Posts Tagged With: chickens

tiny farm notebook

www.lauramgibson.com

Snow’s on its way. I’ve closed up the garden and turned my attention to indoor pursuits. It feels good.

In the last two seasons I’ve learned a few things about tending a tiny farm. It’s a ton of work, for starters, which I knew. But also didn’t. Just as I knew, but also didn’t, how raising a high school senior and keeping a garden bigger than the house would invade writing time.

Still, I’ve managed to harvest some bits of wisdom along the way:

Two roosters fight. Constantly. If you try and give one of your men to a gal pal with more land and a bigger flock, she will lecture you about why you should be made of tougher stuff. Real farmers suck it up. They do what’s necessary.

So, you research what to do.

No one else you know wants, or is allowed to raise, a rooster. If you list your FREE rooster on craigslist, he will be used as cockfighting bait for champion roosters to practice on.

You let your two fellas range in the pasture, hoping nature will decide. The red-tailed hawk that hunts on your land looks hungry for fresh chicken, but the boys are better than you thought at avoiding danger. This is the only activity during which they create an alliance in order to survive.

Weeks pass. Every time you feed the birds, you get assaulted by the big rooster Carson (formerly named Custer), who shows his irritation that you’re near his harem by flying at you sideways with his spurs out.

In the interest of taking care of your own business and being merciful, you have to kill him. Then you explain to your kids how not all living things on our farm are pets.

 Even though this is a lie.

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Bees sometimes swarm. When your bees flee, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It’s not like 20,000 kids ran away because you neglected them. This just happens, according to experts who know. If your bees only get as far as the plum tree twenty feet from the hive, and you catch them after watching seven videos on YouTube about how to do it, count that as success! The dog, who tries to “help” and gets stung twenty-seven times, will be okay once the swelling goes down.

Try not to congratulate yourself too much. The next day, your bees will get attacked and killed by someone else’s robbing swarm, and that will be the end of that. Utter colony collapse.

There’s always next year. You have all the equipment now.

www.lauramgibson.com

Gardens get big. When, in your spring zeal to GROW a GARDEN, you plant three times more tomato, pepper, zucchini, and bean plants than your family can possibly handle, remember to preserve, can, freeze, salsa, red sauce, bruschetta, and chili your way through harvest. Once the shelves and freezer are full, you can SHARE the wealth. It’s important to hear poorly at this time. For example, when friends in August try to tell you they’ve got all the zucchini they can handle, it really IS okay to insist they take more. It’s their civic duty.

Also, you can leave presents on the porch when they’re not home which, let’s face it, is better than a visit from Santa.

www.lauramgibson.com

Labradors like birds. If a friend’s dog attacks your remaining rooster Willy (formerly named Napoleon), think carefully before you use your home as the infirmary. Chickens really do prefer to be outside. Once the injured fella is inside the house, there’s no helping the way the whole of your living space will smell like a barnyard. Several websites will suggest giving injured chickens Epsom salt baths and syringe-feeding them electrolytes, and you can employ these methods if you want.

However, it will likely make tending Willy’s psychic and physical well-being very heartbreaking. Your friend’s dog gave him a sound thrashing, and his legs are clearly broken.

Try not to be relieved when he dies on his own. You won’t have to subject your children to another round of murder, which, as they keep reminding you, will be the reason they’re in therapy later.

www.lauramgibson.com

Woodstoves are a hassle. If you have a tantrum about the inefficient woodstove in the living room that leaks and covers the furniture with ash and takes up too much space and MUST COME OUT, and if, then, you watch more YouTube videos about extracting the beast from your world, be careful. These videos are not nearly as entertaining as the ones you watched about bees. You might discover that woodstoves are quite heavy, and awkward to move, and you can’t do it alone. So you enlist your spouse, the foul-mouthed pirate, who helps you while he cusses the thing out the door. When it’s over, he’ll tell you that this activity does NOT qualify as an emergency, and that it would be nice if you could learn the difference between what is acute and what can wait for someone who knows what the hell they’re doing to help you out.

