked out the windows), the doll house motorcycle, and in and on top of the doll house. They asked if they could take them out to the swing set. My biggest fear was that one of the chicks would accidentally be killed, ruining the whole experience and no doubt creating fodder for adult therapy sessions.

Soon Zora and I began digging worms for their breakfast. We all gathered around the box and one of us would dangle a wiggler until a chick grabbed it ran around the box–the others peeping excitedly in hot pursuit. Zora gave them voices. “No, Julianna, you can’t have it,” she’d have Suzie say, “It’s my worm, it’s mine! It’s mine!” The girls, laughing uncontrollably, squealed as the chicks raced round and round. Zora exclaimed protectively when her favorite chick got a worm and the others tried to take it away. “Stay away! It’s Kayley’s! No!” She’d block the others off with her hands and I’d say “Don’t!” We’d all gross out when one would have a long worm almost swallowed and another would pull on what was still hanging out of its mouth.

Then we discovered we could buy live crickets at the pet store. We’d buy a dozen or two at a time and dump the contents of the plastic bags into the box. The chicks would be on them with lightning speed. I recalled reading somewhere that the skeletal structure of chickens was very much like some of the meat-eating dinosaurs, and it wasn’t hard to imagine little Velociraptors lurking under the fluff. The girls and I, accused of being bloodthirsty in our enthusiasm by Andy, knew we were just doing what any good mother hens would do.

They grew rapidly. Like Grandma Ruby said, it was almost like watching popcorn. Halfway through third week the Sebrights sported fully feathered wings, Kayley had a tiny comb and a few snow-white wing and leg feathers, Julianna had black tail feathers, distinct but tiny, sticking straight up, and the Silkies’ down was even fluffier, especially on their large blackish-grey feet. When I found one of the Sebrights perched up on top of the box one morning, I knew it was time to take them to their outdoor home.

At first I kept a light on near one corner of the chicken shack because summer nights are chilly in Colorado and the chicks were not totally feathered out. As in their box indoors, they piled up to sleep, snuggling under the light. Within a couple of days, however, Julianna and one of the Sebrights started to roost away from the crowd. One night, after a couple of weeks, I turned the light off. The terrified peeping that ensued alarmed me. I then realized how tenaciously they clung to the warmth- and light-giving bulb. They would have to be weaned from Mother Illumination. I first lowered the wattage to forty for a few days, and then I actually made a trip to the grocery store and spent over three dollars on a twelve-watt nightlight bulb for chickens who were afraid of the dark.

They were spoiled in so many ways. We brought them table scraps and other treats on a daily basis and found out their absolute favorite (non-living) foods were corn on the cob, cantaloupe, and homemade split pea soup. They grabbed bits of ham from the soup and ran around covetously like they had with the crickets and worms. The girls and I began catching grasshoppers for them and discovered there were five different species living in our backyard. I showed them how to distinguish grasshoppers in the nymph and adult (with wings) stages.

We checked out books on chickens and found out our Sebrights were not Golden, but Silver. According to the illustration, almost every feather on their bodies, wings and tails would become a bright white, edged completely around in gloss black. The body shape would become sleek, like other birds, not rounded like most poultry breeds. The homeliest of the chicks, as they matured their slight builds and distinctly patterned feathering began to take on an elegant, even aristocratic, appearance. We learned they were a breed developed over thirty-some years by Sir John Sebright of England in the early 1800’s. The birds were remarkable in the poultry world for the fact that the male and female had the same feathering, shape, and coloring. However, we soon noticed that one of them was definitely growing a more pronounced comb and wattles–we had one of each sex.

Right from the beginning with the Silkies, Jane (my personal darling) was bigger than Zelda. But it was three months before there was enough distinction in his wattles and comb to declare Jane a John since Silkies also have near-identical plumage. The breed is prized for its gentleness and broodiness, and the hens are often used commercially to hatch eggs, especially pheasant eggs. In my reading I learned that broodiness, the desire to set on a clutch of eggs, to become a mother, had almost been bred out of many modern breeds of fowl.

