Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why Some Chickens Live Forever and Others Find the Stew Pot Before They're One.

Story time! A chicken-y entry today; four tales of poultry, with a knitting one due soon - maybe with another sneak peek into Toe-Up 2-at-a-Time Socks, ok?

We first started keeping chickens more than 10 years ago now, long before there was such a thing as Ridge Brook Farm or 2-at-a-Time Socks. I was amazed from the beginning by the intelligence and personality displayed by these birds. I should not have been that surprised. I'd spent enough time with pet birds to know that avian folk have a great capacity for learning. They also have amazing instinct. One day years ago we witnessed something truly amazing between our birds in defense against a prey animal.

The spring before this amazing event, we'd somehow ended up with a batch of 6 bantam chicks. This was not by choice, but was a hatchery error that initially had me shaking my head ruefully. These were not just any old bantams. These were novelty birds. Useless as layers unless you enjoy cracking 3 or 4 tiny eggs for every one full-sized one, they charm and delight their owners but are generally good for little else. They stand in defiance of my rule that if a thing gets fed, it should be useful. Dogs bark when intruders appear. Cats catch mice. Everyone has a job. Bantam hens look good, and that's about it. Unfortunately for me bantam hens that look good attract the support and affection of the rest of the family. After finding homes for the roosters in the batch, we were left with two small white Sultans and one White Crested Black Polish. The two Sultans were called "The Jet-Puff", and they generally functioned as one unit. The Polish we called Phyllis (as in Diller) and she was an amazing little hen. She laid eggs that were almost the size of a full-sized bird, and had a maternal streak a mile wide. She would fuss over anyone she felt needed fussing over, and was always the one to break up arguments about nest space. She was really the mom of the bunch.

At the end of a particularly lousy and dry summer, when the Jet-Puff and Phyllis were about a year and a half old, a marsh hawk (more properly known as a Northern Harrier) came into our yard in search of a meal. Marsh hawks tend to fly a bit lower to the ground in search of rodents for prey, but the vision that predator had of the fluffy small white balls that were the Jet-Puff proved beyond tempting. Hearing an unusual noise in the yard, I ran to a window and saw the hawk bashing into one of my lilac bushes, desperate to get at the birds hiding within and beneath it. I ran outside, waving my arms and yelling. The hawk moved to the other side of the same bush and continued to smash into it. Not until I was about 10 feet away did she appear to realize that I meant business and retreated.

I wasn't sure how many birds had made it to safety, or where they'd got to. All I could see was five or six birds hiding within the safety of the lilac, a few huddled under the asparagus that had gone to seed, and a black pile of feathers on the open ground that looked about the size of Phyllis. The Jet-Puff were nowhere to be seen. I assumed the hawk had killed at least one of them, and Phyllis as well, although why would it have been so relentless if it had made a kill? And it could not have possibly made off with multiple birds in a five minute period. The black pile of feathers did not move. I did not want to look. I checked the other birds first, doing a quick head count. No Jet-Puff, but all others, except Phyllis, present and accounted for.

It seemed so unfair to me. Poor Phyllis, I thought. Teary eyed, I walked to the pile of feathers and nudged it with my foot. Nothing moved. I reached down, sighing, knowing that it was too late. As my hand reached out and touched the soft ruffled heap, it burst to life. The white head popped abruptly out from under a wing, half-hidden eyes blinking slowly as if she'd been awakened from a deep sleep. It was then that I realized there was something else beneath her outspread wings.

I lifted her up and there on the ground, curled into the smallest of feathery balls, were the Jet-Puff. Phyllis had protected them. She did not have a mark on herself, meaning her decoy was effective. She'd spread out her wings over them both, keeping them safe. You could say it was an accident, that she didn't "mean" to save them, that's just where she landed in her attempt to save herself from the hawk. You could say it was instinct; that would probably be true. But the vision of that pile of feathers bouncing to life, and revealing the Jet-Puff stayed with me. It ensured that Phyllis and the Jet-Puff would live for as long as I could let them.

A couple of years ago we had a rooster named Plush. I had high hopes for him, a big Cochin boy, and planned to breed babies from him. Indeed we had a few in the incubator at one time. Beautiful, he was. One day he developed a horrible habit. He would rush me from behind and gouge my calves with his spurs. Eventually he started doing it to everyone.I tried everything to deter him. But it was no use; he saw me as a competitor for the attention of his ladies, and no amount of coaxing was going to convince him otherwise. I'd made a decision that he had to go before he hurt someone besides me - a visitor, or people just out for a Sunday stroll who happened by my yard when he was in a bad temper. The time had come, and difficult decisions had to be made. But before I could take action, he ended up a sacrifice to the coyotes who entered my yard and took about half of my birds over the course of an hour and a half. Judging by the feather pattern on the ground, he and his compadre Bed-Head, a Silver-Laced Black Polish had given their all and done their best to protect the hens, which is just what I would have expected of them. I was devastated by the disaster and the loss of all of those birds, but I was grateful that the decision had been made for me. Nature had corrected the imbalance, and I was off the hook. Too old for good eating, his death at my hand would have been a waste.