Also, when you remove something attached to the house, you will be left with HOLES in the wall and in the roof. Because you were a Girl Scout, you’ll be able to insulate the holes, and also fashion a piece of tarp to prevent any water from coming in through the roof.

But it will be a sad little Band-Aid of a solution.

Remind yourself not to let too much time pass before you arrange a drywaller and roofer to clean up your mess.

Because critters WILL find this space. Word spreads fast about the easy access your tantrum has created. You’ll likely hear them in the night, scratching and squirreling away food for winter and hiding whatever they’ve found inside the walls.

Fall is windy. You might hear the chimney cap you jammed back into the hole in the roof fly away one night in the wind and land somewhere in the yard. The next day, you’ll climb up there and put it back in place and wonder how a person who’s smart in so many ways could have decided to proceed with home “improvement” in this way.

You will have to get the roof patched. You will.

Kids leave home. If you’ve raised them right. Because hasn’t this been the point all along? To plant the seeds, to build the tools, to foster independence? He’s ready. He’s got the skills to drive his own life, mostly. He’s already making plans, one eye on the door to the what next, and he’s itching to walk through it.

But he’s wistful and tender, too, about his “youth,” as he calls it, which is almost as funny as when he calls himself “a grown man.” Because neither is true today, and both squeeze your heart. The little melon-headed boy who had two speeds: awake and busy with endless questions, or asleep and sweating, breathing too loudly. The young man: articulate, curious, driven.

You hadn’t reckoned on this. The way your boy is a man and still such a child.

Maybe you’re the one who’s not ready.

You’ve got seven months left, and you’ve been telling yourself  for a couple of years that you’ll have a party when that boy leaves the house and takes his stubborn opinions, loud music, cloying cologne, disgusting bathroom habits, and bottomless hunger with him.

And you will.

But now, you’re thinking about how quiet it will be without the hum of him, and how much bigger your tiny house will be without the size 11 shoes he dismounts from and leaves in front of the door and the bags of swim gear and books you trip over. You’re thinking about how the leaving, for both of you, is the beginning of the rest of his life disconnected from you but tethered to everything that’s come before.

It’s a lot to process. This joyful sadness.

 

www.lauramgibson.com

 

 

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Categories: chickens, community, family, fiction, gardening, parenting | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

custer versus napoleon

A look at my posts over the years indicates I’m more than a little bird obsessed. Birds creep into my fiction and essays, into the décor of our home.

Since February, I’ve been back at the chicken mama thing. I’m (mostly) thrilled to have babies again, and their presence in our lives has been a lovely diversion during a pretty strange year.

Plus, we have this tiny farm now, and farmers keep chickens.

Riley and I went to the hatchery and chose six pullets – two Wyandottes, two Auracanas, and two Bantam Golden Sebrights.

The girls have been inside our garage cozying up to each other in their heat-lit habitat. There’s nothing so thrilling as a bunch of animals living in the garage, stinking up the place, squalling as they figure out who’s in charge, and making a general ruckus that results in the shavings from their cage becoming airborne in the way of fine dust sprinkled over every single thing. The veiling silt is a pall fine as drywall dust.

It’s time for the birds to go outside to the coop we’ve assembled. Over the past few weeks, Owen – desperate for money to feed the prom monster – has led the charge on building. Our creation is more like a chicken condo, really, and built from a structure we carried from our previous urban chicken days and another we rehabbed from the new place. We focused on using what we could reclaim this time, and the result is funky and…artistic…the enclosed run will happen in Phase 2, due to begin soon.

It’ll do the job just fine.

As John says, “They’re just chickens. No need for the Taj Mahal.”

Which is true, although it’s pretty easy to get carried away.

We talked about our bird love so much, we convinced two other families to get flocks for the first time. “It’s easy,” we promised. “Think of all those eggs,” we said. “There’s hardly any chance of getting a man,” we said, our fingers crossed behind our backs.

