It's not a
proper homestead until the hens come home to roost. So, having survived our
first winter on the farm, the spring of 1976 found us building ourselves a sturdy chicken
the splendid backyard coops showcased in Country Living, ours might be kindly
described as "rustic", but I always thought it a pleasant, welcoming
place. Three multi-paned windows formed the south wall, above a hen-sized hatch
and ramp. The west and north faces sported whitewashed board and batten siding,
the east a human access door. The roof was steeply pitched, nattily shingled in
a mostly-green patchwork. Doors, windows, and shingles were leftover odds and
ends salvaged by hubby and my roofer brother-in-law. We learned to be frugal
recyclers back in our days on the farm.
coop, six spacious, straw-filled nest boxes and a series of sleeping roosts spanned
the back wall, with food and water stations opposite, on either side of the
hatch. I remember standing in the newly-built coop for the first time, warm sunshine
streaming through the windows, fresh straw rustling beneath my feet. A good
place to be a chicken, I thought, and imagined easing my hand under a warm, contented
hen to retrieve a fresh egg for breakfast. The only thing missing was a flock.
morning trip to the local Farmer's Market solved that problem. In the bustling
livestock area, we spotted a huddle of six red hens, retired working ladies
who, according to the seller, still had plenty of good egg producing days ahead.
With trimmed beaks and clipped wings, they certainly weren't the prettiest
birds on the block but we liked them – and goodness knows they deserved a
better life. We took them home. Upon seeing their new digs for the first time, our
six ladies stood wide-eyed and open beaked for one surprised moment and then
lunged, squabbling and clucking, for the food tray.
Chickens have absolutely no manners
and very tiny brains.
roosting on the thoughtfully provided perches, two of our six hens preferred to
sleep in their nest boxes. Come morning, instead of choosing empty boxes with
fresh, clean straw in which to lay their eggs, the rest of the ladies decided the
occupied nests must be best and so they piled on. It's a wonder the eggs didn't
wind up pre-scrambled.
Easing your hand under a pile of warm, contented hens results in a wickedly
pecked hand, three mightily disgruntled hens, and a couple of lovely brown eggs
smudged with evidence of the previous night's chicken poop, thank you very
One of our
girls was a rebel. We called her Ludlow. At first, she made a habit of dropping
her egg-of-the-day wherever she happened to be standing at the time – usually
on the bare floor in a corner of the coop, but sometimes out in the spacious fenced
yard, well hidden from hungry humans. ("Cluck-cluck-cluck" sounds
suspiciously like laughter when you're bent over, peering under burdock
month, though, hens and humans settled into a comfortable routine. Eggs were almost
always deposited where we could easily find and collect them. And, oh, those
eggs! The flavourful, bright orange yolks and firm whites were as different
from pale, bland, watery supermarket eggs as our happy free range hens were different
from their sad, battery-raised sisters. Some of our ladies regularly gifted us
with giant double-yolkers. What bounty! We couldn't possibly eat all the eggs
they produced, but neighbours were eager to buy whatever we couldn't use. Opportunity
knocked. It was time to grow the flock.
We ordered two
dozen baby chicks from the local farmer's co-op, half Leghorn and half Barred
Rock. The day-old chicks were delivered in a big cardboard carton and when the
lid came off – talk about cute! J and his brothers were beyond
thrilled with our box of fluffy peepers. The chicks spent their first weeks of
life confined to a comfy cage in our sunroom, eating, sleeping, peeping…pooping.
Baby chicks may be the cutest things under the sun, but 24 of them together produce
a mountain of poop. Also, they grow fast. Very
Between the fluffy baby chick stage and the handsome young chicken stage comes
a gangly stage of ghastly pin-feathered ugliness. Also, just like their elders,
chicks have absolutely no manners and
very tiny brains.
smelled a whole lot better once the chicks moved outside. Their temporarily
fenced-off corner of the coop had a baby-proof water fountain (because, given
the opportunity, chicks will fall into their water and drown or be trampled by
their siblings), a makeshift automatic feed tray (because chicks are non-stop
eating machines), and a heat lamp to keep them all cozy at night.
Temporary fencing keeps young chicks in but won't keep a fat Ludlow out when she's
got her beady eyes locked on all that delicious baby food.
passed. Chicks ate and peeped and grew…and pooped. The youngsters sprouted sleek, shiny
feathers. A few handsome lads grew impressive tail plumes, wickedly sharp ankle
spikes, and youthful cocky attitudes. Crowing practice began every morning at
dawn and continued throughout the day whenever the guys felt like showing off. Our
peaceful chicken yard erupted in frequent rooster fights, sending hens young
and old into frenzies of squawks and flaps as the males worked out who would be
King of the Coop, the Alpha Rooster.
Don't tease the rooster!
One of my
most vivid memories of those early chicken days is the sight of our landlady's eight-year-old
granddaughter, dressed in her prettiest pink Sunday dress with matching ribbons
in her hair, running full-tilt down the lane, screaming for her mother. In hot
pursuit was Lancelot, our newly crowned Alpha Rooster, puffed up to twice his
normal size, looking and sounding like an angry, feathered demon from hell.
Turns out, Darling
Girl had decided to have an uninvited snoop around the chicken coop and
encountered Lancelot, loose in the yard. Spotting his impressive tail feathers,
she decided she'd like to have one for herself. Cue one very angry rooster!
classic case of turnabout's fair play, Lance the Rooster was forced to beat a hasty
retreat minutes later with an angry Italian grandmother hot on his heels, wielding her
broom and cursing his ancestors.
life. Never a dull moment.
is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington
Labels: Box Grove, Canadian author, Cheryl Cooke Harrington, chickens, country life, eggs, family story, farm, humor, Markham, memoir, memories, nostalgia, Ontario, rooster