Last week when we returned from vacation Girl mentioned that one of the boys needed an attitude adjustment, preferably at the business end of my knife. Worst for me is that the boy in danger is a Cuckoo Maran, a replacement of sorts for my best-ever rooster, Napoleon, who served me (or maybe I should say served the hens) for nearly 10 years. The decision, made now, would mean that he'd serve a purpose in the crock pot. I learned from Plush the waste that brings. If I wait he'll be too old to make a meal for us, which violates a prime ethos of the farm - "waste not, want not". But, I thought, he'd never come after me. I reasoned that it must have been a fluke, or she'd upset him somehow (I don't know how, but you'd be amazed at the defenses I can dream up for errant animals around here). Yesterday he made a decision that will have terminal impact on his life. He went after my naked heels when I went to get a package from the garage that UPS had delivered. Soon, probably this weekend, his actions will result in a visit from me. Not one that ends well for him, I am afraid. I know a boy's got to do what a boy's got to do, but we're all family here and if he can't play nice then decisions will have to be made. They're free rangers. I can't have free range roosters attacking the neighbor kids or the little girl that walks with her dad of a weekend.

Earlier today I headed up to do chores. The birds are inside for a few days because of the snow and slushy rainy mix that's falling now and predicted to intensify. They hate being in, but they also hate rain and snow and I hate wet chickens. They make a mess of the chicken house - I mean Solar Barn - and then everything smells and is damp, which is both "icky" for me and unhealthy for the birds. When I went to fill their water and do some quick tidying, one Australorp hen would not step away from me or the fork. Just unwise, really, and shows a level of foolhardiness that tends to idiocy. Human, pitchfork. And she must choose: narrow door containing human and fork, or the safety of the flock. Which would you choose? She got by me and disappeared into the barn. I kept my eyes front, watching for more escapees, aware that turning my back for a second to track one sneaky hen could mean mass exodus for the rest. Catching one hen is not that complicated. Catching and herding thirty-six birds is extremely complicated. No one else even made an effort to escape; unusual given that they are a flock and tend to follow one another. I finished up my tidying and turned to find the black hen with the attitude problem and the single lone white feather in her wing. I found her easily enough; perched in the big green trash can we use for loose flakes of hay.

Now the interesting and amusing part of this is that on Saturday or Sunday Mr. Wonderful had opened a window into the chicken house - excuse me - Solar Barn - to let in some fresh air. I made a face, as there are no screens in the windows and the chicken wire to keep out bigger predators (and keep birds in) has not yet been applied. An open window is a temptation to a bird. "It's too high" he said. "If you say so" I said, and shrugged, knowing that any birds who got in could get out again, and the worst we'd face is poop on the tools and lumber waiting for the barn finishing in the spring. When I went to get eggs later that evening I discovered that someone had made it into the barn through the open window, laid one very dark egg in the green hay bin, and left by the same way she'd entered. Mr. Wonderful did not, at first believe me. I showed him the carefully made nest in the green hay bin. He still was not moved. "That's been there for a long time!" he insisted. I showed him the feather marks in the dust on a bale of shavings in front of the window. Nope. I could have done that myself. I showed him the muddy chicken tracks leading clearly from the window sill, across the bale of shavings in their kraft paper wrapper.

He accepted the facts. Now the interesting part is not that this hen got into the chicken house - how hard is that, really; they'd spent last fall and early winter driving the contractor mad with their constant jumping in and out of the chicken...Solar Barn, pestering him at every turn. What is interesting is that this one single hen, coming through a window to lay an egg, had a very clear image in her mind of where she wanted to lay today's egg. The minute I opened the door - not a window, not the same route at all - she made for the green bin filled with hay where she'd laid her last egg. She's never gone that way before. She's only accessed that nest one time, through a window, from the outside to the inside. But she knew how to get back, even from inside the barn; she knew that if she could get out of the chicken stall, for lack of a better term, she could get into that nest and lay her egg. In doing so she ensured that she will live to ripe old age and lay many, many eggs. Anywhere she pleases!


booksNyarn said...

Awesome stories! Someday, I too hope to lament about such chickens... ;)

And Viva Ridge Brook Farm!

Yarnhog said...

I loved reading all these stories! Animals always manage to amaze and charm me.

Deb said...

At the risk of sounding preachy, a hen's instinct to protect her brood is precisely the image used by Jesus in Luke 13:34!

Raising Bantam Chickens said...

Great stories and yes you could say that bantams are ornamental birds which makes great pets but I found that their eggs are great on top of salads because of their small size.