 

The last time we had birds – Mrs. Howell, Ginger, and Marianne – we discovered that the 99% certainty in predicting the sex of chicks means the Gibsons will access the 1%. Mrs. Howell was anything but ladylike in the end. Crowing all night, telling the whole neighborhood what a stud he was. With some friends who own a farm, we traded the rooster formerly known as Mrs. Howell for a hen who was sweet, a steady productive layer, and much nicer than Mrs. Howell.

This time, I joked early and often that another rooster was in the cards for us, though every time I said it, I secretly hoped this wasn’t the case. We’re allowed to keep a rooster on our land, at least, but still. The threat of another dandy has made us reluctant to finalize names for this flock. I’m inclined to go with female characters from Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey, which has been met with some complaints in the group, but since I’m the one scooping the poop, feeding the birds’ relentless hunger and cleaning the garage, it seems reasonable I get to call them whatever I want.

So, Mrs. Hughes, Cora, Daisy, and Mrs. Patmore it is then. For the birds I know are hens, anyway.

By late March, one of the Wyandottes was clearly developing the most gorgeous florid comb and wattles. Bigger than the other, more aggressive. Most sources say bossiness doesn’t a cockerel make, but I’ve had my eye on him, worried. Last week, his voice-cracking teenager crow was unmistakable. John named him Custer, a name we giggle about every time we say it. We’ve decided we can handle one rooster. It’ll be good to have a bodyguard for the girls.

My other worried eye has been on one of the Bantam Sebrights, who is beginning to look very much like this fella:

www.cacklehatchery.com Bantam Golden Sebright Rooster

http://www.cacklehatchery.com
Bantam Golden Sebright Rooster

The other one looks very much like this hen:

http://www.cacklehatchery.com/

http://www.cacklehatchery.com Bantam Golden Sebright Hen

Over the weeks, the be-combed Sebright has become a tiny, angry specimen of a bird who struts around his habitat starting fights, flicking his tail feathers. We named him Napoleon (he does look very French), hoping we’d be wrong.

Yesterday, Napoleon, a week younger than Custer, announced HIS presence in the world. The two generals, of course, cannot stand each other and are separated, so now I have TWO filthy garage habitats to keep clean, and twice the dust.

Today they really must go outside, where there is only one living arrangement. It’s going to be ugly with too many suitors in the manor. I’ve asked around, and no one, of course, wants a rooster, even a really beautiful one. And, of course, none of the friends we convinced to get chickens got a rooster, and so they are reveling in the good fortune of their 99%-ness.

At our house, one of these boys is going to be voted off the island. There’s much heated debate about which one. And also, quite a bit of discussion about the virtues of a hearty late-spring soup, versus a chance encounter with a hawk, versus a sudden interested benefactor willing to adopt a general still in his awkward teen phase.

Categories: chickens, family, girls, outdoors, writing | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

flown the coop

2013 - February to August 054

Around 7:20 each morning in the yard behind ours, a very vocal hen lays an egg.  This hen’s egg-laying aria (a reenactment here) is followed by irritable complaining about the state of things, and then, since I can’t see her, what I can only assume is some active scratching and feeding.  Her sisters lay eggs much later in the morning, usually together, making their own duet.  To be fair, if I had to expel an object that size every day, I’d have a thing or two to say about it, too.

I’m comforted by these new birds, and by how many folks in our neighborhood have chickens.  For now, listening from my yard is as close as I’m going to get to owning birds myself.  We’re renting a house.  Zora is allowed here, but nothing else.  The lease agreement expressly forbids chickens, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, mice, and any sort of reptile.  This list is followed by two exclamation points, which seems like a clause written for a bygone willful renter!!  Also in the lease is language about how I won’t do any yard maintenance, and that feels almost weirder than no chicken wrangling.

Hopefully, this limboed state of alert is temporary !!

Before we knew we were moving, we’d gotten new chicks, Ameraucana babies – Artemis and Athena, named by Riley.  I’d gotten them so we could diversify the flock and have green-blue eggs.  We brought them home in March, a cold one this year.  Because I was having problems moderating the temperature in their cage in the garage, the goddesses lived inside.

