Ain’t nobody here but us chickens
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The question has long baffled and intrigued philosophers and laymen alike. But not the locavore. Ask your co-worker who’s peddling fresh eggs, or the activist lobbying city council to allow backyard chickens. Neither will linger over the question. She’ll pause only long enough to shoot you a skeptical look before she answers, “Duh, of course the chicken came first, and then she started laying eggs.”
Then she’ll be off to gather signatures for the petition, or to pick up a bale of straw and a bag of layer mash.
Chickens are the gateway drug to a farming addiction. They are cold hardy, require little in the way of care and space, and thrive even in urban settings. It’s gratifying to watch them grow from chicks into their plumage, and then, voila, the eggs arrive. For a couple of years they are like hormone-addled teenagers, and nothing slows them down. They lay like mad, summer and winter.
About this time each year, a new batch of pullets arrives at Hy-Way Feed in Silt. It’s one of my favorite places to visit, even if I’m not lacking farm supplies. Fragile, high-pitched chirps waft out of a row of big, oval, metal, watering troughs with floodlights dangling over them. Inside the troughs, puffy balls of poultry balance on twiggy legs.
There are Rhode Island reds, leghorns and barred rocks. They are just a few days old, if they survive the shipping. It’s not a pretty business. One year all the Sussex pullets I special-ordered died in transit from overheating and poor handling.
Two springs ago Ed and I bought all the leftover Ameraucana chicks, one of the breeds on our short list. They had grown to the size of young turkeys in the feed store, and Brock was more than happy to see them go out the door. Already culled of its weaker members, it proved to be an especially hardy group of chicks.
Two years later those Ameraucanas make up most of our flock of a dozen chickens.
Ameraucanas are a hybrid of the Araucana crossed to avert their genetic tendency to die while incubating. Indigenous South Americans developed Araucanas, which lay pretty, pastel green-blue eggs. Ed likes the breed’s lean vitality; he thinks it equips them to outrun foxes and other predators of the Grand Hogback.
The previous batch of more exotic breeds have all perished, save one knock-kneed Sussex. She’s awfully cute, but no longer lays her little brown eggs.
People who raise chickens know that sometimes they drop for no good reason. You stroll out to the coop one morning, and one of your hens is on the floor. But one day we lost several at once.
It was early spring, and our guest sat on the porch of the studio out back. Kari seemed impervious to the cold and liked to read or just sit outdoors in the chilliest weather. On this particular day, she watched a fox trot up the hill toward the hogback with a Wyandotte chicken in its mouth. She chased the fox away and reported what she’d seen to Ed.
A search of the yard turned up a cache of chickens in a little pile. Three of them belonged to Colby Farm. Two more from next door were frozen solid.
Kari, who seemed to know a thing or two about wildlife, opined that the fox likely had a den of kits to feed hidden somewhere among the rocks and junipers. It was the right time of year and explained the fox’s excessive killing.
Ed put the limp chickens in a box and disposed of them out of the fox’s reach.
I thought about that fox driven by her instinct, and the precious, helpless litter of pups dependent upon on her wile and wits to survive. Unlike my corn-fed chickens that roost indoors at night, wild animals face constant challenges and competition from each other and most of all from us, their human neighbors. I could hardly begrudge her snatching the opportunity.
At two years, the Ameraucanas are slowing down. Last winter only one or two eggs awaited my daily stop through the hen house to check on the birds. Now that the sun is higher and warmer and the clocks have changed, I expect those girls will start producing more.
Ed says we have enough chickens and eggs for now. I’m staying out of the feed store so those beguiling chicks won’t charm me into bringing home another armful.
Marilyn Gleason keeps it local on her Peach Valley farm. Send your responses and ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “food.”
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