musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

chicken lessons...

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 coop.

Compared to 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.

Inside the 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.

A Saturday 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.

Lesson #1: Chickens have absolutely no manners and very tiny brains.

Instead of 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.

Lesson #2: 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 much.

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 leaves.)

Within a 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.

Lesson #3: 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 fast.

Lesson #4: 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.

Our sunroom 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.

Lesson #5: 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.

Weeks 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.

Lesson #6: 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!

In a 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.

Ah, farm life. Never a dull moment.

Permalink: chicken lessons…

Image credits:

Images are my own work with the exception of Fresh Eggs and Attack Rooster.  

stillpoint is the blog of Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington

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At 12:33 pm, Anonymous Susan McNicoll said...

I love hearing your stories of Life on the Farm. Great photos too. The wonderful images those of us have of farm life are nothing like the reality those of you who lived on one endured. I love the story of the little girl running away from the rooster (I have to say I am with the rooster on this one) and I imagine she carried a fear of "chickens" for the rest of her life! Great photos too.

At 9:57 pm, Blogger Sheila Seabrook said...

I will be chuckling (or should that be "clucking"?) for the rest of the week!

At 8:53 am, Anonymous V said...

Hi Cheryl--
What a sweet story. Enjoyed learning about your farm life. Cute photos.

At 12:55 pm, Blogger Colleen Story said...

Ha ha. This brings back great memories, Cheryl. We raised chickens in much the same way, and you're right—the babies are adorable, and the adolescents pretty scary looking! We had some roosters like Lancelot too. Fun post. :O)


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