Chickens inside your house is a disgusting business.  Sure, Artemis and Athena were cute.  Sure, it was entertaining and unnerving watching the dog drool with longing, hanging her head over the side of the galvanized tub, quivering.  Sure, waking to the sounds of those little peeps from the breakfast nook (yes, they were near the kitchen, which is really, really disgusting), drinking coffee while listening to them practice being big birds wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

Sure.  They were cute and we held them and talked baby talk to them and told them how great their lives on our farm would be.  But chickens are filthy.  About week three the stink kicked in.  They shat in their food, in their water, on each other.  They scratched and made dust and filled their water dish with fecaled shavings.  Despite our efforts to keep the place clean, the dust from their quarters filtered into the house, as did the relentless scratching sound.  Artemis and Athena got older and smellier and the world outside got warmer, so we moved them to the garage to finish being babies before we introduced them to the big girls.

Giving the goddesses away was one of the first things we did when we decided to move.  They were high maintenance, they didn’t lay eggs and wouldn’t for several months.  I wasn’t so attached I was sentimental yet, so they went to live a few streets over with some friends of ours who’d just started their own chicken operation and had room for a few more.

The big girls – Ginger, Marianne, and Rainer (Mrs. Howell was a man.  We swapped her for Rainier)—were a different story.  My first bird children, I’d raised them up from babies, trained them to come when I whistled the opening bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, benefitted from years of delicious eggs.

Also, I couldn’t get out of my head a scene like something from the Beverly Hillbillies, our truck piled high and the chickens in a wire cage on top of a jalopied heap, their feathers trailing in the wind behind us.

Also, there was that business of the no pets !! in our lease agreement.

It was harder than it would seem to find homes for them, what with their “advanced” age.  No one wanted new-to-them chickens who were probably going to stop laying within the year, even if they were gorgeous and tame and cleverly named.  In the end, Riley’s soccer coach Brett, who owns land and has twenty or so chickens already, agreed to take them.

We drove the girls out to Brett’s property a few weeks before we left.  He was ready for us, a separate cage set up near the main coop.

“I’ll toss them in tonight with the rest of the girls,” he said.  “Works every time.  They’ll wake up tomorrow and the others will be like, ‘Hey.  How’s it going?’ and that will be that.”

Inside a huge chicken run, his birds – five or six breeds altogether—were gathered around cantaloupe and watermelon halves, clucking and gorging themselves.  Brett had built the coop, his own design, also large and set up so his kids could easily gather eggs and clean it.  The place was like Club Med for chickens.

His four-year-old daughter Shey led me over to the chicken graveyard under a stand of cedars.  “This is our pet cemetery,” she said.  “Rosy the cat is here, too.” Several rocks brightly painted were scattered on top of the needles there.  “Also Blacky, Whitey, and Socks.”

“Cats?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Hamsters.”

She gave me a tour through each stone and what was buried under it, and then skipped off to play with Riley on the tire swing.

We have a pet graveyard at our house where we’d buried a gecko, some goldfish, a dead wren we found on the deck, and a frog Riley found in the mailbox that she petted too much.  They’re buried there for closure’s sake, because it mattered to our kids, and because we couldn’t eat any of them.

But chickens are different, I think.  Their presence in our lives had been about more than love and nurturing.  Having them was symbiotic – I did a good job and they did too.  Our house wasn’t a chicken pleasure cruise.  When the girls stopped laying, our plan was to harvest them and make soup stock, a reminder for our whole family about not wasting resources and knowing how to do things for ourselves.

Still, I was charmed by Brett’s kids, four girls, who were fully involved in caring for their animals.  He never gathered eggs, the two younger ones did that.  His elder two did all the feeding and cleaning the coop.  The birds also came out to “play.”  They sometimes wore doll clothes and went to the front of the property on leashes.  Another look inside the coop revealed a chicken-sized rocking chair, filthy with chicken poop, and a window with gingham curtains.