Lily’s Julianna, with “her” tail feathers growing more pronounced every day (Grandma Ruby’s own foolproof way of determining a male), was also a he. Julianna was a Black Rosecomb, a breed named for their unique combs. It lies low on their heads, is square in front, terminates to a pointed spike at the back, and is covered with small bumps. Julianna’s comb and wattles were vivid red, and he sported white disk-shaped “ear- lobes,” part of the rooster’s dangly parts, as I called them, below the ear holes. His earlobes were perfectly round, enamel white, and added a jaunty, pirate-like air to his already cocky countenance. With lustrous green-black feathers, including long, arching tail feathers, he was handsome, and knew it. He was the first to crow. Lily renamed him Garrett.

Zora’s bird also turned out to be a cockerel, though she remained in denial for a long time. As snow-white feathers on his rounded body and large orange feet began to replace the down, we soon I.D.’d him as a Cochin, of the bantam variety once known as Pekin. We read that Cochin chickens, originating from China, were the cause of an episode of “poultry-mania” in England in 1845. Presented as gifts to Queen Victoria from that exotic land, the public was quite taken with the breed’s beauty, size, and gentle nature. Nearly overnight many Victorian yuppies longed to own one, and before the mania died down, some paid up to the equivalent of more than an average worker’s yearly pay for a single “Shanghai Fowl.” Kayley, like the description, was sweet-tempered and could be scooped up without fuss by simply bending over and sliding a hand or two under his soft breast. When he began to crow his voice was deep and unobtrusive, but also somewhat fit the (obviously exaggerated) description of Queen Victoria’s birds who were said to “roar like lions.”

So we ended up with only two hens and four cocks. Although their crowing was not yet a problem, we knew we probably wouldn’t be able to keep the males, though I told the girls we would for as long as possible. As the days passed, though, I began to hope that maybe we would be able to keep them until next spring and try for chicks again–Sebright and Silkies, and maybe a few hybrids. I was amazed to find out that most of our neighbors had been totally oblivious to the “Morn of Grandma Ruby’s Rooster.” I let them know what we were up to and asked them to tell me if the roosters became a nuisance.

For about six weeks we basked in perfect poultry happiness. Then one morning when I went to feed them, I found a cat crouched on one of the fence posts of the chicken yard. The birds were huddled in a corner, terrified. I shooed the cat and counted them–one was missing. My heart raced as I frantically searched the backyard. Nothing. I searched the alley, thinking that perhaps the cat took one over via the tree she came across. Still nothing. Zora came out and I calmly told her what happened, and that the female Sebright was gone. We looked some more and as I neared the girls’ inflatable three-foot-deep swimming pool I spotted her–floating, wings spread wide, eyes closed, her graceful neck resting motionless on top of the water. In a low voice I said, “Oh, Zora. I found her.” Zora came over and we stood there, looking, fighting back tears. I went into the house to find something to pick her up with and Lily followed me out. It then occurred to me there was no reason I should be squeamish to touch her–I knewher. I lifted her out and placed her tenderly on the paper towel. The girls petted her. There were no signs of injury. Apparently the cat had frightened her into flying over the four-foot fence and into the pool.

*     *     *     *     *

We buried the Sebright near a semi-circle of small Siberian Elms the girls used for their outdoor “castle” area. I gathered smooth, pretty rocks to cover the grave and Zora found a red and white plastic Fisher Price farm set chicken to perch on top. A few minutes she added part of a small, broken crystal sphere from the kitchen windowsill collection of odds and ends.

“I got this because Jessica liked shiny things,” she explained. We gathered around the grave on our knees and I said a few words about Jessica’s sweetness and goodness, how we all loved her and would miss her very much. Privately, I also felt disappointment at losing our male Sebright’s mate and fully half our hen population. There would be no Sebright chicks next spring.

 The Chicken Chronicles, Part III –>

<–The Chicken Chronicles, Part I