The Chicken Chronicles, Part 1
As a typical modern American, raising chickens seemed a throw-back to the olden days, kind of like smoking your own hams or pounding your clothes on rocks down by the river. Still, it was my fantasy. I was already an avid, ecology-minded gardener, for three whole years, and it seemed the natural progression of things, going from cultivating plants to raising the animals that could provide their fertilizer. Ah, and what a picturesque fantasy! Chicken manure for the garden, fresh eggs, a sweet little hen house with Martha Stewart charm in my very own urban backyard. It all began to be realized when I became friends with an elderly neighbor lady who raised bantam, or miniature breed, chickens. If she could do it, surely I could.
That winter Grandma Ruby and I hatched a plot. Ruby had two contraband roosters and four hens, and we decided that come spring, when her hens “went broody” and began to “set” (got it in their heads they wanted to become mamas and began to stay on a nest of fertilized eggs) we’d pull a switcheroo. I’d transport the maternal chicken to a shed my husband Andy and I would convert into a hen house, along with a rooster for companionship, and then, in twenty-one short days, Voila!, we’d have adorable, peeping, baby chicks running about. Perfect rustic bliss.
Late spring came and our plan went into action. One evening at dusk, I transported the chickens, in bushel baskets covered with worn bath towels, from Ruby’s house to their recently renovated home. The chicken shack, as I called it, was clean, freshly painted, and nicely scented with pine shaving litter strewn on the newly-poured concrete floor. Around the front, Andy had built a sturdy four-foot-tall wood and wire fence around a small yard. Inside hung an old broomstick for a roost, and a row of three covered nesting boxes. A straw-filled box for the broody hen sat on the floor.
I gently placed the hen’s toasty-warm eggs into the box. Then the birds, already named Deianeira and Hercules by our daughter, seven-year-old Zora, were released. They were handsome chickens, about one-fourth the size of regular ones, with cream-colored heads and golden bodies. Zora and her four-year-old sister Lily watched.
The Lilliputian rooster with long, curved tail feathers strutted his stuff, surveying his surroundings with a quick eye and elegant arrogance that could only come from a genuine cock-of-the-walk.
“He’s a good-looking little guy, isn’t he?” said Andy, smiling. I found this to be encouraging as he had not been thrilled with the scheme. To be honest, he often, though not coming out and actually saying it, left me with the feeling that he thought my idea was ill-conceived at the least and crazy at the most.
The hen, not in a cheerful mood about her abduction and relocation, ignored the egg-filled nest on the floor and flew to one of the wall boxes. That’s okay, I thought, I’ll just put the eggs under her there for now and then move her down to the floor when they’re closer to hatching. Deianeira pecked at me as I tried to gingerly slide the eggs under her. She then let out a screech of a curse and moved in a huff to an adjacent box. I understood perfectly: “I don’t know who you are, but I don’t like you!” After I filled the nest with her eggs she decided she’d get back on them after all. I felt a small cluck of triumph as we closed the door on the coop for the night.
The first dilemma came the next morning. Aware that we were harboring a rooster, I spent most of the night anxious, worrying about the racket he’d make in the morning. Sunrise crowing was not a city value, hence the five hen limit. My husband and I awoke at dawn and looked at each other. Silence. Great, I whispered, maybe he isn’t going to crow at all! Ten minutes later, at exactly 5:20 A.M., Hercules began to announce the day. Now I didn’t know if all bantams sounded like this, but this guy’s crow was scratchy, hoarse, horrible, like someone with laryngitis, “UR…UR…. UR….UR.. Uurrrrr….” It started out strong, then deteriorated to a deathbed gasp. Not like the movies. I closed my eyes. It’s so loud! I thought. Maybe that’ll be it, though.
Andy and I hunkered down in the sheets and listened. Hercules didn’t stop, he sounded the dawn alarm every few minutes, and every time I cringed. We didn’t know what could be done about it (besides murder) so after lying there awhile, wondering if and when it would ever stop, we got up. I made coffee and waited for the neighbors to come over and string us up. So this was what mornings on the farm were like. “I didn’t know it would be so bad,” I said to Andy as I sipped my coffee, wincing at yet another cock-a-doodle-doo.
“I’m telling the neighbors it was your idea and I didn’t have anything to do with it,” replied my chivalrous mate. While we were both newly horrified every few minutes when we heard another fingernails-on-chalkboard salute, after a while we found ourselves grinning sort of perversely at each other at the wickedness we were up to.
Of course I’d decided at 5:20 A.M. that Hercules was history, but I had to wait before sneaking him back to Grandma Ruby’s. We agreed I could bring him back, even though she said her neighbors actually liked hearing the roosters. I wondered at that now. A couple of hours later, after chasing the rooster around trying to catch him, while Andy watched, laughing, and having the little guy get a small wound on his comb in the process (the rooster, that is), I finally cornered him, threw a towel over him, and put him in Ruby’s basket.
I returned to Grandma Ruby’s with the basket on my hip and a guilty heart that I had not only chickened out on keeping the rooster, but had injured the beautiful, obnoxious bird. Ruby only assured me he’d be okay, asked how the hen was doing (fine, still on her nest), and graciously took him back.
Back at home, we commenced waiting for the eggs to hatch. During this time I tried to make friends with the hen. Several times a day I came in meekly, speaking in a soft and friendly tone, practically prostrating myself before the Queen of Eggs. I brought her the mixture of corn, millet and other grains that they sell as scratch, plus a few treats, usually chopped up apples or greens. I tried to pet her. Every single time I came near she gave off outraged chicken vibes and pecked at my hand. She belonged to Grandma Ruby, no one else. She never left the nest in my presence. I never saw her eat. Only once I witnessed her off the nest. I heard the frantic, “BAUK! BAUK! BAUK! BAUWWK!” and raced outside to her rescue. There she was, running around the fenced area, still “bawking,” feathers ruffled. I couldn’t find the source of her terror, and my appearance didn’t calm her any. After a few minutes I shut her back in the coop to quiet her. I worried that she might not return to the nest, but she did.
After twenty-two days, Ruby and I became concerned about the unhappy, solitary (crazed, in my opinion) hen—that she’d spend all that time on her great task, and, as Ruby put it, “not have any babies.” It was becoming clear that it would probably not happen. A few days before, I moved her nest to the floor in preparation for the big event. She became more furious than I imagined possible. She raised her hackles (all the feathers down her neck) and actually looked like a cobra. She began pecking at me vigorously, defending her eggs, and in the process broke one of them. There was no chick in it—just the shrunken, jelled remains of what once had been. I was surprised it didn’t smell bad. The next day, I noticed an egg I accidentally left in the wall box when moving the clutch. I took it outside, nervously opened it, and found it too was empty. Both the hen and I were depressed. She’d failed as a mama and I’d failed as a chicken raiser.
The next day I called a feed store just south of our city. Now nearly July, I felt my time had been invested and I was determined to get chicks–one way or another. I inquired about ordering a couple of day-old bantam Silkies as a back-up plan, in case the hatching did not occur. The feed store lady lent a sympathetic ear as I bemoaned my situation and said she’d call me back with a due date on ordering.
Three days later the phone rang. “Your Silkies are in,” she said.