When I asked Brett about it, he shrugged and said, “It’s more a petting zoo than a farm.”  He rubbed at his beard and looked over at the girls swinging.  “There’s a lot of…uh…estrogen out here.  ”

For Brett’s family, I guess that graveyard makes sense.  My bird girls will have a nice retirement at his estrogen ranch before they join the others under the cedars.  No soup pot for them.

Birdless for now, I guess it makes sense to scratch off the chicken wrangling headline on this blog.  I’ll have to live vicariously through my neighbors’ birds and the yards they tend themselves.

Hopefully, it’s only for a little while. !!

Categories: chickens, community, gardening, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

chicken in space

Before I began the glamorous work of becoming a writer, I was a high school teacher.  I worked in several high schools over the years, doing everything from teaching English to driving the van for science field trips, but my favorite job was my first (and longest) in Bishop, California.  One of many small towns flanking the high desert of the Sierra Nevada range, Bishop is on the highway between Los Angeles and Reno, and many view it as nothing more than a place to stop and get gas before they go skiing at Mammoth Mountain.

But I loved it there.  In fact, I never intended to leave.  Until I fell in love and then I did leave, but that’s another story.

Bishop Union High School is a small place filled with a band of passionate teachers, most of whom have chosen to work and live in the Owens Valley for a certain way of life.  Pretty much anything you want to do outdoors is at your feet there.  Bishop has Mule Days (a whole weekend devoted to celebrating the mule; it’s fantastic; you must put it on your bucket list), world-class fishing and rock climbing, hot springs, and a rich history of conservatives and liberals working to get along.  I could go on.  Someday I’ll move back.

My favorite tidbit about my old stomping grounds is this:  Recently, students at Bishop Union High School sent a rubber chicken named Camilla into space.

What’s more, their venture was (will continue to be) sponsored by NASA.  Camilla is NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory mascot who has upwards of 20,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter.  I’d like to say I still have my finger on the pulse at B.U.H.S., but I only know about the project because the students involved were interviewed on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me last weekend.  Instantly transported back to my time as a teacher there, I listened as Peter Sagal interviewed young scientists from Earth to Sky, a team of Bishop’s middle and high school  students who are working on various astrobiology projects.  Probably it was a coincidence, but  the kids Sagal interviewed were all girls. I almost cried at the great, good hope of a tribe of young girls choosing science ( at lunch; it’s not even a class!) instead of the raft of pursuits they no doubt feel culture expects of them.  But, I digress.  I’m sure there are plenty of boys in Earth to Sky, too.  They just weren’t interviewed.

I’m tempted to pack my bags right now and  join up with Earth and Sky.  Or just hang out with kids pumped about science.  Right now they’re waiting to see what Camilla’s “radiation badges,” sent away to a commercial lab for testing, will reveal.  My guess is Camilla’s relationship with Bishop’s kids isn’t over.  I bet they’re already planning what she’ll be armed with the next time she goes up.

A SHORT LIST OF DELICIOUS DETAILS ABOUT CAMILLA’S LAUNCH

  • The kids launched her into “near-space” during a solar radiation storm  in a helium balloon that went up to 124,00 feet

  • Her balloon popped, of course, and she floated back to earth by parachute

  • She was fully rigged with 2 GPS  units

  • She wore a knitted space suit made by a gal from Missouri

  • 7 insects and 24 sunflower seeds were along for the ride

  • None of the insects survived, but you can find them pinned to the “Foamboard of Death” as examples for all future adventuresome insects about what will happen if you try to go to the edge of space (maybe this explains Camilla’s look of horror…or maybe that’s joy?)

  • The 24 sunflower seeds have been planted by 5th graders to see if radiated seeds will produce flowers, too

Categories: chickens, girls | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

bird mama

I got chickens last spring, my first foray in many years into pets that live outside.  We’ve had a series of critters my kids have chosen, none of which we have now:  frogs, fish, geckos, hermit crabs, and guinea pigs (whom I sent to “live in the country” when it became my job and not my daughter’s to take care of them). I vaguely remember having hens when I was a kid.  I was in charge of mowing our massive lawn, and one of my younger sisters raised our brood from chicks.  She doesn’t remember it at all fondly.  They’d chase her around the coop and peck her legs when she went in to feed them.  In her haste to escape, she’d often drop the eggs and come back to house with nothing.  One day our dog Freddie killed them when someone left the coop door open.  We found our whole flock later that evening, scattered about in our back field with their necks broken.  That was the end of that.  My sister was delighted and switched to cleaning bathrooms.

The kids thought it was funny I was choosing our next pets.  Hours were spent discussing breeds, considering the coop and where it should live in the yard, and whether our dog Zora would create a terrible massacre before we could train her to co-exist with her new pals.  As is his way, my husband John entertained my scheme, listened to some of the details, and reminded me that he had all the hobbies he’d like to have.

“I’m glad you’re excited,” John said.  “It’s fun to watch.  This sounds like less mountain biking for me, sooooo…better not count me in.” His standard response.

I’m not that great a carpenter (read:  I have no spatial awareness and am dangerous with power tools), so I found a guy in a neighboring town who builds coops.  In a sunny corner in the yard I put together the one I’d chosen.  From the feed store I got three Barred Plymouth Rock chicks and set them up in a bin with a growlight in the garage.  So began my chicken mothering.

We were all smitten (even John; he always comes around).  Several times a day, we checked on them, picked them up, and sang to them while Zora stood quivering and sniffing, drooling through the old screen window we’d put over the top of their box.  The kids were obsessed with reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  We named our girls Marianne, Ginger and Mrs. Howell.

When they were ready, I let them run around the back yard each day.  They learned to come when I whistled, eat out of my daughter’s hand, and dig for worms in the garden.  Early on, they  imprinted me as their mama.  I loved how they followed me, running in that hilarious, wingless way chickens do, all feet and swaying necks.  With a husband who’s grown weary of my endless projects (he says I have project A.D.H.D.), and one teen boy in the house who thinks I’m the village idiot half the time and spends the other half asking me why girls are so lame, it felt good to have creatures so thrilled about my existence.  These chickens wanted to be in my pocket.  It was sweet.  Still, despite my chicken love, I was impatient.  These girls were meant to be working pets.  Free range poopers and layers who would make miracles happen in my garden. I couldn’t wait for them to be old enough to lay eggs.

We have two back entrances to our house, both of which have a sliding glass door.  The birds spent enough time chasing after me to see that I’d disappear past these doors and be gone.  Summer teenagers by this time, my disappearance was distressing to them.  Also they were spoiled, receiving kitchen scraps anytime someone came outside.  They began to lurk  just outside the sliders, running back and forth, shitting up a storm and pecking at the glass.  Calling to me.

At first I was tickled.  Then the kids and their friends would step in chicken poop and track it in.  Or we’d forget to spray off the patio and later find truffles of chicken shit baked onto the stones.  This was putting a serious damper on the free range thing.  John was cheesed; to his credit he didn’t say anything and just went biking.  I did my best to take my medicine, remind myself I’d chosen this hobby, and be good about cleaning up after them.

Then autumn and the rains came.  One of our girls, Mrs. Howell, was decidedly the group’s alpha and much bigger than the other two.  She was the boss, and being the boss meant you squatted on the patio out of the rain, pecking at the glass, laying big chicken shits and terrorizing the kids for kitchen scraps.  It was too rainy to do much mountain biking.  “You have to do something,” John said.   The girls needed to be contained.  They needed more space.  I sweet-talked my family into helping me build (read:  I held the tools) a covered chicken run, very chic and inviting, along the side yard.  We’d allow them out if we were in the yard working so we could monitor them.  No more running the shit gauntlet on the patio.  Problem solved.

I waited for them to lay eggs, listening every day for tell-tale signs inside the coop.  In the beginning, the sound of a young hen laying eggs is pretty dramatic.  She wants everyone to know about it.  Our girls were making all the noises, but with no product.  Mrs. Howell was particularly vocal, her pre-pubescent call something between that egg-laying noise, a leaf blower and a honking goose.  I couldn’t understand what the hold up was.

Our neighbors down the street have chickens.  All summer and most of the fall I’d heard their rooster each morning, which I personally found charming, though I wondered how many other neighbors had complained.  Because we live within town limits, we’re only allowed to have hens.  One day it was quiet.  I caught Maggie in her front yard digging up her grass to put in blueberry bushes.

“What happened to your rooster?”

“Um.  That wasn’t a rooster.”

I was confused.  I couldn’t figure out why she was lying.  It really had been a rooster.  Every day.  At dawn.  And sometimes in the night.

“Wait.  What?”

“She was an old hen who didn’t lay anymore and thought she was a rooster.  She’s in the freezer.”

Clearly, Mrs. Howell was on the same trajectory, only she’d never gone through years of egg-laying.  I’d gotten a dud, a hen who thought she was a rooster.  Except she was starting to look like a rooster, too.  She was beautiful and she knew it.  My friends with chickens told me I was just being dramatic.

“You hardly ever get a rooster from the feed store,” they said.  “They’re so good at sexing chicks now.  Don’t be so impatient.”

I waited.  I’m very bad at waiting.

By late fall, Mrs. Howell was spending all her time calling out to the world.  Bullying Marianne and Ginger.  Cock-a-doodle-dooing at all hours.  Not just at dawn, though there was plenty of that.  One night just before Halloween, she was up all night crying out to the moon on the half hour about her gorgeous self.

John rolled over, wide awake, and said to me.  “THAT is a man.  You have to get rid of it.

“What if we keep her and use her to have chicks?”

“Jesus.  No more pets.  You started this, now you have to deal with it before the neighbors get pissed.”

“But Maggie had a rooster all summer and no one complained.”

Radio silence.

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Make some soup.”

He was right.  I had to do something, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.  Him.  She was too impressive a specimen.  Plus, I’d raised her up from that fragile youth, and she’d survived Zora, who by this time had gotten into trouble enough times over the chickens that she was over it.  They could be out in the yard with her and she’d just lie down and watch them scratch for bugs.

My friend Jan had fifty chickens in the country, so I arranged with her to exchange Mrs. Howell for one of her laying hens.  John and I loaded Mrs. Howell up in the old guinea pig cage (the last time I’d used it had been to send those rodents off into the wilderness).  It wasn’t quite tall enough and she had to squat, feathers sticking up through the bars.  She was very indignant and managed to shit several times in the half hour drive and smear it around the cage.

At Jan’s, we released her into one of the runs alone.  It was muddy.  It was raining. It was roofless.  Mrs. Howell stood there, shifting her bird feet to keep them out of the mud, blinking at us indignantly.  “He’s such a city slicker,” Jan said.  “Doesn’t want to get dirty.  You didn’t  keep that thing inside, did you?”

“Well.  Not really.”  I thought about the gravel and sand we’d put in our run to make it easier to clean, to keep the mud down, to exfoliate their feet.  I kept all that to myself.

We brought our new hen, Rainier, home and she fit right in.  She’d just molted.  Her bottom was bald and red, her feathers matted and muddy.  She’d never been outside a fenced run before, so we had a good time watching her taste freedom in the grass.  She’s not quite as smart as the others, but she’s sweeter in temperament.  Marianne and Ginger have taught her how to break into the veggie garden and get the good stuff.  She taught them how to lay eggs, which they all did within four days of Rainier’s arrival and have continued to do like champs ever since, though somehow, Rainier’s eggs are twice the size even though she’s no bigger than the girls.

Blessedly, Rainier doesn’t much care about being on the patio.  There aren’t any good worms there.  But while Marianne and Ginger have decided I’m only good for snacks, Rainier follows me wherever I go in the yard, sometimes running to keep up.  She’ll stand close enough so that her feathers rub along my leg, which I accept to be the chicken version of a cuddle.  Her tiny head canted to one side, she blinks up at me and emits a throaty chicken purr.  I know it’s crazy, but that bird wants to tell me something.  Something heartfelt and deep.

The kind of thing a kid can only tell its mother.

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